Human security challenges at the tri-border Liptako-Gurma area in the Sahel

By Badreddine El Harti, currently a Rule of Law and Security Institutions Advisor with the United Nations and a Special Adviser to the President of Burkina Faso.

The Liptako Gurma region condenses the history and socio-economic dynamics at play in the margins of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In the last few years, it has come to mirror how the emerging trends of violent extremisms impacts human security and exacerbates latent tensions at the borders with a riddle effect in the sub-region and beyond.

Border security presents a unique geographical and spatial zooming opportunity to delve into vulnerable and frequently marginalized areas of state and population security. Under current severe insecurity, it also enables to explore the challenges and opportunities to human security amid cross border and national decision-making dynamics.

The recent spread of asymmetric threats is indeed adversely re-shaping the Liptako Gurma’s security landscape. The growing insecurity in and around the tri-border area has brought close attention from sub regional and international levels. It was initially fed by borders porosity, farmer-herder conflicts and a deteriorating environmental impact. It has gotten worse by illicit trafficking, a weak presence of state authority and a deeply rooted social, political and developmental marginalization.

A salient feature of the Liptako Gurma social landscape remains the fragility of social contracts. The perception and reality of border populations being at the margins of their societies nurture a sense of mistrust in their states’ institutions. This frustration is fueled by long term grievances over the lack of social services, of infrastructure, of development opportunities and currently of security. These grievances fuel social frustration, marginalization, social fragmentation and communitarism. Consequences are already seen in the emergence of ethnic self-defense groups and an increase in cross border criminality and violent extremism.

In the last five years, the closure of schools and ethnic clashes along the border area have further contributed to induce fertile grounds for preying and recruitment by violent extremist groups. Long-term prevailing physical, human and socio-economic layers of complexity in the Liptako Gurma question the share of asymmetrical threats in the conflict dynamics. It requires a non-linear conflict analysis, including of the impact of national and international responses brought so far. In that regard, an approach to the challenges and opportunities to human security comprehensively might help inform the way forward.

A/ Challenges:
• A multi-layer crisis and the complexity of conflict analysis:
The Liptako Gurma ecosystem faces a multi-layer crisis that affects politics, security, humanitarian and health domains. The superposition of these layers has an adversely exponential effect on its fragility. Marked by coups and insurrections in Burkina and Mali and corruption scandals in Niger and Mali, the last decade has seen a marked political turmoil and volatility that has weakened the states authority and negatively impacted their border areas.
Regional triggers, especially the spillover from the Libyan conflict and the fleeing south of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat might have triggered the emergence of violent extremism in the Sahel but the fragility of the sub-region definitely yielded a breeding ground to its spread.
A humanitarian crisis has since seen over a million of people displaced, with hundreds of schools and health centers closed. The UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -OCHA- infographics below illustrate the severity of the humanitarian crisis in the Liptako Gurma, that converging lenses from the three surrounding countries show it as a center of gravity for the crisis in the sub-region.

The advent, early 2020 of the Coronavirus health crisis, adding to epidemic relapses such as malaria and hepatitis, imposing closure of borders and restraints of movements have cumulatively and adversely impacted human security along the borders and beyond. Harsh economic conditions, proliferation of illicit trafficking, radical preaching, deterioration of populations trust in state institutions have further contributed to a conducive environment for recruitment, logistics and operations support to violent extremism. The difficulty for national actors and international partners to comprehensively address, through nexus lenses, the multi-dimensional and overlapping crisis layers has limited the effectiveness and efficiency of the various action plans implemented.

• Lack of a nexus approach to human security:
While national strategies are theoretically multidimensional as would be displayed in the “Programme d’Urgence du Sahel/Sahel Emergency Plan” in Burkina for example, the reality will show that the states budgets have increased defense and security budgets at the expense of education and health for instance, especially since 2015, owing to the resource intensive security response to asymmetric threats. It shows that physical security aspects are prioritized over development, humanitarian and human rights ones.

Similarly, looking at the sub-region level, the example of the G5 Sahel Strategy displays a comprehensive scope, including but not limited to a security dimension while most of the funding is still earmarked to the G5 force. The visibility of the G5 is also mostly tied to the use of force in addressing the threats with partners following a similar path. As a matter of fact, for marginalized communities at the borders, unfamiliar with a significant presence of state authorities, witnessing heavy military and law enforcement deployment might be alarming. They end up feeling trapped between violent extremists and national troops with the perception or the reality of being abused by both.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) suffer in multiple ways. With the loss of their livelihoods and houses, they are frequently stigmatized and targeted by both national and adversary forces. Unless a nexus approach ties humanitarian responses to security, human rights and development ones in a holistic and cross-fertilizing approach, no pillar will be effective on its own, less so without synchronization. In the Sahel, there a two million IDPs with over a million in Burkina, mostly fleeing the Liptako Gurma. For IDPs to return home, the roads need to be safer, their lands demined, their markets, schools and health centers reopened, and security restored. For them to recover, development opportunities should be boosted, which also requires a secure environment.

