A series of setbacks for counter-terrorism operations by the G5 Sahel states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – has exacerbated spiralling insecurity in the Sahel since early 2019. This will have severe stability impacts for Mali and Burkina Faso in particular.

Three key risk points:

1. The latest cycle of violence has sparked rising levels of civil unrest and military discontent, putting upward pressure on political stability risks in the Sahel in the coming months.

2. Cracks in the military response will push G5 Sahel leaders to form new non-military alliances or seek unconventional solutions. Nonetheless, Western allies will remain key strategic partners.

3. A security crisis in either Mali or Burkina Faso is increasingly likely over the next year. Nonetheless, international forces would be likely to step in to avert a collapse in security in the wider region.


Violence rising

The soaring number of attacks by Islamist militants in the Sahel since early 2019 has parallels to the beginning of the 2012 crisis in Mali, when groups affiliated to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) occupied the north of the country. According to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), at least 1,200 violent incidents occurred in the G5 Sahel countries in the first nine months of 2019, compared with around 960 in 2018.

Violence has intensified in recent months, with at least 450 violent incidents reported from July to October. This has partly been because the rainy season (July-October) has rendered military interventions difficult. However, it also signals the growing confidence and capabilities of militant groups, particularly in the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger (the Liptako-Gourma region), the epicentre of the crisis.

New cycle of violence

This renewed militant offensive is starting to have repercussions for national stability across the region, in a manner not seen since the 2012 coup in Mali. The growing frequency of large-scale attacks against military positions has stoked tensions within the military and civil society in both Mali and Burkina Faso, and fuelled discontent against civilian leaderships perceived as weak and indecisive. In late August, the Burkinabè army suffered its deadliest attack yet when Islamist militants launched an assault on the Koutougou military camp in the northern Soum province, killing 24 soldiers. On 30 September, a double attack on the Malian army (FAMA) and the G5 Sahel in Mali’s Mopti region killed at least 37 soldiers. Another Malian military position was attacked in the northern Ménaka region on 1 November, leaving 49 soldiers dead. A week later, militants ambushed a mining convoy and killed at least 39 people in eastern Burkina Faso.

Populations weary of violence are increasingly taking to the streets of Bamako (Mali) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), with protests recorded there in September, October and November. With general elections in Burkina Faso and legislative elections in Mali approaching in 2020, opposition parties are on the look-out for opportunities to discredit the government, adding further fuel to the fire.

Discontent is spreading to security force ranks too. In Mali, former general Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, who was involved in the 2012 coup, stated after the 30 September attacks that “it is imperative to put an end to this incompetent regime to shorten the suffering of the people". His statement triggered rumours of an imminent coup, which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was forced to categorically deny in a national address.

In Burkina Faso, attacks have intensified to the point that militants threaten to over-run the army in northern Sahel regions, with near-daily attacks causing a gradual withdrawal of security forces from Soum, the worst-affected province. Following the Koutougou attack, army officers on 21 August fired shots in the air at the Guillaume Ouédraogo military barracks in Ouagadougou. Negotiations between the chief of staff and officers restored order in the camp, but incidents like this are likely to resume as attacks intensify. A few weeks later, police forces temporarily left their positions and withdrew from Djibo, the capital of Soum province.

The disconnect between the rank and file and the military hierarchy – a legacy of old divisions within the security forces – is increasingly being forced into the open as growing violence takes a toll on the troops. This context will increase the threat of mutinies in the coming months. Internal tensions and poor morale will also make national forces less responsive, providing Islamist militants with an opportunity to capture key cities in the Sahel region such as Djibo and Gorom-Gorom.

Old allies…

Rising rates of violence have made clear the limitations of the regional military response to the terrorism threat. Ill-equipped forces with low morale have crippled the national response in Mali and Burkina Faso. At the regional level, the G5 Sahel has only conducted one operation – in the eastern sector between Niger and Chad – since July.

Sahelian countries have been forced to seek additional support from Western partners. At the request of the government, the French military force Barkhane supported operations in Soum province between 20 September and 25 September. Such operations play an increasingly essential role in containing the advances of Islamist militants, while Western intelligence is likely to have helped prevent further attacks against regional capitals since the last such attack in Ouagadougou in early 2018.

Paradoxically, requests for additional Western support coincide with a surge in anti-Western sentiment among domestic populations. At least 1,000 people on 9 October protested the presence of foreign troops in Sevaré (Mali). The town was the focus of more unrest on 12 October when hundreds of civilians looted a UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) storage facility. In tense pre-election contexts, this could become an obstacle to cooperation between local communities and Western forces and make increased Western involvement more difficult to justify for the Malian and Burkinabe governments. Further protests have taken place in Bamako in recent weeks, each time involving slogans hostile to foreign forces.

…and new alternatives

Threats to national stability will force leaders in the Sahel to rethink their approach and seek new alliances or unconventional compromises in the coming months. In Mali, Prime Minister Boubou Cissé is increasingly trying to broker peace agreements between warring local communities to reassure the public. In early August, leaders of the ethnic-Fulani and -Dogon communities signed a deal to end hostilities between their respective self-defence groups. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tiébilé Dramé on 7 October visited Algeria, which in the past has served as an intermediary between the Malian government and Islamist militant Nusrat ul-Islam (JNIM) leader Iyad Ag Ghali. The idea of dialogue with JNIM factions is gaining traction, but dialogue, let alone a ceasefire, is still a very long way off.

Meanwhile, speculation is also growing about a Russian intervention in the Sahel. Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad all have existing military cooperation agreements with Russia. In his capacity as G5 Sahel chairperson, Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré at the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi (Russia) on 23 October called on Russia to “establish a strengthened strategic partnership with the Sahel and to support the recently adopted ECOWAS Action Plan against Terrorism”. On the same day in Bamako, a protest took place calling for the intervention of Russia. Any Russian deployment would be resisted by Western troops, making its impact unpredictable.

On the brink of crisis?

We have identified two main triggers that would be likely to prompt a further rise in stability risks in the coming months:

1. Further attacks against military positions could fuel popular discontent among civil society and low-ranking officers. Further large-scale attacks against military positions would increase the threat of unrest and mutinies. In both Mali and Burkina Faso such attacks could spark large anti-government demonstrations. The involvement of low-ranking military officers in a popular movement could tip the scales towards a coup.

2. An Islamist militant takeover of a large area of territory in the Sahel region, most likely Soum province, could force an unpopular foreign military intervention in Burkina Faso. With the centre of gravity of Islamist militancy shifting towards the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Soum province could fall into the hands of militants. Although a worst-case scenario, this cannot be ruled out, with Soum increasingly isolated and vulnerable as a result of current security trends. Such a chain of events could result in the creation of a JNIM base in Burkina Faso or even a West African caliphate in the Liptako-Gourma region.


Given the highly fragile security situation, a severe security crisis is on the cards in the next year in one or even both these countries. However, a collapse in security in the wider region remains unlikely. International forces stationed in the region would intervene in time to stop a chain of events that could result in a repeat of the 2012 Mali coup.

Regardless, in the longer-term governments will be forced to allocate more resources and attention to security, to the detriment of development and social programmes. Finally, the risks of a spill over to coastal countries such as Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire are rising as efforts to contain Islamist militancy continue to founder.

Part of the Big Picture Series, taken from Seerist.

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