France and its Sahel allies will discuss the region’s growing struggles next week with a jihadist insurgency and an ethnic bloodbath.
Attacks by militants and ethnic massacres have become common in parts of the vast semi-arid region, and state armies are increasingly accused of killing civilians indiscriminately.
The leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel military alliance – including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – as well as President François Macron, are expected to meet on Tuesday in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.
The summit follows talks in the French city of Pau in January that gave a political boost to the war on the jihadists.
Islamist insurgents from the Sahel first appeared in northern Mali in 2012 during a rebellion by Tuareg separatists which was later overtaken by jihadists.
Despite the presence of thousands of foreign soldiers, the conflict has since spread to the center of the country, as well as to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
To date, thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes.
After the Pau summit, France strengthened its military presence and boasted of several recent successes – its forces notably killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of a notorious group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in northern Mali in June.
International opinion on the situation in the Sahel differs.
The United States, at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in June, said that security is deteriorating in the region and that there has been no “significant progress”. On the other hand, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hailed the “significant” advances.
– “Disarray” –
Tuesday’s talks are taking place against a backdrop of persistent problems, particularly in Mali, where the jihadist attack has pitted ethnic groups against each other.
Local strife in unstable central Mali has gone “largely unnoticed,” said Ibrahim Maiga, a Bamako-based researcher for the think tank at the Institute for Security Studies.
And in a new development, the jihadists respectively linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group began to fight in central Mali, after having long separated from each other.
The peace process in Mali is also flawed, although few are paying attention to it, said a European diplomat in Bamako, who refused to be named.
The Mali government signed a peace agreement with some rebel groups in 2015, which is believed to lead to decentralization in the vast country – an option according to experts could defuse long-standing tensions.
On another front, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is facing protests for his perceived mismanagement of the country after years of bloodshed.
Growing opposition to its leadership – led by a newly resurgent opposition – has international allies in Mali concerned about the stability of the war-torn country.
Other problems abound in the conflict in the Sahel.
A contingent of Chadian troops in the border region linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, promised after the Pau summit, has yet to deploy.
But the conduct of local troops is also raising growing concerns. Rights groups have accused the Sahelian armies of carrying out indiscriminate massacres of civilians this year, for example.
Mahamadou Savadogo, a Burkinabé researcher, said the alleged killings testify to the “disarray of the security forces” in the face of continuing militant attacks.
A French government official, who requested anonymity, said the danger was that chaos in the Sahel would spread south to the populous coastal states of West Africa.
This fear already seems to materialize.
In mid-June, Islamist activists killed 12 soldiers and a police officer in a border raid in Côte d’Ivoire, the country’s first jihadist attack since 2016.
A soldier on patrol between Mopti and Djenné in central Mali, one of the most dangerous areas of the Sahel
Nouakchott’s meeting follows a January summit in the city of Pau, in southwest France, aimed at relaunching the campaign against jihadism in the Sahel
UN, African and French forces in the G5 Sahel region