Civilians Adapt To Survive As Insurgents Fight For Influence In Africa’s Central Sahel

The Central Sahel region, including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, is plagued by violence and instability. But 'social contracts' are developing between the insurgent groups and local civilians, new research says.

Civilians in the conflict-torn Central Sahel have developed complex and innovative relationships with competing factions of insurgent and other extremist groups, forming  “social contracts” that have significant repercussions on lives in the region, a recent study has shown. 

The new research conducted by researchers at the University of Kent, funded by the British government and based on interviews with more than 150 people in the region, has documented the different ways extremist groups in the Central Sahel interact with civilians in the terrorist-controlled areas.

The research has described the relationship with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an Islamic State affiliate, as “exploitative” with a high level of violence. The relationship of Jama’atu Nusratul Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, changes according to circumstances, with the terrorists looking to force “peace pacts” on the populace. 

The relationships between civilians and terrorists range from being heavily involved in people’s lives, a  “maximalist” position, or a “minimalist” involvement, with not much interference with ordinary people. 

One of the key areas the analysis concerns is the different groups’ approach to Zakat, the portion of wealth Islamic principles require an individual to donate to the authority.

“A maximalist platform of government may include the delivery of justice, the adjudication of local disputes, the imposition of new marital norms, or crime fighting on top of Zakat collection,” the researchers explained. “A minimalist platform of government includes the collection of degraded forms of Zakat only.” 

In areas where the locals try to resist the terrorists’ hegemony, the research has found that they face more sophisticated and well-armed groups that force them to accept peace negotiations at gunpoint. 

Since 2012, the Central Sahel area of West Africa, which includes Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger Republic, has experienced a surge of jihadist violence. These extremists, who claim to be battling in the name of Islam and implementing its justice system, have caused widespread terror and displacement in local communities.

Thousands of civilians have been killed, and millions of others forced to flee their homes. Some haven’t got the capability to run to safety and have remained within the area controlled by the terrorists. They must build relationships with them in a complex situation. This has forced them into a love-hate relationship that sometimes creates a volatile “peace pact” between them.

Others have been trapped in the crossfire between terrorists and security forces or have become victims of conflict-related inter-communal violence.  Like the situation of some of the “repentant terrorists” in northeast Nigeria, some of them were forced into living in the Jihadi-controlled areas hoping to be rescued by the military forces, only to be later labelled as terrorists. 

In the midst of the conflict, indiscriminate military operations by the states have exposed civilian populations to a higher risk of attack by both sides of the conflict.  

The central Sahel’s terrorist groups are a complex web of factions with differing ideologies, tactics, and alliances. Some, like the ISGS, are connected to the global extremist networks of the Islamic State and have carried out sophisticated attacks on both military and civilian targets.

Others, such as JNIM, are more concerned with creating a local presence and enforcing strict Islamic law according to their interpretation. 

“The JNIM-occupied areas in Central Mali offer multiple illustrations of negotiated political orders, from which violence is not absent but where daily activities are possible,” Kent University’s research says.

Between these groups lie other armed militias, unconnected with the terrorists, but who at times interact with them through tribal or political alliances. 

Despite their differences, these groups are united in their desire to destabilise the central Sahel and impose their extremist vision on the people. They have used a variety of brutal tactics to accomplish this, including targeted killings, kidnappings, and assaults on governmental and civilian facilities.

This violence has had a devastating effect on the inhabitants of the central Sahel. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and those who stay are constantly on the verge of being attacked. The terrorists have also hampered farming, food production and delivery, exacerbating the region’s already dire humanitarian situation.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project Relief Web, “Since the beginning of 2022, the conflict in the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger) has caused 2,057 civilian deaths, more than double compared to 2021.” The numbers are getting higher in 2023, with violence showing no sign of abating. 

“Civilians are caught in a spiral of massacres and reprisals as the latest attacks show in Burkina Faso (Seytenga – 86 civilian victims) and in Mali (in the Menaka region – over 300 civilians killed),” it added. 

“The violence is causing large displacements with over 427,000 internally displaced in Mali (the highest figure since 2012).

“In Niger (Tillaberi & Tahoua regions) over 200,000 people are displaced. Burkina Faso, with over 1.9 million displaced, has one of the fastest growing crises globally.” 

A variety of variables, including weak governance, porous borders, and limited resources, have hampered efforts to counter the jihadist danger. International supports, especially from the French government, has been received with suspicion by the civilians as anti-French sentiments continue to grow in the Sahel. 

Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger’s governments have all struggled to provide basic services to their people, let alone successfully combat terrorists. This has created loopholes that are being used by the terrorists  in infiltrating rural and distant communities with little or no government presence, or attempt  to win hearts and minds. 

The “terrorists” however, provide at least a basic level of social services and economic support to communities in areas under their control, such as food and healthcare distribution, infrastructure repair, and conflict resolution.

In the central Sahel, terrorists  have a complicated relationship with the local people. On the one hand, they claim to be battling in the name of Islam and to be defending the people against corrupt and oppressive governments. On the other, many people have been alienated by the terrorists’ strict interpretation of Islam and brutal tactics, especially those who do not share their ideology or are targeted by their violence. 

They have imposed harsh punishments, such as amputations and stonings, on those who have violated their stringent moral code, including adulterous women and alleged spies. They have also frequently targeted schools and teachers in an effort to impose their own interpretation of Islamic education.

The terrorists’ relationship with local communities is complicated further by the fact that they constantly work in regions marked by deep historical, cultural, and ethnic divisions.

