Conflict Watchlist 2023

The Sahel: Geopolitical Transition at the Center of an Ever-Worsening Crisis

Posted: 8 February 2023

The Sahel is entering its second decade of conflict since the crisis began in 2012, gripped in an ever-growing cycle of political instability and escalating violence. In Burkina Faso and Mali, violence in 2022 reached the highest levels ever recorded by ACLED. The number of reported deaths from political violence increased by 77% in Burkina Faso and 150% in Mali from 2021, and the total number of conflict and demonstration events increased significantly in all three central Sahel countries. Only Niger continues to fare better than its neighbors, but it still remains heavily affected by militancy and rural banditry, which are widespread in several regions of the country.

Both Mali and Burkina Faso have experienced successive military coups, which have been important drivers of regional instability and the weakening of state institutions. In Burkina Faso, there were two coups within less than nine months in 2022. The first coup, in January 2022, was led by Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and ended the six-year rule of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. However, Damiba’s rule was short-lived, as low-ranking Captain Ibrahim Traoré deposed Damiba eight months later. Damiba and Traoré took very different approaches to dealing with the raging insurgency and the security situation in Burkina Faso. Damiba developed a comprehensive strategy that included political components which had been largely absent, establishing local committees for dialogue, negotiation, and the demobilization of Burkinabé combatants who had taken up arms against the state. Despite Damiba’s efforts on the political and military levels, the security situation continued to deteriorate rapidly during his short reign, leading Traoré to push for the mobilization of citizen militias. The coups came during a period of geopolitical transition as growing anti-French sentiments combined with political instability. This ultimately led to the breakup of the French-led regional counter-terrorism alliance, paving the way for growing Russian influence and the entry of the Wagner Group in Mali, as well as a potential deployment in neighboring Burkina Faso.1Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, ‘Oil on the Jihadi Fire: The Repercussions of a Wagner Group Deployment to Burkina Faso,’ Combating Terrorism Center, 30 January 2023. 

Several factors contributed to the escalation of violence that culminated in the recorded all-time high in Mali. The entry of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, is a key factor that contributed to the escalation of violence in 2022, as Wagner mercenaries enabled the violent return of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) to areas from which they had previously largely withdrawn, enabling FAMa to become the deadliest actor in Mali for the first time throughout the conflict. FAMa reportedly killed more civilians in 2022 than in all previous years combined, many of which were the result of mass atrocities committed alongside the Wagner Group during military operations in central Mali. In addition to facilitating the resurgence of FAMa, the Wagner Group has also encouraged the resurgence of the ethnic Dogon-majority Dan Na Ambassagou self-defense militia, with which Wagner mercenaries have engaged in large-scale organized cattle rustling in central Mali. 

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) was designated the stand-alone Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel) in March 2022, when the group launched an offensive in the Menaka and Gao regions on an unprecedented scale. During the six-month offensive between March and August 2022, more than 1,000 people were reportedly killed, including civilians, pro-government militiamen, and rival fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa Nusra al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). Fighting between JNIM and IS Sahel reached levels nearly as high as at its peak in 2020, with nearly 600 militants reportedly killed in 2022. Moreover, the group consolidated its hold in the tri-state border region and began pseudo-government activities, despite historically weak bureaucratic capacity (for more on IS Sahel, see this ACLED report).

JNIM remained, however, by far the most active armed group in the region, carrying out more than three times as many attacks as IS Sahel and nearly twice as many as FAMa. JNIM continued to expand and gradually encircle the capitals of Bamako and Ouagadougou, and operate closer to Niamey. JNIM was also the deadliest actor at the regional level. Beyond Mali, the group’s activities were particularly pronounced in neighboring Burkina Faso, where it expanded operations into new areas and launched several major attacks. Most notably, the group carried out an attack on a regiment-sized base in the northern Soum Province’s capital of Djibo, and an ambush on a military-escorted supply convoy that resulted in more than 90 trucks set ablaze along a five-kilometer road stretch.2Youri van der Weide, ‘Five Kilometres of Destruction: Satellite Imagery Reveals Extent of Damage to Civilian Convoy in Burkina Faso,’ Bellingcat, 18 November 2022 

What to watch for in 2023

Burkinabé President Ibrahim Traoré, in contrast to the more political approach of his predecessor Damiba, has taken a populist approach by expanding the arming of civilians through the volunteer program and accelerating popular mass mobilization. The accelerated mobilization of the population means that the ongoing escalation dynamic is likely to intensify. As observed in recent months, mass atrocities by militants, volunteer fighters, and military and security forces, and extrajudicial killings are on the rise. Given the increase in state violence and state-sanctioned violence, it is expected that militant violence will escalate and further fuel the cycle of attacks and retaliation. Traoré has also played on anti-French and pro-Russian sentiments, drawing closer to Mali and Russia, which has fueled fears in the international community that Burkina Faso could become the next destination of a Wagner Group deployment in Africa.

Meanwhile, in Mali, Wagner’s activity reached its highest level in January 2023 since its deployment in late 2021. Nearly half of this activity took the form of airborne operations, including several airstrikes. The vast majority of the operations targeted civilians and were concentrated in the Djenné, Douentza, and Mopti circles, resulting in 51 reported fatalities. Moreover, this heightened activity comes since the formation of a coalition between FAMa, the Wagner Group, and Dan Na Ambassagou. Coalition activities reached their peak in November 2022, but have continued ever since.

Former colonial power France, which had played a leading role in the regional security architecture for a decade, has largely been relegated to the sidelines in the region following its withdrawal from Mali, with its last troops leaving the country in August 2022. France also finds itself in an increasingly difficult position in Burkina Faso with incessant calls for the departure of French military forces of Task Force Sabre and its ambassador, Luc Hallade. France ultimately recalled its ambassador on 26 January 2023.3Le Monde, ’Burkina Faso : la France rappelle son ambassadeur pour « consultations » après l’annonce du départ de ses troupes du pays,’  26 January 2023 Burkinabé authorities had denounced the status of forces agreement between the two countries and gave French troops one month to leave the country.4Le Monde, ‘Burkina Faso : le porte-parole du gouvernement confirme avoir demandé le départ des forces spéciales françaises,’ 23 January 2023 The French Foreign Ministry subsequently confirmed the demand and stated that French troops would leave within a month as requested.5TF1 INFO, ‘Burkina Faso : la France retirera ses forces spéciales d’ici “un mois”,’ 25 January 2023

With both Burkina Faso and Mali choosing to further reinforce the purely military approach by militarizing society and working with the Wagner Group, respectively, the escalation curve of the conflict is likely to continue in the coming year. Should Burkina Faso also decide to follow in Mali’s footsteps, Wagner’s presence would likely further contribute to the escalation of violence and the country’s slide into an even deeper crisis and worse human rights situation.

JNIM and IS Sahel play a central role in the Sahel crisis. It is also clear that the latter has successfully exploited the security vacuum created after the withdrawal of French forces from Mali. Now that French troops will also be pulling out from Burkina Faso, JNIM and IS Sahel are likely to play an even more important role as both groups vie for influence through even deadlier cycles of violence in the region. Regardless of whether the response to the jihadist insurgency is citizen militias or Wagner mercenaries, the region will likely face intensifying conflict in the coming year.