The escalating violence in Africa’s Sahel region is beginning to have widespread consequences. Thousands of civilians, targeted by both terrorist organisations as well as military forces, have been forced to flee from their local communities for safety. The Sahel conflict is quickly becoming one of largest displacement crises in the world with 848,000 people estimated to have fled their homes from just Burkina Faso.
Since 2011 violence by terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has spread substantially across the Sahel region and beyond. Although France’s decision to deploy over 5,000 troops to the region has had some limited success, including the killing of al Qaeda’s North Africa leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, the geographical range of the attacks has continued to expand, pushing further south towards coastal countries like the Ivory Coast.
Just as concerning though is the fact that hundreds of civilians are being killed by their own governments. Amnesty International recently announced that it had documented 200 cases of unlawful state killings and forced disappearances in February and March in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. All three countries are members of the internationally backed G5 force led by France to help tackle the terrorist militants in the region. As of last week, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), there had been 600 reported killings by state forces since January.
And this indiscriminate and self-perpetuating cycle of violence has accelerated the forced displacement of innocent civilians in the region. By March of this year, it has been estimated that 4.2 million people have been displaced from their homes within the Sahel region. In a statement released on Thursday Millicent Mutuli, the regional Director for West and Central Africa within UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, addressed this complex situation: “The continuing attacks on civilians in the Sahel which have crippled life in the border towns are unfathomable, incomprehensible. People are being displaced multiple times and are in desperate need of our help.”
The latest attack on the Binedama village in central Mali’s volatile Mopti region, on June 5, killed 26 civilians as armed groups also attacked an area designed to provide shelter to refugees at Intikane in western Niger just days before. They killed two refugee leader and one local community leader. These two acts of violence alone caused more than 10,000 people to look for shelter further inland but this insurmountable strain on resources has created living conditions described by the UN as “deplorable”.
The response of national governments to the growth of terrorist violence has regrettably been far too muscular and focused on military deployment. In doing so, these governments have allowed their military forces to behave without accountability and for their citizens to live in a heightened sense of fear. Governments must refunnel their attention and resources towards local communities and refugee camps in order to support the many innocent people who feel too unsafe to stay at home. Alongside this emphasis on infrastructural development, governments of the Sahel region must cooperate more with one another in order to ensure their respective military forces are following clear and precise instructions. This dialogue must come from regional bodies such as the African Union as well as politicians and governments work alongside one another to tackle this humanitarian crisis and avoid simply throwing more ammunition and bodies into the fight.
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