“Terrorists and other criminal groups have identified and attempted to exploit these weaknesses in governance. They destabilise countries and rally behind ethnic violence to further erode social cohesion,” wrote Haroune Sidatt, an analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Private Enterprise. 

“In the Sahel, ethnic groups are often spread across conventional borders and are at times more loyal to their own ethnic communities than they are patriotic to their home countries,” he added. 

This has caused tensions and conflicts among various groups, with some areas more supportive of one jihadi group than the other.

Both JNIM and ISGS have used inter-communal tensions in the Niger Republic and other Sahelian countries to recruit new members and advance their agenda.

Amnesty International has linked the worsening insecurity in Niger Republic to a large number of children being targeted and recruited by the JNIM, which operates in the Mali-Burkina Faso border.  

Different modes, different players 

The research says terrorists  in the Central Sahel rely on how they create social contracts with civilians by making them not just victims of war but silent actors. 

For example, the relationship between civilians and JNIM terrorists , which localises Jihadism, takes the shape of collecting Zakat, an obligatory charitable payment made by Muslims, typically calculated as 2.5 per cent of one’s wealth and assets. These are redistributed to locals or used for social services. 

This strategy intends to create loyalty and sympathy for the jihadi cause at a local level, especially in rural areas with no access to governmental support. 

ISGS’s relationship with civilians, on the other hand, has been described as “exploitative”, with the group collecting Zakat without returning it to the communities. 

Researchers found that “Zakat means two radically different things depending on which Jihadist outfit is in charge.”

While JNIM considers Zakat to be a spiritual obligation and communal support, ISGS views it as a source of income and support for the global caliphate. 

As a consequence, some communities have refused to pay the Zakat to the ISGS, resulting in violent attacks on them. For example, in 2020, residents of Niger Republic’s Mogodyougou village killed two ISGS tax collectors. 

In reaction, ISGS cracked down on village residents, killing over a dozen people. 

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of people killed by ISGS accounts for 66 percent of all deaths from organised violence in the Niger Republic in 2021 and roughly 79 percent of fatalities from violence targeting civilians in the country. 

“The terrorists’ ability to engage with noncombatant populations and govern their activities, in particular, allows them to carve out a long-term territorial and political influence,” the Kent University research says. 

This is because the total success of Jihadi groups in the Sahel is determined not only by their military power, but also by their ability to connect with local civilians. 

Inside the battle for supremacy

Previously working together, the two jihadi groups – JNIM and ISGS –  have since 2019 followed the trend of internal struggle for dominance among terrorists  in the Middle East and West Africa, fighting each other, escalating tensions about three years after their relationship deteriorated.

The two groups’ increasing struggle for supremacy has disrupted what experts previously referred to as the “Sahelian Exception,” which saw Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates work together to maintain relationships and backgrounds in which jihadi activities thrived. 

These two groups fell out after accusations of treachery and a lack of coordinated support in the war against their common enemy, which included the forces of Niger Republic, Burkina Faso, and Mali. 

JNIM has also accused ISGS of indiscriminately killing civilians, while ISGS has accused JNIM of being too lenient toward their enemies.

ISGS began as a splinter group from Al-Qaeda affiliate Almourabitun in 2015, but later joined the JNIM, a coalition of various Jihadi groups across the Sahel. ISGS left the JNIM in 2017 after its relationship with the JNIM deteriorated, culminating in a full-fledged war in 2019.

In 2020, JNIM and ISGS clashed, with the JNIM emerging victorious and becoming the most influential armed group in the region, taking control of some villages near the Burkina-Niger border and using propaganda to recruit people. 

ISGS has recently made a turn and won over places previously under the JNIM control. This is partly attributed to the official merger between Islamic State West Africa and the ISGS. 

The JNIM and ISGS have used inter-communal tensions in the Niger Republic to recruit new members and advance their agenda. They also promise to implement a justice system through Sharia and to cleanse their territories of external influence.  

Among the major reasons for the split were the JNIM’s unwillingness to share some of its territories with the ISGS, the ISGS’s hunting of JNIM members, and the Islamic State Central’s amalgamation of the ISGS into the ISWAP.

The infighting between the ISGS and the JNIM has weakened the Sahel insurgency, allowing Mali, Niger Republic, and Burkina Faso forces to take advantage of the situation. 

The danger of survival pacts 

Some communities that have become defenceless in recent years have turned to jihadist groups for peace and defence. This “survival pact” between terrorists  and civilians is not without issues, and those engaged have faced serious risks as a result.

The New Humanitarian has written about attempts made by some communities to make peace with terrorists after years of military operations failed to do so. 

One of the respondents from the Douentza district in central Mali stated, “It all started when we realised we don’t have the means to face them with arms,” he said. “We decided intelligently to come to a plan B, to come to a compromise.” 

The results of this survival agreement are sometimes disastrous. By collaborating with insurgent groups, civilians run the risk of being perceived as supporters or accomplices. They run the risk of facing backlash from the state’s security forces or other armed organisations as a result.

Furthermore, the survival pact exacerbates already existing tensions between various groups and fosters a climate of mistrust and fear within communities, making it difficult to resolve security issues. 

Peace between terrorists and the locals in the Sahel is also contingent upon complete adherence to insurgent groups’ interpretation of Sharia law and their governance. 

They request civilians to work based on the commands of the terrorists and to work with them by providing shelter and information that could help launch attacks on the government forces. 

By working with these organisations, civilians run the risk of endorsing their extreme ideologies, making it more difficult to marginalise them and diminish their power over time, even with the support of government forces. 

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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