In the middle of the Sahara in north-west Africa, the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge in the shape of an arrow. At this point, and all along the porous borders of these three fragile states, militants seep between countries effortlessly. Two events here last week prompted a reaction from the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, on the worsening of the situation, and the way in which militants are taking advantage of the pandemic.
“Terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks and to challenge state authority throughout the sub-region,” said Guterres, according to documents seen by Agence France-Presse (AFP). He cited the area straddling Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso as a major concern.
On 11 May, Al Jazeera reported the deaths of at least 20 people in villages in western Niger. Ibrahim Tidjani Katchella, governor of the Tillabéri region, said the attacks were carried out by militants on motorcycles. They “pillaged shops” and sped away, he said.
Sources quoted by AFP indicate that the villages targeted were Gadabo, Zibane Koira-Zedo and Zibane-Tegui, all administered by Anzourou, a border commune. This region, like its neighbours, has slipped out of state control in recent years, becoming to a certain extent lawless in the hands of militants. Many of these militants belong to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel.
Motorcycle-based activity poses such a threat in the region that Niger attempted to curtail their use in January. Authorities were granted the power to restrict the use of motorcycles, and certain food markets were shut down for allegedly supplying militants with “fuel and cereals,” according to Tidjani Katchella. Niger has been in a state of emergency for three years, and it was recently extended by the government.
Across the border in Mali, on the same day as the attacks in Niger, three UN soldiers from Chad were killed by a roadside bomb. Four soldiers were left wounded, according to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Antonio Guterres decried the incident as a “cowardly attack,” calling on Malian authorities to spare no time in identifying the suspects. Chad has for a long time sent peacekeeping troops to its fellow Sahel countries, which has endeared its dictatorial president, Idriss Déby, to European countries such as France.
Since 2012, Mali has been attempting to counter an insurgency that quickly spread to its neighbouring states. In recent years, Islamic militants have been gaining more and more power in the region, and states have been struggling to cope. And now, with governments already substantially weakened, the coronavirus pandemic promises an opportunity for insurgents to become leaders, and fill the power vacuum left in the arid, unruly border regions.