The phrase ‘drought in the Sahel’ has been reported on in the international media over the past year, while scenes of starving children from the region have been plastered over TV screens by NGOs asking for donations. Despite this coverage, the intensity of the crisis and the desperate need for humanitarian assistance is still not being given enough attention, resulting in a fast deteriorating situation.
Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania are just some of the countries that are struggling with the effects of the crippling drought. What’s more, the challenges faced by these states have escalated due to the conflict taking place in neighbouring Mali, resulting in the entire region and its population facing threats from a range of instabilities.
In March 2012, Malian soldiers launched a coup d’etat in the Mali capital Bamako, ousting President Amadou Toumani Toure. One cause of the coup was the failure of the government to handle a rebellion by groups seeking a separate state in the north of the country. Taking advantage of this situation, Islamist and Tuareg groups seeking secession formed an alliance and took control of northern Mali declaring it an independent state that would be known as Azawad.
By mid-April, the leader of the coup Captain Amadou Sanogo announced that civilian power was to be restored to the country as a result of pressure and sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States. (ECOWAS)
However, this return to stability has not spread to the rebel controlled north of the country, and it is this conflict which has escalated, with the repercussions being felt across the entire region.
Background to the Conflict
The dominant groups leading the rebellion in Northern Mali are the MNLA (The Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad) and Ansar Dine.
The MNLA is a secular Taureg separatist movement which has the main aim to pursue an independently governed Azawad. Ansar Dine by contrast is an Islamist group whose role in the conflict has led to concerns being expressed from numerous African and international states due to its alleged connection with Al Qaeda. Although both groups appeared to have formed a type of loose alliance due to their shared aim of an independent state, their goals largely differ as Ansar Dine wants to see Islamic law imposed across Mali.
News of a possible agreement between the MNLA and Ansar Dine circulated in May 2012, based on the notion of turning their captured territory into an independent state. After talks between them failed, though, the collapse in their partnership appears to have turned the rebel groups against one another, leading to increased military conflict in the region.
On June 28th an Ansar Dine spokesman announced that the group, along with its other Islamist allies such as MUJWA and the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) had taken full control of northern Mali after allegedly driving out the MNLA. The MNLA have denied this and stated that they would continue to fight to protect citizens being terrorised by the Islamist groups.
The Impact on the Wider Region
The conflict has led to a large refugee influx into neighbouring countries, in particular Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Accurate figures from international agencies and the United Nations are hard to come by, but it is estimated that since January 2012 at least 320,000 people have had to flee Mali. This exodus has had serious repercussions for the entire Sahel, given that the region is experiencing a major drought. An influx of refugees on this scale is creating further problems in a part of the world where water and food shortages are threatening over 15 million people.
Burkina Faso is home to over 60,000 refugees who have fled Mali, putting a strain on efforts to assist the local population of 3 million people that are facing the consequences of failed harvests and poor rainfall.
Similarly, Malian refugees that have crossed over to Northern Mauritania are facing the effects of famine and over populated refugee camps; figures released suggested that there was only one toilet available for 600 refugees. Reports from refugee camps and villages that are home to Malian refugees in Niger illustrate the level of catastrophe. The drying up of local wells and lack of food has meant both the local population and refugees are facing malnutrition, disease and a lack of sanitation. Niger has the largest population that is facing starvation and is considered to be in the most critical state.
The governments of these countries were already failing to provide enough food aid for their own population effected by the drought, so catering to refugees from other countries is an almost impossible challenge.
ECOWAS has announced the formation of a 3000 strong regional security force that is on standby to enter northern Mali and assist the government in defeating the rebel groups that are currently in control. However, military action would be a last resort as ECOWAS is pursuing mediation and negotiation tactics, with the President of Burkino Faso communicating with both the MNLA and Ansar Dine.
The international community has largely refrained from commenting on the possibility of military action, with President Hollande of France stating only that the French would support an African led operation. Prior to the military coup both France and the US had pledged to provide some financial and human support to assist the then government in keeping control of the north of Mali.
There is a consensus between a number of Western nations that a foreign intervention would merely provide the rebel groups with support from those sections of the population that hold anti-Western sentiment, thereby strengthening the rebels and exacerbating the situation further. Other countries such as Algeria have pledged to provide some logistical support to Mali, but are unwilling to intervene any further than this.
NGOs, IGOs, donors and the United Nations continue to respond to the drought situation through providing aid, food and healthcare. However, the pressure being created by the refugee crisis has worsened an already dire situation.
In the midst of concerns around Mali becoming a haven for Islamists, with financial pressure being put on already struggling governments, and given the risk of precedents being set if secession is successful, it is all too easy to lose sight of the big picture – that millions of lives are being to the ravages of drought and conflict.