ESCALATING JIHADIST VIOLENCE IN AFRICA’S SAHEL REGION
By Alex Pollock
France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday [12 June] to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence. (Reuters)
Since 2011, there has been an uptick in violent attacks carried out by Islamic extremist groups in the Sahel region of Africa. The Sahel comprises 10 countries south of the Sahara Desert, spanning the continent from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east. The attacks intensified following the uprisings in Libya and Mali in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Those revolutions created a geopolitical vacuum that terrorist groups exploited, moving across borders with little threat of detection.
According to the United Nations, the conflicts in the Sahel have displaced over 700,000 people in the last 12 months. More than 4,000 people were killed in 2019 alone, compared to 770 in 2013. The brutality of the attacks, together with the increasing number of attacks, has made the Sahel conflict one of the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis. The attacks are often carried out by groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) and usually target state institutions, schools, health facilities, and civilians.
Some of the most recent attacks have taken place in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. In Burkina Faso alone, the number of internally displaced persons rose from 560,000 in February to over 848,000 in April. Many of those forced to flee their homes have nowhere to go except other war-torn and violence-prone communities.
“The humanitarian situation is extremely dire in the central Sahel,” said UNHCR West and Central Africa regional director Millicent Mutuli. “Displaced families live in overcrowded sites, access to basic services is minimal, and we are racing against time to scale up our response in the face of new needs growing faster than available resources.’’
The UN has assisted over 25,000 needy families; however, humanitarian workers have also been targeted in recent attacks, hampering the delivery of aid. Many Sahel nations are still experiencing the effects of COVID-19, which further hinders the ability of organisations to provide relief.
Some of the most recent attacks include one on 5 June, in Mali, where 26 civilians were killed, and an attack on a refugee-hosting centre in western Niger on 31 May. The attack in Niger killed two refugee leaders and one community leader and forced 10,000 already displaced people, to flee and seek shelter further inland. Recent attacks in Nigeria have led to dozens of Nigerian soldiers being killed, however, Amnesty International has accused Nigerian military forces, along with other Sahel country security forces, of human rights violations as Sahel militaries retaliate against insurgent groups.
Many Sahel communities have taken to the streets in protest of the violence (on both sides), as well as the economic and political crises caused by the lack of security in the region.
Experts have expressed concern that the violence could spread further south, and a recent attack on an Ivory Coast military base appears to attest to this concern. While no specific group has claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 10 Ivory Coast soldiers, early reports suggest the attackers likely came from Burkina Faso, one of the violence hotspots. This attack is the most violent carried out in Ivory Coast since 2016 when an al Qaeda branch killed 19 people on the beach of Grand Bassam.
France, the former colonial power in the Sahel, has sent thousands of troops to the region since 2013 to fight the growing threat of extremist violence. France announced the creation of a coalition in January 2020 that will include support from other European nations, as well as funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The joint effort aims to bring the G5 Sahel states — Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania — together with French forces to coordinate development, governance, and humanitarian work.
Working with local forces, French troops announced the killing of Abdelmalek Droukdel, al Qaeda’s North Africa chief, on 3 June, an event largely seen as a victory for the G5 task force. However, reports of extrajudicial killings of civilians by foreign troops, along with the continued rise in violent attacks – from 180 reported in 2017 to over 800 reported in 2019 – has caused many in the Sahel to call for the withdrawal of the French military.
Other Western nations have sent limited troops and resources to help combat the violence, but there has been a lack of unity between Sahel governments and foreign governments, causing international intervention to be relatively ineffective up to this point.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
The Sahel region is often referred to as the ‘fault-line’, separating the ‘Muslim north’ from the ‘Christian south’, making it a highly strategic region for the African Church. Many Sahel countries are home to ‘unreached’ people groups, many of which are often targeted during extremist attacks. Persecution is high in these countries, and several Christians have been kidnapped and imprisoned on charges such as bible distribution, which carries the possibility of a death sentence in some places. Christians arrested for taking part in ministry often face several challenges in being released, such as having to pay high costs for attorneys. This often leads to them being imprisoned for long periods of time, causing hardship for their families and congregations. It is critical to pray that believers in trying circumstances are able to see, like Paul, that their hardship helps them rely on a God who is far more powerful than them. “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death,” Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8b. He went on to conclude in verse 9: “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
According to Open Doors, Christians in the region are regularly targeted in kidnappings, and churches experience and are threatened with violence. Several churches have cancelled services due to the on-going threat of violence, with little help coming from government officials. Despite the high threat of persecution, there are several organisations and missionary groups operating throughout the Sahel. They often operate under the radar, focusing on mission projects such as bible distribution and radio station ministries. These Christian groups are actively trying to mobilise the Church to make a difference among the large Muslim majority.
Please pray with us:
- For an effective strategy and cooperation between various governments in the region
- For a spiritual breakthrough in the region
- For the believers who find themselves on the frontline of this conflict