These past few years, the northwestern region of Africa has been facing a surge of violence and subsequent insecurity. Violent events being reported in this region have escalated at quite an alarming rate – 250% between 2011 and 2019. The last five years have been astounding, with more than 16,000 incidents of violence rendering 6,000 fatalities in just 2019. Armed attacks of increasing complexity have disrupted any semblance of normalcy in many of the countries located in this area, leaving communities with much uncertainty and fear in their midst. This violence has exacerbated many existing vulnerabilities within these populations, the most distinct of which being sanitation and malnutrition, as well as water and food insecurity.
This has also challenged the legitimacy of many northwestern African states, such as Nigeria and Niger, is being brought to question and the lack of a single source of the violence makes the situation even more difficult to handle. It is also critical to take note of and analyze the unique geography of this wave of conflict. Major hotspots of the violence are within Mali, Libya, Central Sahel, and the region surrounding Lake Chad. Border regions have seen a significant increase of violence, with upwards of 40% of all violent events having occurred within 100 kilometers of a land border, having simultaneously been targeting civilians.
The most concerning characteristic of this violence is that there is not a clear root, and as such, no clear solution. While much of the violence is politically driven, the actors and perpetrators have unclear and shifting motives. Their complex alliances with various governments and geographical movements make it harder to navigate and provide a proper explanation for their actions.
Some of the present violence has extremist roots and, therefore, mainly stems from the terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS. For example, quite recently, armed men in southwest Niger opened fire during an interception of a convoy returning from a market. They attacked a village and 58 civilian fatalities resulted. This attack was led by both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and is an event that poses immense security challenges for Niger’s new president, Mohamed Bazoum. Furthermore, contexts such as Al-Qaeda being expelled from Algeria, as well as the aftermath of the Libyan civil war have worsened the global situation, as the terrorist groups have been forced to relocate their endeavours. This displacement has magnified much of their anger and thus has further provoked the regularity of this violence.
Violence has also resulted from the failure of central governments to address local grievances. In fact, the ineffective and dismissive nature of central governments has fuelled much indignation, leading to many rebellions, protests, jihadist insurgencies, and other actions that again contribute to an environment of insecurity and instability.
A key display of this can be found within northwest Nigeria, where terrorist groups are increasingly coming to the frontlines, raising fear that the region may soon become a bridge for Islamic insurgencies to connect. Nigeria has been going through a decade of conflict with violence surging from the Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization. Boko Haram has left factions of its organization across segments of the country, offshoots that continue to insight violence in their locations. There are two distinct and apparent factions: the first being called Ansaru that broke off from the main group in 2012 and has come to increasing dominance, and the second being the Islamic State West Africa Province, a group that has become controlling mostly within northeast Nigeria. These breakoff groups are also beginning to forge relationships with angered community members, criminal gangs and other affiliated armed groups.
African government have sought to address the rise in violence through a spate of military interventions. These efforts aim to stabilize and prevent the spread of violence in certain regions. Despite this, the obstacles within this counter tactic have been difficult to overcome as defeated armed groups often end up simply relocating and continuing on with their agenda. The goal to combat this violence has been effective in the short run, but has failed to account for the full scope of the crisis and the many intricacies it possesses.
Thus, the repercussions of violence in the region continue to permeate and impact many aspects of the quality of life across communities. A key example displaying these substantial consequences is the extreme displacement of communities in Burkina Faso, where it is estimated that approximately 4,000 people flee their homes each day. The UNHCR reports that more than 700,000 people have been displaced in the last year, with 150,000 being displaced just in the last three weeks. Families have left everything behind to flee the constant violence in their home countries and have moved away to host communities. Many host communities face situations of extreme violence and poverty themselves, making many poorly suited to handle the fallouts of the conflict of another country.
Notably, the poor condition of many of the regions affected by violence has made them susceptible to exploitation. This has exacerbated internal issues, such as religious and ethnic division as well as tensions over scarce resources. Violent groups have used these vulnerabilities to their advantage, giving rise to a spate of ethnic militias. Some of these groups have proved even more ruthless: for example, attackers recently killed 100 civilians during raids on villages in Tillabery. They intercepted four vehicles that were transporting passengers and carried out what is progressively being labeled as ‘target executions’.
As African countries attempt to recover and reduce the eminence of wide dispersion of violence within their domestic arenas, global actors and surrounding communities must begin to jointly address it. One cannot simply hone in on one country alone. In order to truly grasp the complications of this violence, efforts must be concentrated regionally. Civilian protection must be prioritized and local roots of conflict stemming from discontent with governmental bodies must be tackled.
Ultimately, activists, citizens, and concerned individuals alike must foster an informed discussion on the alarming rate of violence. African as well as international governments must distill the unpredictable dynamics of this violence in order to develop durable solutions that include the interests of all actors and, above all, protect civilians.
Edited by Ines Navarre
Misbah Lalani is a first year at McGill University, pursuing a bachelor’s in honours international development studies and industrial labor relations, with a minor in social entrepreneurship. She is serving as a staff writer for Catalyst and is particularly interested in economic development and market conditions in Middle East.