Four Papers/Reports On or Relevant to the Sahel (Shurkin, Wilén, Berlingozzi, Courtright)

Michael Shurkin, “Strengthening Sahelian Counterinsurgency Strategy,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Two excerpts:

Two basic types of mobile units offer strong potential: a mobile strike force, comprised of technicals, and an airborne or airmobile rapid reaction force. The former would, at least, also have some artillery capabilities. Sahelian militaries today have mortars and other low-cost, lightweight direct and indirect fire platforms, but they do not have them in sufficient quantities. Furthermore, truly integrating these platforms in combined-arms fashion is a challenge for all armies, requiring hours of training and preparation and thus resources. Sahelian armies also have towed artillery, but their utility considering the logistical requirements is questionable.


Sahelian governments need a clear strategy and doctrine for their force structures to effectively address their security threats. A useful first step would be to embrace the paradigm of counterinsurgency. This translates into a strategy that pairs combat operations with a population-centric approach that is intended to strengthen relations with local populations and recast the social contract. It requires a force that has built-in elements to work with local communities, to provide justice and law enforcement for them, and to police the military. Absent this, an approach focused purely on combat operations is destined to fail. Sahelian forces simply cannot kill enough insurgents to prevail, and their attempts to do so have been counterproductive. A COIN force should offer, at the very least, the advantage of not preying upon civilians and, at most, sustained pressure on insurgent groups coupled with protection for communities.

Shurkin does a very thorough job here. I think COIN is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, though, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Sahel. Militaries are for killing, no matter how “population-centric” the approach.

Nina Wilén, “The impact of security force assistance in Niger: meddling with borders,” International Affairs (open access). Two key paragraphs:

Lightly equipped units which are traditionally deployed in urban areas are at an increased risk of attack in more rural zones and lack the capabilities to respond to armed groups. This in turn drives the request for more robust equipment. These trends are reinforced by the Nigerien authorities’ desire for more equipment and assistance, especially combat-related support or equipment, which can be used to fight insurgents and extremist groups. In addition, jealousy between and within units regarding new, donor-supplied equipment is promoting a certain militarization of internal security forces. The mobile hybrid companies, for example, have become ‘elite’ units within their own corps, provoking jealousy from other units who covet their more robust (and modern) equipment and training, similar to that provided to the units discussed above.

Yet, as Frowd and Sandor point out, external actors in the Sahel seek to avoid the very appearance of militarization, often attempting to constrain it by accompanying assistance leaning towards martial training with managerial practices which emphasize the legitimacy of civilian and bureaucratic control. In Niger, as in other states in the region, the training of these new mobile border units has, for example, been accompanied by a heavy focus on courses of judiciarisation, understood as training the security forces in the law of conflict, in battlefield evidence, and in how to correctly conduct arrests and fill out documents so that the legal system can take over the process. This is considered crucial to improve the rule of law in the country: interviewees explained that, before these courses were introduced, security forces did not document what happened in the field, they just caught the perpetrators—or at worst killed them—without collecting any evidence for the justice system to take over. Different roles and relations, in combination with human rights abuses, also contribute to inter-agency tensions: ‘the gendarmerie should normally control the army when they are deployed together, but since the army commit human rights abuses, they [the gendarmerie] are not welcome’.

Adam Sandor (cited in the paragraph above) weighs in with a brief thread here.

These first two papers (Shurkin and Wilén) make for an interesting pairing, obviously.

Laura Berlingozzi, “O sister, where art thou? Assessing the limits of gender mainstreaming in preventing and countering violent extremism in Mali,” Critical Studies on Terrorism. The abstract:

Where and how are women present in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) in Mali? The article contributes to the scholarship on gender in P/CVE policies by shedding light on the misalignments between societal dynamics and the discursive framework adopted in the security strategies implemented. It investigates how the European Union as a security-oriented actor, (re)produces practices of exclusion rather than inclusion. Relying on a large set of semi-structured interviews gathered during extensive fieldwork, it aims at understanding the conceptualisation – and the gaps therein – of gender mainstreaming by asking: how does the EU translate gender mainstreaming and WPS into practice in the context of P/CVE practice? And, in turn, how do local actors perceive these efforts? The article finds that the implementation of gender mainstreaming has two main sets of limitations which overall reinforce inequalities: first, it homogenises women’s identities and fails at meaningfully reaching rural areas; second, while including some gender considerations about restrictions of women’s agency, it falls short of achieving its overarching aim, which should be truly empowering women by subverting patriarchal structures and systems of inequal power-sharing. In doing so, this study intends to contribute to feminist security studies literature by exploring centre-periphery gaps and differences in the framing of women’s empowerment within P/CVE.

