By Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Jean-François Riffaud, Chief Executive Officer of Action Against Hunger-France
This article was first published by InDepth News.
President Emmanuel Macron invited the five G5 West African leaders to the French city of Pau in January to shore up support for international engagement in restive Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. All agreed that more European security support was needed to counter violent extremism in the Central Sahel. But treating this crisis solely as a 'fight against terrorism' does more harm than good. We must ramp up humanitarian aid for millions that are suffering, while investing in good governance from states that can provide and protect their citizens.
The conflict in Mali began in 2012 with an insurgency in the north, later spreading to central part of the country. Longstanding tensions between pastoral farmers and nomadic herders over access to land and water escalated into violent clashes in 2018. The insecurity was exploited by armed groups to strengthen their positions in the region, and quickly spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Each government declared a state of emergency.
Between our two aid organisations, we have 1,293 humanitarians responding across the Central Sahel. What we have seen and heard paints a bleak picture of the reality faced by civilians today. Communities are being pounded by violence. They are squeezed between a climate emergency and competition for dwindling resources. Now they are caught in the crossfire between security forces and armed groups, as well as the spread of the corona pandemic.
National and international military operations have not been able to protect civilians across the three countries. At times, these operations have enticed revenge attacks and added to the violence with significant humanitarian consequences.
The insecurity has caused dramatic mass displacement, with 840,000 people fleeing their homes across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Over 4,000 violence-related deaths were reported in in 2019, compared with 770 in 2016.
Norwegian Refugee Council relief teams surveyed communities in Mali about why they fled their homes. One in four people said they had fled because of the operations of the security forces. This is sadly telling about the lack of the military actors’ ability to provide a safe environment for the population under its care.
We understand that security is needed to protect communities from armed groups. But security alone will not resolve the Sahel’s crisis. A meaningful shift is needed away from a counter-terrorism focus, towards better protecting civilians and tackling the root causes of the conflict. These include poor governance, lack of access to basic services and resources, violations of human rights and climate disaster.
The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger - and the countries that support them - must invest in three things to enable a return to stability; livelihoods, basic services and hope.
The conflict has destroyed peoples’ ability to earn a living, and so serious investment in livelihoods must take place. Displaced communities have been forced to leave behind their livestock and tools. Violence has also impacted the livelihoods of non-displaced people, as access to markets and farmland is constrained. This has seriously impacted hunger levels. Despite a good food harvest last year, hunger levels more than tripled in Burkina Faso and doubled in Mali. The security crisis is hiding a fast-growing humanitarian crisis.
The education system across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger has also been decimated by recent violence. Schools have been attacked, often in blatant violation of international humanitarian law. Insecurity, targeted killings and threats against teachers have succeeded in shutting down schools and scaring students from attending classes that are open.
Attacks and threats on teachers, schools and students have forced over 2,000 schools to shut their doors, depriving more than 330,000 children of education and impacting over 9,000 teachers in Burkina Faso alone. Unless students can return to school when the pandemic eases, the next generation will lose out on a future, with rippling consequences for the economy and stability of the region.
Investing in education, health, access to water and livelihoods will have the knock-on effect of giving people hope for the future, especially the youth. Hope will also be ignited by restarting dialogue between communities and improving governance. Actors on all sides have manipulated pre-existing tensions between intercommunal groups. But there are still openings for dialogue and mediation that can enable the return to social cohesion and peace.
Both Burkina Faso and Niger planned to elect new governments in 2020, an occasion that may be manipulated to fuel political violence. The conflict also risks spilling into coastal countries in the region further south.
February started tragically when armed men on motorbikes attacked a village in northern Burkina Faso, killing nearly 20 people. Soon after, the UN refugee agency declared the country its highest Level 3 emergency. But the year does not have to continue down this path. A change of strategy is needed now. If not, the months ahead will see insecurity worsen.
This fragile region deserves more than bombs and bullets.