Suffering in the Sahel

September 27 2020 | by

THE LAST decade has witnessed an explosion in Islamist terrorism which has gone largely unnoticed by the world. Yet the scale of atrocities in central Africa is staggering, with tens of thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims slaughtered and hundreds of thousands more driven from their homes, and no end in sight.

The theatre of war is the Sahel – an Arabic word meaning ‘coast’, and in this instance one which refers to the southern shores of the Sahara Desert. It is an area which, from its western fringes on the Atlantic coasts of Senegal and Mauritania, spreads east over a thousand kilometres through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea to the Red Sea.


Religious fault line


A vast swathe of generally sparsely-populated and semi-arid shrub and grassland, steppes, savanna and woodland, the Sahel is the fault line where the desert changes by degrees into the tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet it is not only the geography that changes, but also the people, religion and culture, as it is the tectonic plate where black African Christians meet semi-nomadic Arabic or African Muslims, such as the Blue Tuareg, whose name derives from the practice of using indigo dyes to colour their garments, sometimes also staining their skin.

Very often these disparate populations, who total 93 million people, live in harmony, but their differences have occasionally fuelled conflicts like the civil war in Sudan, fought on sectarian lines, and which resulted in the partition of the country in 2011.

Independence for South Sudan might have been an occasion for peace in the Sahel, but that same year saw the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya at the hands of the rebels of the Arab Spring, with the help of the UK and France. Western politicians had hoped naively that the demise of Gaddafi would have ushered in a golden era of liberal democracy for North Africa.

Instead, it was the catalyst for the attempted violent conquest of the non-Islamic regions on the periphery of the Sahara by Islamists, who were suddenly heavily armed from the Libyan conflict and equally as heavily indoctrinated in Salafi and Wahhabi ideology.


Haven for jihadists


As Libya descended into anarchy, Mali became one of the first countries to be confronted by jihadists surging from the Sahara on motorcycles and in trucks, brandishing state-of-the-art weaponry and connected by smart phones.

Many of them were Malians who in late 2011 were returning from the war and who, as early as the following January, joined ethnic-Tuareg separatists in rising up against the government and toppling President Dioncounda Traore in just two months.

In the aftermath, the rebels were permitted to establish strongholds in three of the country’s northern regions, prompting an exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees and intervention by France, the former colonial power.

Although a French-led expeditionary force, boosted by 2,000 Chadian troops, liberated the northern regions in 2013 and drove out the jihadists from Timbuktu, the extremist groups have not only remained there, but have increased and are exploiting ancient ethnic rivalries to mount attacks against religious and military targets.

It is a pattern which has spread the length of the Sahel, and which has intensified within the last four years following the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as fighters found new sanctuary and purpose among the failing states of the region.


Spreading menace


Fighting has spread into Mali’s populous regions and into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger as jihadist groups and ethnic militias have grown and proliferated, with more than 30 now operating across the Sahel. Such groups include the Al-Mulathamun Battalion, which is most active in Mali and aims to expel Westerners from North and West Africa, and to replace several African governments with a single Islamic state.

Also active is the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which seeks to establish an Islamic state centred in Mali, and which has also carried out attacks in Niger and Burkina Faso. It is an umbrella group for at least three other terrorist organisations in the region. Boko Haram is fighting to create an Islamic state strictly under Sharia law across northern Nigeria and parts of Chad and Niger.

However, among the most dangerous and recent threats is Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, which was founded in 2015.

Its IS affiliate in West Africa broke away from Boko Haram, and now harbours the ambition of putting Nigeria under Sharia law, raising the prospect of Islamist violence also hitting the Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin.


Worsening situation


The Sahel has always been a near impossible place to police, and is historically renowned for illegal trafficking, such as in slaves and ivory, but now, more than ever before, it has grown benighted by raids, massacres, bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, attempted coups, mass displacement and famine.

The figures show that the violence is rapidly worsening, with 5,000 people killed by Islamists in the Sahel in 2019, compared to about 770 three years earlier. In the space of just one year the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project recorded a 300 percent rise in the killings of civilians in Mali, a 500 per cent rise in Niger, and a 7,000 per cent rise in Burkina Faso.