James Courtright, “In Ghana, local problems threaten regional security,” Institute of Current World Affairs. The piece focuses on Ghana, obviously, but it’s also highly relevant to the Sahel. It deals in particular with the stigmatization of the Peul/Fulani group in Ghana and region-wide:

Across the country, Fulani have increasingly become stereotyped as poor, violent and foreign. I saw that firsthand in casual conversations in the national capital, Accra. When I told a taxi driver I was in Ghana to spend time in Fulani communities, he replied that there is no such thing as a “Ghanaian Fulani” and that they are all actually Burkinabe (from Burkina Faso). Another person with whom I struck up a conversation in a bar warned me in hushed tones to be careful because all Fulani were bandits and kidnappers.


The stereotyping has deadly consequences. This year alone, there have been three documented cases of civilians attacking and killing Fulani in the aftermath of armed robberies. In late May, a mob killed a Fulani man following the armed robbery of a fuel station in Kabori near the border with Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, Seydu Jallo, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, was murdered in Tamale. However, the deadliest of these incidents occurred in early April, when around a dozen people attacked the small village of Zakoli around 60 miles east of Tamale and killed eight people and burned the houses to the ground.

There is nothing inevitable about the spread of insurgency into Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, etc. The key independent variable to my mind is not how cunning the jihadists are but rather how the authorities react, and how they treat civilians, in the early stages of a potential insurgency.

A New Handbook on the Sahel (with one chapter from me)

Professor Leonardo Villalón, who is effectively the dean of Sahel studies, has edited and published the brand new Oxford Handbook of the African Sahel. There are no less than forty chapters (and an introduction) by a slate of incredible scholars, including a number of mentors and colleagues of mine. I played a small part by contributing one chapter, entitled “Negotiating Secularism in the Sahel.”

Recent Analyses of the Sahel Conflict(s) and Relevant Themes

Clionadh Raleigh,  Héni Nsaibia, and Caitriona Dowd, “Briefing: The Sahel Crisis Since 2012.” African Affairs, August 26, 2020. This will now be the first piece I recommend to anyone new to following the region. There are a lot of rich details in this briefing about the composition, strategies, and expansion patterns of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Here is one very apt observation from the introduction: “The critical lesson of this briefing is that this tsunami of conflict did not initially manifest as overtly Islamist or even ideologically coherent, but grew from opportunism. Populist rhetoric, displays of weakened state authority, a brutal—or absent—security sector, the militarization of neighbors, livelihoods and communities each constitute viable ways that the Sahel violence can metastasize through the wider region.”

Edoardo Baldaro, “Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism.” Security Dialogue, August 27, 2020. From the abstract: “The African Sahel is a region whose geopolitical dimensions are constantly changing and evolving as a result of new intersections of international, regional and local security dynamics. In this context, various actors have initiated different regional projects in an attempt to reframe the area according to their interests and specific interpretations of security and to impose the form of order that best fits with their goals. The discursive, normative and material struggle about the definition of the region is having obvious effects on security and conflict, furthering regional instability. This article disentangles the different region-building initiatives at work in the area by identifying the four groups of actors advancing a specific project around the Sahel, namely: (1) international security deliverers, (2) jihadist insurgent groups, (3) regional governmental elites, and (4) local communities and populations. In so doing, it explores how the different spatial and security imaginaries advanced by these four collective agents struggle and interact, and shows that the Sahel can be considered the unintended result of a competitive process that is furthering conflict and violence in a shifting regional security system.” This is the kind of analysis I really want to read. The Rashomon metaphor is on a lot of folks’ minds – Yvan Guichaoua also used it in a thread this summer.

