The Sahel: What needs to change - Civil society unites to advance new blueprint for peace in the Sahel

13/04/2021
Press release
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Bamako/Niamey/Ouagadougou – Around 50 civil society organisations from the Sahel region and wider international community have come together for the first time in support of a landmark report published today by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, outlining a new strategy for securing peace in the region after eight years of conflict.

“The Sahel: What needs to change” – new report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel

According to new analysis from the report ‘The Sahel: What Needs to Change – Towards a new people-centred approach’, threats to civilians have continuously increased in the region in spite of French-led international efforts since 2013 to halt the advance of jihadist groups across the Sahel (particularly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger).

- The rate of extremist attacks increased five-fold since 2016, with over a thousand in 2020.

- Over 2,400 women, men and children were killed in attacks by armed groups and in counter-terror operations in 2020 – the bloodiest year on record and a seven-fold increase since 2017.

- Last year, more civilians were killed or harmed by Sahelian security forces than by jihadist groups. Within the last four weeks alone, an undisclosed number of Chadian soldiers were arrested in Niger for the rape of several civilians (including an 11-year-old girl) they were deployed to protect; a UN report has documented the death of 19 civilians in a French air strike in Bounti, Mali in January 2021; and over 200 civilians were killed within a week in village attacks in border regions of Niger.

- Nearly 2 million people (including around 1.2 million children) have been forced by the violence to flee their homes since 2018.

- Nearly 15 million people are now in urgent need of assistance - an increase of 60% in the last year alone.

This new report recommends a radical reorientation from the current, primarily counter-terror and militaristic, approach to one that prioritises civilian protection, dialogue between all parties to the conflict, tackling corruption, improved access to aid and an end to impunity. Specific time-bound indicators are proposed to measure and promote progress in each area over 6 to 12 months.

The report is supported by an unprecedented coalition of 48 Sahelian, West African and international organisations, bringing together local groups (such as Burkina Faso’s Centre Diocésian de Communication, Mali’s Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme or Niger’s Réseau Panafricain pour la Paix, la Démocratie, et le Développement), West-African think tanks (such as African Security Sector Network, AfrikaJom or Wathi), international human rights groups (Human Rights Watch, FIDH), peace building organisations (CIVIC) and humanitarian NGOs (CARE, Médecins du Monde, NRC, Oxfam).

Quotes from spokespersons from the People’s Coalition for the Sahel

Dr. Niagalé Bagayoko, African Security Sector Network Chair

“In February, in N’Djamena, Sahelian Heads of State and President Macron were rightly lauded for calling for a “civilian and political surge” after having pursued for years a military only strategy. Lessons learnt from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria show us that counterterror campaigns that do not put the protection of civilians at their core fail to bring stability.
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“This new report outlines concrete, evidence-based proposals to better protect civilians and address the root causes of instability in the Sahel, including governance.

Prof. Abdoulaye Bathily (Senegal), historian, former minister, former Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Mali:

“Extremism in the Sahel poses a real threat to Africa, France, Europe and the wider world. But the idea that you can simply shoot or bomb extremists into submission completely misunderstands the governance issues that fuel the crisis. The fact that more Sahelian civilians were killed last year by those supposedly protecting them from jihadi attacks than the jihadis themselves, is the most effective recruiting sergeant the extremists could hope for”.

“Defeating extremism requires multi-party dialogue that includes women’s groups and civil society. It requires robust governance based on the defense of human rights, democracy, justice, equitable distribution of economic resources and the fight against corruption.

“If France and other international partners can work with Sahelian governments with the coordination of the African Union towards these goals and implement the People’s Coalition recommendations, stabilisation of the region is within our grasp”.

Assitan Diallo, President of the Association des Femmes Africaines pour la Recherche et le Développement (AFARD, Mali) :

“When a drum starts to beat wildly, it’s time to stop, or watch the drum fall apart. We live in a hellish context in the Sahel. Civilians are not only victims to be rescued, they are also part of the solution. This is why we must listen to Sahelian civil society. Heads of state have recognised that the military approach alone doesn’t work. They must now implement the new approach we are proposing.”

For interviews and further information, please contact

Marc de Boni, FIDH : mdeboni@fidh.org, T +33 6 72 28 42 94

About the People’s Coalition for the Sahel

The People’s Coalition for the Sahel is an informal alliance of several dozen Sahelian and West African civil society organisations, supported by international NGOs. Its objective is to promote and convince governments to adopt a new approach to the Sahel to protect civilian populations more effectively. The People’s Coalition was launched in July 2020, with the publication of its People’s Pillars, four priorities the People’s Coalition believes should guide any responses to the crisis in the Sahel.

To find out more about the People’s Coalition, visit: https://www.sahelpeoplescoalition.org/home

Key recommendations of the People’s Coalition report, ‘The Sahel: What needs to change’

Place the protection of civilians at the heart of the response to the Sahel crisis.

  • Make the protection of civilians, not just the fight against terrorism, central to the mandate of all military operations carried out by the states of the Sahel.
  • Systematically measure the impact of military operations on civilians, reporting this information in public statements.
  • Establish mechanisms to track the harm caused to civilians by all forces active in the Sahel.
  • Extend the practice of paying compensation where harm has been caused to civilians.

Support political strategies to address the crisis of governance in the Sahel.

  • The governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger should actively establish and implement or deepen political dialogue with all parties to the conflict and civil society, especially women and young people, at national and local levels, with the public support of international partners.
  • The various local mediation and reconciliation initiatives already underway would benefit from improved coordination in order to contribute to a comprehensive political settlement of the crisis.
  • Ensure the defence and security sectors are rigorously subjected to principles of good public expenditure management.

Respond to humanitarian emergencies.

  • Ensure humanitarian response funding meets the scale of need, taking into account the specific needs of women and girls.
  • Facilitate access to humanitarian assistance, to essential resources, and to basic social services for people in need without discrimination.

4. Combat impunity.

  • Only with a zero-tolerance policy for abuses committed by defence and security forces and militia, including acts of sexual violence linked to the conflict, can the cycle of violence be broken, and the authority of the state be restored.
  • Strengthen the capacity and resources of judicial systems in the Sahel to ensure fair and impartial investigations and accountability for abuses by perpetrators on all sides
  • Enhance protections for human rights defenders.
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