In 2019, at least 456 civilians were killed in attacks by armed groups in central Mali, making it the deadliest year since the country’s current political crisis began in 2012.
A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report — How Much More Blood Must be Spilled? Atrocities Against Civilians in Central Mali — documents these deaths, detailing atrocities committed in the area by armed groups and ethnic militias. It says that the civilian death toll is likely to be “much higher” than it has been able to prove.
“Central Mali, notably Mopti region, is the epicentre of the violence, where armed Islamists and ethnic self-defence groups massacred people in their villages, gunned them down as they fled, and pulled men from public transportation vehicles to be executed based on their ethnicity,” says the report. “Many people unable to escape armed attacks were burned alive in their homes, while others were blown up by explosive devices.”
Mali has been in crisis since 2012, when armed groups in the north of the country launched an insurgency. It was halted by a military intervention from France, but since then instability in both north and central Mali has been increasing — despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers and a regional fighting force, the G5 Sahel.
Commenting on the report, Corinne Dufka, HRW West Africa director, said: “Armed groups are killing, maiming and terrorising communities throughout central Mali with no apparent fear of being held to account. The human toll in shattered lives is mounting as the deadly cycles of violence and revenge continue.”
Dufka blamed a near-total lack of accountability for atrocities in Mali for the spiralling violence. “The Malian government’s failure to punish armed groups on all sides is emboldening them to commit further atrocities. The government, with the help of its international partners, needs to do much more to prosecute those responsible for crimes and dismantle abusive armed groups.”
The violence is not limited to Mali, but is increasing too in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, where porous borders and harsh terrain makes it difficult to contain armed groups.
Jan Egeland, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s secretary general, recently returned from a visit to the region. He says the increase in violence is being driven by a number of factors, including the easy access to weapons; widespread unemployment and dissatisfaction with governance; intercommunal tensions, particularly between semi-nomadic herders and farmers; the influence of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda; the presence of transnational organised crime networks; and the increase in extreme weather events that have constrained resources.
“It is very important that South Africa and other leading nations on the African continent will be concerned with the Sahel, because there is an explosion of local violence, conflict and displacement of people,” Egeland told the Mail & Guardian. In Burkina Faso, for example, he said there was a tenfold increase in the number of displaced people in the last year: from 60 000 in January 2019 to 600 000 in January 2020.
“It’s in many places and there are many armed groups and security forces now. The vulnerable children and population are caught in the crossfire….we [humanitarian responders] are overwhelmed and underfunded,” said Egeland.
The main military response to the rising conflict is being driven by France, which recently announced plans to deploy another 600 soldiers to fight armed groups in the region, supplementing the 4 500 soldiers who are already there. Last week, French troops killed 33 militants alleged to have links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Not everyone is convinced that the French are helping the situation, however. In an interview with the M&G in June last year, Burkina Faso Defence Minister Moumina Chériff Sy said: “They’ve got maybe 4 000 men in the region. They have all the military and technological resources, so I’m surprised they haven’t been able to eradicate this band of terrorists. We ask ourselves a lot of questions: if they really wanted to, they could have beaten them, so do they have another agenda?”
Media outlets in the United States have reported that the US, which maintains a large military footprint in the region, is considering withdrawing from West Africa in an effort to cut costs. There are currently 6 000 to 7 000 troops in West Africa, according to Voice of America, and the US has constructed a state-of-the-art drone base in Niger.
This proposed drawdown comes despite concerns voiced by senior US officials. Tibor Nagy, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said in a press briefing in November that the Sahel is “the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent”. He added: “The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not any more in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert.”