Two pieces on Sahelian jihadists and humanitarian groups/workers:

  • Yida Diall translated by Luca Raineri, “Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Sahel, Inhuman with Humanitarians?” Security Praxis, September 3, 2020. Some striking details: “Yet the rise of the Islamic State has challenged the influence of the Katibat Macina in central Mali. Perhaps in an attempt to be seen as more radical challengers of the status quo, IS adherents display a much more intransigent attitude vis-à-vis humanitarian agencies and workers. Abu Mahmoud, formerly one of Kouffa’s lieutenants who has defected to the Islamic State, launched his challenge to the atibat Macina in late 2019 by raiding with his men a humanitarian convoy who had already received Kouffa’s green light to access the region of Ségou, in central Mali. According to a whatsapp audio message released soon thereafter, Abu Mahmud claimed that humanitarian action is inherently non-Muslim, and therefore its agents should be treated as non-believers: they are legitimate war targets, and their goods should be considered war spoils that can be lawfully looted. Similarly, in the Mopti region, IS fighters have pillaged village clinics, water tanks and food dispensaries because they were built and supplied by humanitarian actors, although in partnership with local authorities. Reportedly, IS-linked jihadists in the region justified their actions by claiming that humanitarians are non-believers spearheading the advance of the West and that there can be no room for their projects and belongings in the dar al-Islam.”
  • Tatiana Smirnova, Anne Roussel, and Yvan Guichaoua, “Humanitaires dans les zones de conflit: ni héros ni espions [Humanitarians in Conflict Zones: Neither Heroes Nor Spies].” Ideas 4 Development, August 31, 2020. An excerpt: “Humanitarians are endowed with a ‘noble’ mission (helping vulnerable populations), framed by transcendant principles that are, a priori, consensual. But nothing is self-evident in the space they put themselves into. The information that they can glean is piecemeal and can be manipulated; the resources they distribute are the focus of competition; populations are not merely victims, they are also politically active and pursue their own strategies. Finally, humanitarians stand in front of armed actors in a strongly asymmetric relationship: the first have no weapons, the second do. And the latter can be, alternatively, a source of protection or of danger.”

Christopher Blair, Michael Horowitz, and Philip Potter, “Leadership Targeting and Militant Alliance Breakdown,” forthcoming in the Journal of Politics. From p. 2: “Militant leaders are critical for cultivating capabilities, controlling behavior, and sustaining the trust that undergirds alliances. Leadership removal, especially via decapitation, can reduce capabilities or collapse groups and undermine inter-organizational trust, triggering splits. By eliminating leaders who play a central role in alliance management, decapitation strategies drive militant alliance termination.” YMMV – I think there’s a lot of evidence, including from the Sahel, that decapitation does not work, including in terms of terminating alliances.

Nathaniel Mathews, ” ‘Arab-Islamic Slavery’: A Problematic Term for a Complex Reality.” Research Africa Reviews 4:2 (August 2020). From p. 6: “[The term ‘Arab-Islamic slavery,’ AIS] muddles religion and ethnicity into a polemical concept that does ideological work, (often inadvertently) re-dividing Africa across the Saharan boundary. In the resulting matrix, Arabs are non-African, North Africans are non-black, sub-Saharan Africans are non-Muslim, and ‘blackness is a stable [and global] category referring to a historically coherent people whose experiences of violence are necessarily tied by a common ethnicity.’ This is not to deny the existence in the canons of Arabic, of damaging and prejudicial stereotypes about dark-skinned people from Africa, nor of the need to confront them forthrightly. But the AIS term not only allows the perpetrators of enslavement to stand outside the boundaries of ethnic, linguistic and religious community, it also elides important voices of critique that emerged from within the ‘Arab-Islamic’ milieu. Al-Jahiz, Ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Suyuti, Ahmad Baba, Musa Kamara and other Muslim writers who refuted black inferiority from within a framework, whether for better or for worse, of a shared linguistic, legal and intellectual culture that spanned Sudanic Africa, the Maghrib and beyond.”

A Tragic Milestone in Burkina Faso: 1 Million Internally Displaced and Counting

Some time this summer, likely in late July or early August, Burkina Faso hit a tragic milestone: over 1 million people internally displaced. On August 8, the governmental National Council for Emergency Relief (Conseil National de Secours d’Urgence et de Réhabilitation, CONASUR, under the Ministry of Social Action and National Solidarity) presented the latest figures, which stand at 1,013,234. As I am far from the first to observe, Burkina Faso has a population of roughly 20 million – meaning that roughly 4% of the people are currently displaced. And that must mean, once you factor in the burden on host communities, the economic impacts of displacement, and other consequences, that a much wider swath of the population – everyone, perhaps one could argue – is at least indirectly affected now.

