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Sahel region: Are military juntas hindering stability?

September 12, 2023

The security situation in Africa's Sahel is worsening following a raft of military takeovers. Experts say that only a return to democracy can address the crises facing the region.

Mali's military ruler, Assimi Goita, center, attends an independence day military parade in Bamako, Mali
Burkina Faso saw two military coups last year, triggered in part — as in Mali and Niger — by discontent at failures to stem a jihadi insurgencyImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Africa's Sahel region is a cradle of a jihadi insurgency that has spread from northern Mali into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

All three Sahel nations are ruled by military juntas that took power following coups. 

The region has seen an uptick of tension in recent weeks, triggered in part by the looming pullout of UN peacekeepers from Mali after the junta leaders there told them to leave the country.

Armed rebels in Mali on Tuesday claimed to have seized control of a military camp in Bourem, a town in the country's eastern Gao region, following fighting with the Malian army.

At least 60 people were killed during two attacks in the same area last week after a Malian army camp was targeted. 

More than 40 Burkinabe Army soldiers were killed last week in heavy clashes with militants in northern Burkina Faso.

And in Niger, just days after last month's coup, there was a resurgence in jihadi attacks against civilian and military targets.

Spiraling violence

Some experts have told DW that the deteriorating security situation could further worsen without fresh solutions to deal with jihadis who target civilians and military installations.

Dr. Diatourou Diawara, a security analyst, told DW that targeting civilians or military personnel is not new for the fighters.

"There is not a single day when there is no attack in Mali, Burkina and Niger," he said.

Mutaru Mumuni Muktar, a security expert based in Ghana, also said the lack of an effective civilian government has deepened the Sahel's current insecurity.

"There are several implications in terms of the military takeovers in West Africa," he said. "First of all, we are seeing the very direct negative impact that [it] has had on the fight against violent extremism in the region."

Muktar's assessment of the Sahel crisis is echoed by Bram Posthumus, an independent journalist reporting on West Africa, who told DW the security situation has deteriorated in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Mali hit by third terror attack in 24 hours

Could the crisis get even worse?

The soldiers who seized power in Mali in August 2020 and subsequently in May 2021 promised to stop the jihadi attacks following mass protests that demanded the resignation of then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

At the time, Malians blamed Keita's government for many failures — from corruption to instability. 

"The two coups in Mali have not led to an improvement in the security situation. Arguably the exact opposite." Posthumus said. "As we do know, coups do not usher in an era of stability. They usher in eras of instability." 

Some experts have warned that the security crisis could worsen if nothing is done to fight off militants and make the region safer for civilians.

"This year, we have seen a significant increase in terms of fatalities and in terms of attacks and attacks within the region around violent extremism," Muktar told DW. "This year could end up being the deadliest year for terrorism in West Africa."

These violent attacks in the Sahel region are attributed to the al-Qaida-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM).

Media under attack

In the absence of an effective strategy to fend off the militants, they have gained more energy to exert terror and fear among citizens, Remy Arsene Diousse, a program manager at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Peace and Security Centre of Competence Sub-Saharan Africa, told DW.

The jihadis want to convey to the people that "we can conduct our operations at any time. Install a climate of fear,"  Diousse said. "The third message, you must revolt against your civil and military authorities who are unable to ensure the security you need."

Posthumus, however, said the citizens have not been impressed with the coup leaders' handling of the security crisis— but aren't able to agitate.

"We're on the military rule in Niger, in Mali, and in Burkina Faso, and certainly in all three of them, there has been a notable increase in attacks on the media, especially the independent media," he said.

'Niger was the last remaining bulwark of stability'

Looking for solutions

Posthumus said there is no evidence to suggest that the military juntas are committed to restoring stability to the region.

He said a lack of will to fight militants "goes back to the very reasons why these regimes came into power in the first place. All the reasons were personal, either the firing of a head of the presidential guard or a prominent general in the presidential guard."

Zoutomou, the expert on the Sahel region, explained that "until there is political stability in those individual countries, you cannot really expect safety to be brought into those areas."

Niger's recent successes in decreasing militant attacks on civilians were credited to a system set up by the country's ousted President Mohamed Bazoum who hadn't always preferred relying solely on military solutions.

Zoutomou said if the individual nations looked at quickly returning to civilian rule, some success could be realized in restoring order to the Sahel region.

"I believe it takes normally, an elected government ... to negotiate and figure out the framework that should allow them to really be able to work together to actually negotiate and work with multinational partners in order to bring about ways to make the area safer," he said.

Muktar equally agreed with an immediate return to democracy to improve the security situation.

"First of all, we need to recalibrate democracy and leadership within the subregion. What does it mean? We need to build leadership and the focus of leadership are people and not power," Muktar said.

"We need to ensure that the reason for governance or for leadership is to ensure what we call meeting the entitlements of citizenship. We are seeing inequality. We're seeing corruption. We are seeing impunity."

Edited by: Keith Walker

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