Respect for human rights is key to reconstruct the populations’ trust in state institutions, especially in the security and justice domains. Therefore, for the sates to win the hearts and minds of their population, the use of force needs to firmly comply to international human rights and humanitarian laws. Stigmatization of local populations, including the Fulani has yet to be addressed through promoting social cohesion and renewed social contracts.

Without population trust, military and law enforcement deployments and operations will lack support and intelligence to engage asymmetrical threats. In the meantime, violent extremism keeps recruiting, garnering support and expanding its footprint and reach. Any strategy for securing the borders and for preventing and countering violent extremism needs a nexus approach that would factor all these pillars to be effective.

• Weaknesses of sub-regional human security approaches:
A number of poorly synchronized sub regional responses have taken shape the last decade to counter the emergence of violent extremism. The Liptako Gurma authority previously launched by Mali, Burkina and Niger to address the fragility in the tri-border area has recently extended its mission to encompass security matters. The G5 Sahel (G5S) coalition , regrouping Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Tchad has more recently come to attract significant international endorsement and donations. It displays a significant military footprint and while its buildup might have elapsed the role of the Liptako Gurma, its full operationalization has yet to happen.

Mali was the first theatre in the Sahel to launch a scaled fight against insurrections and asymmetric threats during the last decade. Four military forces operate side by side within its borders: the Malian Army (FAMA), the military component of MINUSMA (mandated under SC Chapter IIV), the G5 and the French Barkhane forces If we transpose the combined effect of these forces on the figure below by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), it could be argued that the cumulative tempo of these forces triggered continuous shifts of the epicenter of violent extremism. It would also have prompted a spillover of the attacks into the Liptako tri-border area. The maps illustrate indeed, based on the concentration of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) incidents, how asymmetric threats have spread and how the attacks shifted from North Mali to its center and progressively to the tri border area. With the shifting of centers of gravity, the threats spread further along eastern and western borders of Burkina, affecting the borders with coastal countries. Wooded areas such as the ‘W park’ along Niger and Benin borders have been providing temporary safe havens, enabling violent extremists to regroup, train and also pose serious risks for coastal countries.

Other foreign forces, especially the French Barkhane which has significant boots on the ground operate against violent extremism, embodying modern warfare in asymmetrical settings and the use of hard power in the sub region. While it has achieved relative military success jointly with the G5S and national armies, local forces and populations continue to suffer heavy losses. This shows that while military action has to be part of the solution, it certainly is not the solution nor a sustainable endeavor. Therefore, the involvement of foreign powers, spearheading the use of hard power against violent extremism might be giving heightened yet uncertain expectations to local authorities, pressured by persistent attacks, that the use of force can wipe out violent extremism as exemplified by a Burkinabé minister of defense messaging in 2017 that armed forces “will terrorize the terrorists” .
The buildup of military forces and of a doctrinal approach prioritizing hard power over other state instruments of power may have serious implications on the national security of the Liptako Gurma countries and on their efforts in security sector governance and reform for a sustainable peace and security.

• Challenges to the national security vision:
The Liptako Gurma security dynamics show the implication of border areas on national security in each of the surrounding states. The lead taken de facto by military forces in Mali, Burkina and Niger encroaches over their internal security apparatus. It is manifest in the steady militarization of borders which in turn is favoring a militarization of internal security and, a level up, a militarization of the political decision-making process. Overpowering the military without a due balance with governance and accountability mechanisms might create a conducive environment to unconstitutional power seizure by the military as witnessed with August 2020’s military coup in Mali.

If appropriately faced, asymmetrical threats can raise the resilience of states and populations, strengthen their security sectors but also their nexus approach to human security. Despite the tedious challenges and the human loss and displacement in the sub region, the adversity in front of violent extremism might trigger multiple opportunities, namely in build resilience, strengthening security sectors and refining human security approaches. The inadequacy of national responses in the Liptako Gurma can also be seen as tied to the absence of major conflicts in the History of the Sahel. This ‘non-necessity’ might have prevented the countries of the sub-region from building strong security apparatus. It has also caught them unprepared to face the recent emergence of asymmetrical threats. The current surge in building resilience and security postures can provide a sustainable peace and security should it be closely shaped by good governance.