Observers have predicted for months now that Burkina Faso would cross this threshold some time in 2020, so when measured against forecasts in, say, April or even January 2020, this outcome is not surprising. But it’s worth stepping back to emphasize just how rapidly the situation deteriorated. As so often, José Luengo-Cabrera has a graphic:

Things have really collapsed in 2019 and 2020. As you can see by going back to reports from early 2019, a real confluence of events just devastated the north of the country. Here is a UNICEF report from April 2019:

The number of internally displaced persons has unprecedently increased, mostly in Sahel and Centre-Nord regions, due to increased attacks by violent extremist groups, coupled with inter-community clashes (Yirgou in early January and Arbinda early April). Access to the emergency-affected zones by the humanitarian actors is rapidly decreasing, undermining timely scale-up of humanitarian assistance.

It is worth highlighting, too, the geography of the displacement: the conflict in the eastern part of the country is extremely serious, but it is the north where displacement is concentrated – as of August 8, it was the Sahel and Center-North Regions that together hosted more than 730,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Burkina Faso’s 2006 census is obviously out of date, but it’s worth noting the figures it gives for the populations of the Sahel and Center-North Regions: 970,000 and 1.2 million, respectively. Even if we assume substantial population growth since then, we can probably still also assume that IDP populations of over 300,000 in each region have a huge impact on lives, livelihoods, and economies in those regions.

Burkina Faso also hosts some 20,000 refugees, many of them Malian (July 2020 figures from UNHCR).

The displacement compounds and interacts with other issues. Here I’ll mention just two, and very briefly. The first is food insecurity, which affects over 2 million people. Here is an excerpt from FEWS Net’s July report:

As a result of the deteriorating security situation, large-scale herders have left the area. As a result, collectors have difficulty accessing local markets for livestock collection. This has led to the supply of animals decreasing in main markets. In Dori and Djibo [two key northern towns], for example, the decline is 14 and 23 percent respectively for small ruminants and 20 and 30 percent respectively for large ruminants.

The second issue is election preparations – how can Burkina Faso hold representative elections (presidential and legislative) less than three months from now (first round, November 22)? Even if the displacement ended this month, it would be extremely difficult to resettle and/or ensure the franchise for the 1 million already displaced. Moreover, the trend lines are so bad that it’s easily possible that another 100,000 or more could be displaced by November.

For further context, as of January 2013 when France intervened in northern Mali, the total displacement figure (IDPs and refugees) was around 370,000 (see here, pp. 6-7). The comparison needs to be put in context: population densities are much, much lower in northern Mali than in northern Burkina Faso. Nevertheless, the comparison helps underscore how big the 2020 displacement crisis in Burkina Faso really is.


Paper for POMEPS on Electoral Islamism’s Weakness in the Sahel

The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) has a new collection out titled “Africa and the Middle East: Beyond the Divides.” From the introduction by Hisham Aïdi, Marc Lynch, and Zachariah Mampilly:

The goal of this volume is to get American political science to break down the barriers between academic subfields defined by regions and open the fields to new questions raised by scholars from and across Africa and the Middle East.

The impetus behind this is both intellectual and practical.  As our framing essay explains, the fields of Middle East Studies and African Studies emerged out of very different ideological and scholarly circumstances, and evolved in very different ways in the decades since.  Where African Studies grew out of the legacies of European colonialism and American racial politics, Middle Eastern Studies evolved from European Orientalism, the American Christian interest in the Holy Land, concern for Israel, and the intensity of Cold War strategic interests. Each area studies field passed through revolutionary moments, before moving into today’s professionalized, methods-driven and more disciplinary focused modes of political science. The divides between these fields are striking. Scholars within each field are far more likely to be conversant with and to draw upon research in that field than to reach out to the other for insights or comparative cases.  Little effort is usually made to justify regional boundaries which are in fact quite arbitrary.  Why, for instance, are the historical connections between the Horn of Africa with Yemen and Oman less significant than those with the African continent?  The artificiality of this division is especially clear with the definition of African Studies in terms of Sub-Saharan Africa, which has left North Africa, Sudan and the Horn in an uneasy position relative to contemporary area studies.

