One of the deadliest militant attacks in the seven-year Islamist insurgency in Mali has stoked fresh anger over the government’s failure to halt jihadist raids, months after protests forced the prime minister to resign.
The Sahel region, the arid band on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, is experiencing unprecedented levels of violence as Islamist militants seek to extend their influence across West Africa. Terrorist threats are spreading in Burkina Faso and to border areas with Benin, Ghana and Togo to the south, according to the United Nations.
The increasing insecurity is draining state coffers in the affected countries: Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, and Mali allocate about a fifth of their annual budgets to defense.
The latest attacks on Oct. 1 targeted two Malian army bases, including one at Boulkessi in a desolate area near the Burkina Faso border where at least 41 soldiers died. Several dozen others are still missing and details about the raid have been slow to emerge. Al-Qaeda’s West Africa affiliate on Oct. 8 claimed responsibility for the raids.
There have been protests over the violence in the capital, Bamako, and other towns. As the government was compiling a death toll, the wives and children of army personnel took to the streets, demanding to know the fate of their loved ones.
“We wanted to know the situation of our husbands who are at the frontline,” said Namsa Kone Diallo, one of the organizers of the Oct. 2 march.
On Friday, soldiers’ wives blocked Prime Minister Boubou Cisse’s convoy from entering a military camp in the Mopti region. The soldiers demanded better equipment and training before the troops were deployed to dangerous posts such as Boulkessi.
Mali has been engulfed in conflict since a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters with ties to Algeria and Libya seized large swathes of the north in 2012. A French military intervention succeeded in pushing back the insurgents a year later, but al-Qaeda-linked militants are now encroaching on Mali’s more densely populated central region. A 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission is struggling to cope and often treated with hostility by the population.
“The Bamako government lacks a clear strategy on how to tackle the violence,” said Issa Ndiaye, a political analyst at the University of Bamako. “As the population continues to lose faith in the government and the security forces, I only see the violence escalating.”
The jihadist presence is increasingly fueling inter-communal conflict.
Attacks by Islamist militants and escalating clashes between farmer and herder communities in Burkina Faso has forced more than 500,000 people to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, 267,000 of whom have fled in the past three months alone, according to humanitarian organizations. More than 500 people were killed in 472 attacks and counter-military operations since last year, UN Refugee agency spokesman Mbogori told reporters in Geneva Friday.
In March, Malian traditional hunters razed an ethnic Fulani village and killed 157 men, women and children, prompting a massive demonstration in the capital, Bamako, that led to the fall of the government and the firing of top military commanders.
Analysts and social-media users have decried the slaughter, while opposition leader Soumaila Cissé issued a statement urging the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to take responsibility for failing to address the deteriorating security situation.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita Interview
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita
Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg
“Our country can’t continue to be a victim of these tragedies,” Cissé said. “It’s unacceptable.”
Faced with the spillover of Islamist violence, regional leaders have also expressed frustration. Five West African countries contribute to a regional force known as G5 Sahel, whose soldiers also came under attack last week.
President Mahamadou Issoufou of neighboring Niger urged Mali at a high-level Sahel summit last month to deal more effectively with the insurgency. Chadian leader Idriss Deby and Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore joined in the criticism, saying Mali needs to do more in the regional effort to stop the jihadists.
While the government earlier this year made a start with the delayed integration of former combatants into the army, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga’s resignation interrupted fundamental reforms, according to a UN expert panel. The new government initiated a political dialogue to try to find solutions for the institutional and security crises, but failed to appoint ministers from the armed groups that signed a 2015 peace deal, the panel said.
“At this point, I don’t even see the beginning of the end to the crisis,” the University of Bamako’s Ndiaye said.