The year 2020 is likely to be remembered as an infamous one for defense and security forces in the Sahel. The first six months were particularly damning. Following the Pau Summit in mid-January, national armies stepped up their counterterrorism efforts. These coincided with a sharp increase in human rights violations committed during military operations across the region. Between April and June, human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by security forces outnumbered those at the hands of jihadist groups, according to MINUSMA’s findings.
In Mali, counterterrorism operations were increasingly carried out in collaboration with (or at least with the support of) Dozo hunters and resulted in mostly Fulani civilian casualties. This reality exacerbated existing conflict dynamics in the non-flooded zone (zone exondée) of the Inner Niger Delta, the epicentre of communal violence for the past two years. Yet this trend was not limited to Mali. Throughout the Central Sahel, Nigerien and Burkinabé forces perpetrated numerous violations against their populations, with the deadliest incident involving Nigerien military killing and burying in mass graves 102 civilians in northern Tillabéri. Some extrajudicial killings were reported to have taken place under the command of the G5 Sahel Joint Force.
In 2020 the number of human rights violations largely exceeded figures from 2019. This is not due solely to state security forces. State abuses against civilians – often under the guise of counterterrorism – are yet another layer of violence, with the population getting trapped in attacks by self-defense militias, jihadist groups, signatory groups, and other unidentified groups involved in criminal activities and banditry.
In Mali, the comparison is telling. In 2019, MINUSMA documented 325 cases of human rights violations and abuses with the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMa) being responsible for 7% (23 cases), extremist groups 26% (85 cases) and communal militias 63% (174). In 2020, 1,958 cases were reported, an increase of 600% compared to the previous year. The FAMa were responsible for 17% of cases (equivalent to 351 cases), extremist groups 25% (484 cases) and communal militias 35% (680 cases).
The deficiencies of the defense forces are numerous and well known. They range from inadequate equipment and training, to lack of transparency regarding staffing and troop deployment, budgets and procurement processes, all the way to mismanagement and bad practices made possible by widespread corruption.
Thus far, the security sector reform (SSR) framework promoted by international partners – with the EU (EUTM, EUCAP) and the UN (MINUSMA, UNDP) in the lead – has failed to address these deficiencies. There is a shared responsibility in that failure. On the one hand, the Malian SSR process is not without its shortcomings: the multiplicity of initiatives and donors, the lack of coordination and/or collaboration, the lack of knowledge of the security sector and the context it operates in, the focus on the short-term and low-risk, the mismatch between the proposed objectives and the realities and the needs of the population. The list goes on. On the other, Sahelian governments have favored the status quo and have been evading the hard choices and political cost to true reform.
As such, SSR efforts have failed to lead to meaningful reform, and have even, at times, exacerbated armed forces’ deficiencies. Human rights abuses are a good illustration of this. One of the most detrimental SSR premises is that stability will be achieved by re-deploying defense and security forces throughout the country. But focusing on their mere deployment and presence in areas where these forces are – or even just perceived as – predatory, has in fact led to additional backlashes and human rights violations. This approach stems from a broader tendency to prioritize security measures above everything else, and that, to this day, justifies an international presence in the region.
Neither the international community nor the Sahelian countries are blind to this shortcoming. New strategies and policies have put a greater emphasis on improving governance – especially on fostering greater trust between the state authorities (including armed forces) and the populations – and less priority on providing security services. But these new initiatives have so far failed to yield positive results. For example, community policing initiatives have been initiated by Malian authorities, often with the support of MINUSMA. This approach promotes a partnership between security forces, communities and government through community policing committees in rural areas. The goal of community policing is not only to build trust. It is also to improve the capacity of security forces, including their intelligence gathering capacity, with the support of the communities. But civilians are generally afraid to alert the security forces because they fear reprisals from violent armed groups. More importantly, they do not believe that security forces will be there to protect them in case of retaliation.
The current widespread environment of human rights abuses and impunity should no longer be underestimated and set aside. First and foremost, human rights violations threaten SSR at its core, the accountability of the forces being a key principle of SSR, if not the most crucial one. In addition, without progress on the political aspects of SSR – strengthening internal discipline as well as internal and external control of the forces, reinforcing the justice system and penal services – there will be no lasting SSR progress. And finally, because human rights abuses are fueling recruitment of armed actors on all sides (militias, jihadists, bandits), exacerbating violence – in short, adding fuel to the fire.
 For example, EUTM’s trainings being carried out far away from theater of operations and how the new French-led initiative Takuba is meant to address this issue. See Anna Schmauder, Zoe Gorman, Flore Berger, Takuba: a new coalition for the Sahel?, 30 June 2020.
 For a good overview of these shortcomings, see PRIO, Compounding Fragmentation Security force assistance to fragile states in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, 2020.
 This is the case for example of the Stabilisation Strategy for Central Mali (SSCM) adopted in 2019 or the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection (MSPC) framework plan for the improvement of trust between the security forces and the population (2018-2021).