Among the many dynamics defining the crises scenarios in West Africa and the Sahel, food insecurity adds weaknesses to an already fragile humanitarian environment. According to WFP estimates, 12.3 million people found themselves in crisis or emergency conditions during the 2019 peak, from June to August, outlining a deteriorating situation since 2018, when 11.2 million people required food assistance.
Besides the disruptive effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, widespread poverty, extreme weather events and environmental shocks undoubtedly had a significant impact on this landscape: drought crises contributed to cutting back agricultural productions and restricting grazing areas, with implications for transhumance routes; and ever-more-frequent floods damage crops, undermining the capacity of local communities to address subsistence needs. Moreover, acting as a major driver of humanitarian distress, conflicts increasingly affecting the central Sahel, and particularly the cross-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, are currently feeding food insecurity in the West African region.
In the Sahel, security instability has progressively spread from the northern territories of Mali to the country’s central region and the bordering states of Niger and Burkina Faso, where during 2019 a deteriorating security situation led to an outstanding increase in the numbers of armed attacks: according to ACLED data, in 2019 there were 4,779 victims of violent attacks, an 86% increase if compared to 2018, with the most significant growth recorded in Burkina Faso (+600%), emerging as the new epicentre of the regional crisis. Conflict dynamics oppose state authorities to Salafi-jihadi insurgent groups, linked to al-Qa’ida (Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin, JNIM or the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, GSIM, led by the former Tuareg rebel Iyad ag Ghali) or the Islamic State (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, ISGS). These conflicts are compounded by reasons for confrontation among rival jihadi armed groups which sharply increased during 2020, rising in scale and violence, and put an end to the pacific cohabitation of al-Qa’ida- and Islamic State-linked networks in the Sahel, a prominent exception in the global jihad balances so far.
Against the backdrop of the growing activism of jihadi insurgents, inter-ethnic tensions and pre-existing conflicts related to the livelihoods of sedentary farmers and semi-nomad herders trigger a vicious cycle of violence that jeopardizes the security of civilian populations in the region. The inability of state authorities to contain the armed violence of the non-state jihadi actors pushed local communities to establish ethnic-based self-defence armed groups, often with the agreement and tacit support of public authorities, leading to the ethnic polarisation of conflict dynamics. Self-defence militias attack Fulani villages – Fulani ethnic communities, mostly composed of semi-nomad herders, have been targeted by a ‘seduction strategy’ by jihadi armed groups, leveraging their perception of being socially and economically marginalised over access to natural resources (water sources and grazing lands) – accusing civilian populations of supporting the insurgency. Bambara, Dogon, and Mossi ethnic populations are in turn targeted by violent attacks and reprisals by jihadi actors. In 2019, the Dogon-based militia Dan na Ambassagou, established in central Mali, was responsible for a serious massacre in Ogossagou, where 160 Fulani herders charged with providing support to Qaidist fighters, were killed. In June of that year, a jihadist attack on the Dogon village of Sobane Da, which was considered by many as a direct consequence of the Ogossagou events, left 35 civilian dead. In Burkina Faso, the self-defence militia Koglweogo was held responsible for attacks on Fulani villages, while ISGS insurgents’ retaliations targeted Mossi civilians.
The indiscriminate repression by national armed forces, charged with widespread abuses and extrajudicial killings of civilians, contributes to escalating the conflict: military violence is the primary driver of recruitment for jihadi groups among village community members, who, urging them to avenge their loved ones’ killings, take up arms against the state.
Conflicts and violence in the Sahel create the conditions for the worsening of food insecurity. Conflict situations have a direct impact on the transport of goods and commercial exchanges that ensure food availability in the region while guaranteeing food supplies to border communities, which rely on trans-frontier trading and are often with no other means of securing the basic necessities of their lives. These dynamics also impact crops, forcing farmer communities to flee, leaving their land and endangering their livelihoods, as well as on pastoral activities, with direct consequences on the food security of semi-nomad herders, having to redefine transhumance routes due to the inaccessibility of grazing lands in conflict-riven areas.
Armed groups’ capacity to control territories, in the face of the ineffectiveness of state response to regional instability, prevents humanitarian actors from having access to conflict zones, because of the threat of attacks and kidnappings, with further repercussions on the vulnerabilities of aid-dependent communities. At the same time, emergency measures adopted by local and national governments to tackle terrorist groups’ activism, including extensive militarization, curfews, no-go areas, restrictions on human mobility – undermine local populations’ livelihood strategies, restricting their capacity to have access to markets and basic services.
The escalation of violence triggers internal displacements and regional migration flows: UNHCR figures account for about 1.7 million IDPs in the macro-region including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – 1 million of which are in Burkina Faso – and more than 800,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, adding pressure on host communities and available resources, with a direct impact on food insecurity.
Between October and December 2019 food insecurity in the Central Sahel affected 3.3 million people requiring “urgent food, nutrition and livelihood assistance”. For the 2020 peak season (June-August), the number of food-insecure people in need of urgent assistance is expected to grow to around 4.8 million, 1.8 in Burkina Faso alone (in the Sahel and Centre-Nord provinces), 1.1 in Mali (mostly in the Gao and Timbuktu regions) and 1.9 in the western regions of Tahoua and Tillabéri in Niger.
Looking at the broader West-African picture, conflict and COVID-19 emergencies taken together could bring some 51 million people, currently in a “stressed” situation, into a food and nutrition insecurity condition. A worrisome scenario, unfortunately not that far from reality.