My contribution is called “Why Are There Few Islamist Parties South of the Sahara?” An excerpt:

First, there is the greater hegemony of clerical models of religious authority in the Sahel and Nigeria, in comparison with North Africa where clerics maintain substantial authority but where lay-led activist groups have also acquired a substantial share of the religious field. Second, there is a triple interaction between constitutionally-imposed secularism in most Sahel countries, the lack of Islamist mobilization in the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s, and the way that liberalization in the 1990s favored French-educated technocrats in the Sahel and military-civilian networks in Nigeria. Third, there are demographic contrasts between North Africa on the one hand and the Sahel on the other hand, particularly the latter region’s relatively lower rates of middle class formation, urbanization, and formal education, as well as higher rates of religious diversity in parts of the greater Sahel. Together, these factors have shrunk the political, social, and religious space available to would-be Islamist movements.

Basic Resources for Following and Contextualizing the COVID-19 Outbreak in the Sahel

This post is meant to help anyone attempting to follow COVID-19, the response, and the wider impact in the Sahel. Most of the below resources are in French. I’ve left Senegal out for now, but I might follow up with a separate post. I welcome suggestions for further resources to include, and will update accordingly.

Tracking Case Counts

Sahelian Ministries of Health provide official case counts. These ministries often have both websites and Facebook pages; the Facebook pages for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad are particularly active.

The Ministries also often have annual reports or other self-evaluations of health sector capacity, which can be key for gaining a sense of each country’s preparedness and infrastructure if you want a deeper dive.

Local journalists and other non-governmental bodies also provide frequent case count updates (mostly here I’m linking to Twitter accounts):

Key Public Figures

Most of these links are to Twitter accounts. Sahelian heads of state and other top officials are now commenting frequently on COVID-19 and their governments’ responses:

Important Press Coverage and Analysis

Other Useful Resources

  • UNICEF publishes COVID-19 situation reports; for example, here are its reports on Chad from April 15 and May 14;
  • FEWS-Net monitors food insecurity around the world; here is one April update about COVID-19’s impact on food security in Burkina Faso;
  • I previously rounded up IMF statements on disbursements to Sahelian countries. The World Bank has an interactive map detailing their COVID-19 response projects around the world.

Africa-Wide Commentary Relevant to the Sahel

Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

Three Recent Reports on Jihadism in the Sahel

A few recent treatments of jihadism in the Sahel have appeared:

Anouar Boukhars, “The Paradox of Modern Jihadi Insurgencies: The Case of the Sahel and Maghreb.” Here are the first two paragraphs:

One of the nagging questions about the persistent wave of insurgencies in the Maghreb Sahel region is that they continue to be characterized and defined by extremist ideologies. After violent jihadists discredited Algeria’s insurgency in the late 1990’s, the assumption was that dissident rebels may want to avoid the adoption of extremist ideology, as it alienates the majority of local populations, fragment the ranks of rebels, and scare away external supporters. Given such negative marginal returns, it is puzzling that transnational and local Salafi jihadism remains the insurgent repertoire in the Maghreb-Sahel crises. More perplexing is that this extremist ideology has become the tool of war par excellence as well as the ideological focal point that rallies the support of different kinds of aggrieved populations. Since Algerian terror groups relocated to Northern Mali in the early 2000’s, rebel leaders evolving in the Sahel have become more inclined towards adopting Salafi jihadism as a means to survive, recruit and outcompete other contending armed actors.

This is a strategic choice, which is more informed by strategic conditions on the ground than by automatic commitments to a core set of extreme beliefs. In other words, rebel entrepreneurs and their rank-and-file supporters and sympathizers do not have to be die-hard ideologues, or violent religious extremists, to lead or buy into transnational or local groups defined by a radical ideological platform. They just need to think that that their choice would yield dividends in contexts of deeply polarized societies that are run by illegitimate, abusive states. As such, this article focuses mostly on the benefits that insurgents and their supporters calculate they may accrue from adopting Salafi jihadism as a tool of insurgency in the Sahel-Maghreb crises. In so doing, it illustrates how jihadi rebels are slated to remain the dominant challengers to existing regimes in the region even if ironically their chances of achieving lasting victories is slim.