Some 861,000 civilians have fled the violence as refugees to other countries or as internally-displaced people within their own lands and, according to Caritas, about 7.2 million are now threatened by “food insecurity.” The UN views the situation as so serious that it launched a crisis appeal in June.

The refugees may be afraid with much justification, as an attack in northern Nigeria in mid-June revealed just how sophisticated the jihadists have become. Boko Haram and Islamic State terrorists entered the village of Foduma Kolomaiya and killed 80 people using armoured tanks and trucks filled with guns.

Christians are frequently the targets. Gunmen slaughtered 14, including several children, at a Protestant service in Hantoukoura, Burkina Faso, in December, for instance, just months after a priest celebrating Mass in Dablo was shot dead with five of the congregation.

Earlier this year, a priest in the Centre-Nord region of Burkina Faso, reported to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that Islamists were making huge gains in the north and had turned once bustling Christian villages into ghost towns.

“Out of the 75 villages in my parish, there are no more than 10 that are still inhabited,” he said. “Everyone else has fled, and given that certain key villages have been abandoned, a large part of the territory is now in the hands of the terrorists, outside the control of the State.”


Sense of desperation


Such events sometimes trigger a sense of desperation among even the highest-ranking in the Church. “There is an ongoing persecution of Christians,” complained Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya. “For months, we bishops have been denouncing what is happening in Burkina Faso, but nobody is listening to us.”

Burkina Faso has indeed become so badly afflicted by terrorist violence that its government has taken the unusual decision to arm civilians. Olivier Hanne, a specialist in Islam and researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille, France, said it was no accident that the country is being targeted.

“After having extended their grip on the Muslim Sahara, the terrorists’ next target will be the places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another,” he told Zenit, the Vatican-based news agency.

“In Burkina Faso and in Nigeria the equilibrium that has existed hitherto is now under threat,” he said. “In the next five years, these African states will continue to need the support of the West if they are to avoid catastrophe. Were it not for the intervention of France, Mali would already have been cut in two. And the attempted coup in Chad in 2013 might well have succeeded. This all feeds into the propaganda of the jihadists, who like to play on the anti-French resentment, but there is no other way of keeping the situation from getting worse.”

The terrorists, he continued, are “set for the long-term,” funded by huge sums of money they have exacted from extortion and from the profits of slavery, arms trafficking, the illegal smuggling of goods and of South American cocaine through Lagos and across the Sahara and into Europe.


Anti-Christian agenda


Bishop Pierre Claver Malgo of Fada’Ngourma, Burkina Faso, said all of the Islamist factions were united in the single objective of occupying “the entire Sahel region” and they shared an explicitly anti-Christian agenda.

He said that when Christians were attacked “they are always asked to convert to Islam and renounce their faith, not to mention the destruction and desecration of Christian religious symbols.” The situation is so grave that Pope Francis appealed for the end to the “recurrent violence” in a statement following an attack on a Canadian mining company in Burkina Faso in November that left 60 people dead and 38 injured.

“I entrust to the Lord all the victims, the wounded, the numerous displaced persons and those who suffer from these tragedies,” said the Holy Father. “I appeal for the protection of the most vulnerable.”

At present there is no sign that things will get any better, as the terrorist attacks have not only multiplied unabated throughout 2020, but there is evidence that militants are taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to further their objectives.


G5 Sahel Joint Force


Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have responded by organising themselves into a G5 Sahel Joint Force and are supported not only by a UN peacekeeping force of 10,000 blue-helmets, but by a far more aggressive detachment of 5,000 French troops – who in June killed Algerian national Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a raid in northern Mali. The French have support from the United States in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and more could follow.

Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has said he recognised the threat from Islamists to the region, and vowed that Washington would “help bring a coordinated fight to ISIS in West Africa.”

Certainly, it would be a tragedy if the West repeated the errors of north Iraq by abandoning the Christians of the Sahel to the designs of the Islamists. It is a sad fact that the Sahel is a necessary and new frontline in the struggle against Islamists who seek the destruction of Christian civilisation and the advance of their own ideology. The wars that have marked the early part of the 21st century are not quite over yet.

Updated on September 27 2020