In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conflict in the Sahel

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Sahelian History, Politics, and/or Conflict Dynamics
  • Long-Term Historical Background
  • State Fragility, Corruption, and/or Resilience
  • Jihadists
  • Non-jihadist Armed Groups and Paramilitaries
  • Identities, Livelihoods, States, and Claim-Making
  • Human Rights and Civilians’ Experiences of Conflict
  • Peacemaking Efforts
  • Foreign Interventions
  • Security Sector Reform Efforts and Intra-military Dynamics
  • Senegalese and Mauritanian Exceptionalism?
  • Primary Sources

African Studies Conflict in the Sahel
by
Alexander Thurston
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0232

Introduction

The Sahel region of Africa extends, in an ecological sense, from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east. In a political sense, the region is often more narrowly defined as comprising Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad; many accounts, including this article, include Senegal as well. All six of these countries became independent from France in 1960 and, except for Chad, experienced relatively limited armed conflict prior to the 1990s. In 1990 a rebellion in northern Mali touched off cycles of conflict that have continued through the time of writing. Another rebellion in northern Mali in 2012 became the tipping point for the central Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger), as conflict spread from northern Mali into central Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger; meanwhile, Niger and Chad also experienced considerable spillover from Nigeria’s Boko Haram conflict, even as Chad continued to grapple with periodic armed rebellions. In the central Sahel, the primary purveyors of conflict since 2012 have been jihadists, ethnic militias, state security forces, external military forces, and, more recently, private security contractors such as the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group. The violence inflicted by each of these actors has tended to elicit reprisals from the other actors, feeding into a matrix of conflict whose causes include both structural factors and self-perpetuating violence. In terms of structural factors that drive conflict, these include the region’s poverty, underdevelopment, state weakness and corruption, demographic pressures, farmer-herder tensions, the politicization and securitization of ethnic and religious identities, and citizens’ lack of trust in judiciaries and politicians. Conflict has further exacerbated these factors, especially in terms of precipitating a collapse of faith in elected officials who are often seen—with some justification—as inept and aloof. In 2012, Mali experienced a military coup amid the northern rebellion of that year, and since 2020 the region has seen multiple coups: in Mali in 2020 and 2021, in Chad in 2021, in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and September 2022, and in Niger in 2023. The political upheavals in the region, combined with the Malian and Burkinabè military regimes’ hostility to France, have intensified geopolitical competition among France, Russia, and the United States for influence in the Sahel. As of 2023, the region’s trajectory remains largely grim, especially with intensifying violence and displacement in much of Mali and Burkina Faso and high levels of continued turmoil in parts of Niger. At the same time, Senegal, Mauritania, and, to a lesser extent, Chad retain a significant level of baseline political stability and internal security.

Overviews of Sahelian History, Politics, and/or Conflict Dynamics

Some of the best overviews of conflict in the region were produced near-contemporaneously with its outbreak, such as Lecocq, et al. 2013. Raleigh, et al. 2021 is the most concise and clearest overview of recent conflict dynamics, while the collection Carbone and Casola 2022 offers expert perspectives on core themes of the region’s conflicts. Baldaro 2021 very effectively captures interactions between foreign powers, jihadists, domestic elites, and civilians. The contributions in Villalón 2021 represent the most comprehensive single volume on the contemporary Sahel to date. Idrissa 2021 and Amselle 2022 place the current conflicts into a wider historical framework, especially in terms of the lingering effects of colonialism. Brachet and Scheele 2019 is a different sort of work, a fine-grained anthropology of northern Chad and the Tubu people that simultaneously poses much wider questions about mobility, trade, politics, and conflict that are all vital for understanding Sahelian conflict dynamics. As of the time of writing this bibliography, meanwhile, academic research is only beginning to catch up with the 2020–2023 wave of coups in the region; Engels 2022 is one early and important analysis of events in Burkina Faso.

  • Amselle, Jean-Loup. L’invention du Sahel. Vulaines-sur-Seine, France: Éditions du Croquant, 2022.

    Calling into question the category “Sahel” itself, Amselle analyzes the region’s history, with an emphasis on Mali, from the colonial period through the time of writing. Amselle takes up themes such as literary and film output, ethnic conflict, and the politics surrounding female genital cutting and homosexuality.

  • Baldaro, Edoardo. “Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism.” Security Dialogue 52.3 (June 2021): 266–283.

    DOI: 10.1177/0967010620934061

    Using Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film Rashomon (1950), in which various narrators give contradictory accounts of the same event, as an analogy, Baldaro describes how actors in the Sahel (such as international security providers and jihadists) compete to project power and control narratives.

  • Brachet, Julien, and Judith Scheele. The Value of Disorder: Autonomy, Prosperity, and Plunder in the Chadian Sahara. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108566315

    A historical and ethnographic examination of the northern Chadian town of Faya-Largeau, Brachet and Scheele’s book explore themes such as violence, labor, and trade.

  • Carbone, Giovanni, and Camillo Casola, eds. Sahel: 10 Years of Instability—Local, Regional and International Dynamics. Milan: ISPI, 2022.

    The seven main contributions in this collection cover a range of topics, including political instability, jihadism and insurgency, drug trafficking, climate change, European security initiatives, and Russia’s outreach. The introduction provides a concise issue of the report’s contents and significance, while the conclusion draws out policy implications.

  • Engels, Bettina. “Transition Now? Another coup d’état in Burkina Faso.” Review of African Political Economy 49.172 (2022): 315–326.

    DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2022.2075127

    Engels places the January 2022 coup in the context of Burkina Faso’s wider history of coups and popular mobilizations, contrasting popular resistance to a short-lived 2015 coup with the seeming popular acquiescence to the January 2022 putsch.

  • Idrissa, Rahmane. “Mapping the Sahel.” New Left Review 132 (November/December 2021).

    Idrissa connects the colonial past and the violent present. He reflects on contemporary Western governments’ construction of the Sahel as a threat, and then retraces interactions between Islam and state-building from the precolonial period through the twenty-first century.

  • Lecocq, Baz, Gregory Mann, Bruce Whitehouse, et al. “One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts: A Multivocal Analysis of the 2012 Political Crisis in the Divided Republic of Mali.” Review of African Political Economy 40.137 (2013): 343–357.

    DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2013.799063

    In this creative and enduringly relevant article, the analysts discuss various axes of Mali’s crisis, looking at both local northern Malian dynamics and national Malian politics.

  • Raleigh, Clionadh, Héni Nsaibia, and Caitriona Dowd. “The Sahel Crisis since 2012.” African Affairs 120.478 (January 2021): 123–143.

    DOI: 10.1093/afraf/adaa022

    The authors survey dynamics in the Sahel, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso, in the wake of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012–2013. The authors emphasize jihadists’ ability to consolidate power, build alliances, and expand their geographical reach, while also discussing state security forces’ abuses and the uptick in intercommunal conflict.

  • Villalón, Leonardo, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the African Sahel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    Including forty chapters, the Handbook covers nine themes: regional history, national dynamics, the environment, development, politics and governance, intellectual production, religion, society, and migration and diaspora.

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