Hamza Cherbib, “Jihadism in the Sahel: Exploiting Local Disorders.” An excerpt:

The implantation of Jihadist groups in the Sahel has been a twenty-year process, which adapted to the 2013 French military intervention by exploiting rural insurgencies. Overall, this strategy allowed groups to blend with the local population, find new recruits and fight security forces through guerrilla tactics. So far, Sahel states and their partners have been unable to sustainably neutralize these groups, and instead jihadist recruitment has improved and the level of armed violence has increased. In order to break what amounts to a vicious cycle of military operations feeding local jihadist insurgencies, Sahelian states and their partners should consider alternative options. There is a need to tackle the root causes of armed violence in rural areas, often more connected to socioeconomic grievances, inter-communal tensions and a loss of faith in the State rather than violent extremism. To limit jihadist groups’ ability to recruit from marginalized communities and implant in rural areas, Sahelian states should work at restoring capacities to deliver services and peacefully manage local conflicts.

Geoff Porter, “The Renewed Jihadi Terror Threat to Mauritania.” Here’s the abstract:

A decade ago, terrorism was rampant in Mauritania, but then it stopped, even as terrorist activity was rapidly proliferating all around it. Instead of being a target of terrorism, Mauritania became a node of passive jihadi activity. Various explanations were proffered as to why this was happening: Mauritania was good at counterterrorism; the government had made a deal with the devil; jihadi groups respected Mauritania’s neutrality. On May 8, 2018, however, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a communiqué that specifically mentioned Mauritania in a call for attacks, signaling a possible renewed jihadi terror threat to the country.

Also worth reading is MENASTREAM’s recent post on the death of a jihadist commander in northern Mali.

Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation


The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.


The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.

Sahelian Food Crisis: Portraits from Niger and Mali

Two days ago, UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick stated that next week will likely see the “peak of admissions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition into centres across the Sahel.” As he pointed out, the crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, including locusts, the armed conflict in northern Mali, and human displacement from war and drought.

In Niger, described as the “worst affected country” in the Sahel by McCormick, some 161,000 children under five years old had severe acute malnutrition based on a survey taken at the beginning of July.
In Chad, the agency has seen the monthly caseload doubled compared to 2010, with 630 children under five admitted to treatment centres.
The next few weeks will be “critical to see whether we can keep things under control and the funding coming in to treat the children with the special food they need which is incredibly expensive”, said McCormick.

Deutsche Welle profiles a program in Niger that is trying to make a difference amid desperation:

Because of the drought in the Sahel, oxen and cows have hardly anything to eat. [The German NGO] Welthungerhilfe buys the weakest cattle from the farmers at a price which they would never get if they went to market. In and around [the village of] Yatakala these animals now end up in cooking pots and save human lives.

Willi Kohlmus is Welthungerhilfe’s regional director for Africa. He says they are trying to do everything they can to stop people leaving the area, because that would be the worst that could happen. “It would mean they would stop growing crops and the next harvest would also be a disaster. That in turn would mean more dependence on foreign aid, in refugee camps,” he warns.

The strain of displacement is visible in Mali:

Thousands of families in Bamako and other cities are facing the same challenge: how to accommodate and care for dozens of extra relatives, mostly children, when they are already struggling to cope with high food prices and too little income. Conflict across the north has displaced some 70,000 Malians, who are now mainly living in Bamako and Mopti, an inland port on the Niger River in central Mali.
The country is being squeezed on economic, political and military fronts. “We’re fighting a lot of fires at once here,” said Information Minister Hamadoun Touré. With formal sector unemployment at 30 percent in good times, investment in the mining sector down, the bulk of multilateral and bilateral development aid suspended, and zero tourism activity, the country could be on its way to a “complete economic standstill”, said one seasoned Malian development worker.

Refugee flows out of Mali have increased hardship in neighboring countries.

Some Malian pastoralists are also finding the current situation unsustainable:

Hundreds of pastoralists in the Mopti Region of central Mali are stuck between floodplains to the south and armed Islamists and rebels to the north. They are used to the hardship of successive droughts across the Sahel, but with little or no aid for their animals and severely limited access to pasture, many are becoming desperate as their livelihood and way of life becomes increasingly untenable.

“It’s all over – it’s finished,” Ibrahim Koita, head of the Society of Social Welfare in Mopti Region, told IRIN in the capital, Bamako, where he is trying to pressure donors for more aid.

Aid is coming in – Canada recently pledged $10 million – but the situation remains grim.