B/ Opportunities
• Channeling CT led-hard power into comprehensive human security approaches:
The protracted conflict in and around the Liptako Gurma show the limits of hard power in preventing and responding to violent extremism. The military response remains an important part of the response but presents important limitations.

First, border populations have been traditionally at the margins of state authority. They have grown to be over-sensitive to weaponized ‘state symbols’ out of mistrust, of fear and of their non-identification with military forces that are not inclusive enough for them. Building social cohesion and the trust of populations in their state institutions is key to have their endorsement to the security strategies developed.

Second, military forces are not trained on internal security. They don’t have adequate tools such as judiciary police, ‘population-centered’ intelligence, etc. Their doctrine, equipment and training in the use of force is disproportional to population centered- security tasks. Pending training, they can be in support of law enforcement in preventing and responding to violent extremism as shown in countries with a democratic culture but cannot substitute to law enforcement. Their contribution to an effective protection of the populations remains pending to their transformation into third responders to internal security threats, in support of law enforcement.

Third, the proliferation of non-state or informal security and justice actors like the dogons, koglwegos, etc. play an important role in security but are often denounced for committing human rights violations and for their partiality, induced by their ethnocentricity. For them to effectively contribute to the protection of civilians, they need to be inclusive, institutionalized and held -together with the sponsoring state- accountable. A minimal standard will be to train -and supervise- them into upholding human rights as a key transitional priority to ensure they can safely contribute to enhance security where state presence is weak or absent.

Therefore, clarity in missions between defense and internal security actors, namely among military, paramilitary and law enforcement forces remain key to meet current and emerging threats. It is a fact that the very tools that can be used to protect a population can also be used to control it and a safe way forward would be to promote security sector governance and reform to ensure protection doesn’t grow into control. Security sector reform has the potential to shape the building up of effective, accountable and affordable security sectors that meet security challenges without reversing fragile democratic gains.

• Streamlining national and sub regional interventions
In strategizing against violent extremist groups, national or international forces need to factor and mitigate spillover effects in their end state. Military operations might degrade the capacity of violent extremist groups but would hardly hinder their movement towards safer grounds. Border areas in particular limit pursuits and enable these groups to regroup and recover readiness, to which the Liptako Gurma area offers a key terrain. An example of spillover can be seen in effect along MINUSMA’s shifting priorities. The first mandate of this UN Mission in 2013 focused on protecting civilians in North Mali. Six years later, a revision of the mandate shifted the effort to central Mali. In both cases, the pressure has contributed to progressively push spoilers south and eastwards, especially along border areas where the weakness of state authority enable safe heavens. With MINUSMA’s mandate being limited to the Malian territory, it was predictable that spoilers might flee beyond these limits and operate -in and out- retaining their capacity to operate. Likewise, when Barkhane and G5 forces jointly intensified their operations in 2019 in the Liptako Gurma , violent extremist groups spread along eastern and western borders of Burkina.

To enhance synchronization of sub regional approaches, it is essential for national and international partners to engage in a policy dialogue with the aim to ascertain political primacy in conflict resolution, identify win-win interests, prioritize nexus and no harm approaches and bridge the gap between programmatic and political supports. The partnerships have a key role to play in areas hit by violent extremism. As foreign allies deploy military units to counter terrorists they can choose to apply ‘a no harm approach’ in proportionally supporting the governance of security sectors, enabling their subordination to the civilian control of democratically elected officials. A policy dialogue on comparative advantages of bilateral and multilateral partners and on the pace of consolidating security governance versus security capacities would ensure not only efficiency but also accountability and affordability of security sectors. Importantly, it would enable to strengthen the rule of law, preserve fragile democratic gains and mitigate illegal disruption of the political power.

Border security in the Liptako Gurma can only be adequately addressed if considered within the larger framework of human security. There is also a necessity to prevent the drive of counter-terrorism operations from over-empowering the military and blurring the lines with law enforcement.
Militarization of borders and of internal security can have a serious impact on the populations trust in state institutions. It does further marginalize border populations with risks of inducing support to violent extremists’ groups. At national level, it also gives the military a vote in political decision-making processes and create, in absence of strong governance mechanisms, a conducive environment to a military appetite for power.

However, the adversity of asymmetric threats at the borders also offers states an opportunity to build able and accountable security forces and to use state instruments of power to protect populations at their margins, to reconstruct populations’ trust in state institutions and to nurture social cohesion and nation building for a sustainable peace and stability.