Fragile Future: The Sahel in the Wake of COVID-19 and the Ukraine War

New bedfellows: the leader of Burkina Faso's October 2022 coup, Ibrahim Traore, is welcomed by supporters holding Russian flags. Image: Reuters / Alamy

As countries across the Sahel suffer from heightened insecurity in a context of coups and resurgent terrorist threats, how should the international community respond?

In October 2022, Burkina Faso's new military junta decided to recruit 50,000 Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDPs) to fight against terrorist groups in the country, especially in places out of reach of state security forces. These VDPs have a state mandate to use force and receive two weeks of training and weapons from the government. This drastic measure began during Roch Kaboré's term less than two years ago, when jihadist groups already controlled some areas in the north. Two coup d'états later (in January and September 2022), the situation continues to deteriorate at a dizzying pace, and Burkina Faso, like Mali and Niger, has been facing violence from armed groups in its regions for more than 10 years.

The Sahel faces a multidimensional crisis: a superposition of security, political, financial, climatic, humanitarian and governance crises. Jihadist groups and armed militias have plunged several regions into guerrilla warfare. Nevertheless, the root causes of the emergence and expansion of these groups existed before the terrorist threat. The primarily military response of Sahelian governments and the international community has proven insufficient to address these root causes and to respond holistically to the crisis.

Among the structural causes are the uneven geographical distribution of the population and rapid population growth. The Malian, Nigerien and Burkina Faso population is extremely heterogeneous, and different communities are organised socially based on traditional structures (Peul castes, Tuareg tribes, indigenous and non-indigenous populations, and so on). Nomadic groups, sedentary populations, pastoralists, farmers and agricultural communities coexist in a delicate social balance, sharing natural resources. Intra- and inter-community tensions have been a source of conflict in the past, but have increased exponentially in recent years as population growth has strained already scarce resources. With an average of six to seven children per woman, the labour market has been unable to absorb the Sahelian youth, who are frustrated by a lack of opportunities. Climate change-induced desertification has diminished land and water sources, leading to increased conflict between communities. It is worth noting that the Sahelian states are young states with vast borders defined during the colonial era. The process of shaping the European nation-state took several centuries and multiple wars that accelerated the feeling of belonging to a common nation, social cohesion, and the state presence throughout the territory. The Sahelian states are still in the process of adapting governance models and institutions inherited from the colonial period to their own idiosyncrasies. The uneven distribution of wealth has led to a lack of development, as states have underinvested in infrastructure and basic services in traditionally less populated areas. Demographic pressure has made these services harder to access for the local population, fuelling distrust and harming state legitimacy.

Climate change-induced desertification has diminished land and water sources, leading to increased conflict between communities

With the arrival and expansion of jihadist groups including Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State in the tri-border region after the Tuareg revolution of 2012 in northern Mali, the Sahelian states and the international community have resorted to an aggressive counterterrorism strategy based on military operations in the regions occupied by these groups. The jihadist leaders are well-versed in local social dynamics, many having been community leaders in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso or southern Algeria before becoming jihadist fighters. Leveraging this knowledge, they exploit pre-existing inter- and intra-community conflicts, preaching a discourse that appeals to populations who traditionally feel marginalised by other communities or the state. For instance, Peul nomadic herders have been extensively recruited, initially propelled by the security provided by these groups and by conflict dynamics with other communities due to transhumance routes and natural resources. Other community groups formed militias, initially to defend themselves against banditry and the jihadist threat. Tactics became increasingly brutal as conflicts arose among these communities, including cattle rustling, the burning of agricultural fields and mass killings. The Tuareg revolution and the War on Terror have left the state unprecedentedly fragile and allowed bandits, criminals and armed groups to operate largely unchecked. In some areas of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, armed and jihadists groups mimic the role of the state and are providing basic services for the population, including jobs for the youth, security, justice and even education and healthcare. The severe security crisis has exacerbated the humanitarian situation, displacing over three million people in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. At times, due to the movements of jihadist groups and clashes with militias, village populations have been entirely displaced, leaving towns empty and further straining cities such as Gao and Menaka in eastern Mali.

In partnership with the Sahelian states, the international community has tried to curb the spread, proposing regional initiatives to combat cross-border threats such as the G5 Sahel. Even though Operation Barkhane achieved some military victories, with several jihadist groups beheaded, this was insufficient to improve security in the region. Meanwhile, the political crisis has been worsened by the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of improvement on the security front. This has led two democratically elected governments – those of Mali and Burkina Faso – to be overthrown in military coups, followed in both cases by a second internal coup within the respective transitional juntas. These new authorities have been widely supported by a population frustrated by a lack of resources, basic services or hope of improvement. These military juntas, and particularly the Malian one, have decided to diversify their counterterrorism and capacity-building partners to include countries such as Russia, believing that traditional partners such as France have failed to live up to their expectations. This provoked a major diplomatic crisis between France and Mali that has affected relations with the EU and UN missions in the country.

The political crisis in the region has been worsened by the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of improvement on the security front

Following France’s departure from Mali to Niger, this rhetoric against French policy has resonated in other parts of the Sahel and West Africa. As a culminating incident of this sense of frustration, some Burkinabe youths burned down the French Institute in Ouagadougou – displaying a dynamic that has never been seen before in Mali, despite the diplomatic crisis with France. In this new context of military juntas choosing different strategic partners, some European and Western countries are re-evaluating how to continue supporting stabilisation and the fight against terrorism, concerned about the influence of new actors with different approaches to stabilisation and preoccupied by the war in Ukraine at the EU’s door.

It is imperative to place the Western Sahel crisis in the context of a regional crisis of insecurity led by armed groups, be they jihadists or militias. Jihadist expansion does not exclusively affect the three countries discussed here. The Lake Chad Basin has traditionally been the region in West Africa that has suffered the most from jihadism at the hands of Boko Haram and more recently Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Other states that had not been so concerned about the threat, such as Ghana, Togo and Benin, are beginning to suffer attacks in their northern regions and the border areas with Burkina Faso. Armed groups and criminal networks take advantage of weak borders to carry out their activities. Therefore, regardless of the political crises and the added difficulty of working with transitional governments, a regional and holistic approach that includes all concerned stakeholders is essential in order to face this multidimensional crisis.

This Commentary expands on the content of an event held in October 2022 on the same topic.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Beatriz de León Cobo

Associate Fellow - Conflict, Justice and Security Advisor at First Call Partners

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