Inter-communal conflicts in the Sahel: What if women held the solution? By Dr. Bakary Sambe Spécial

Timbuktu Institute- April 2019

With recent events in Mali and the risk of inter-communal conflicts extending to Burkina Faso and Niger, notably in the Tillabery region, it is vital that protection of populations, especially vulnerable groups including women, be reinforced. Women hold a vital link to agricultural activity despite being routinely disadvantaged in terms of management and distribution of land. Knowing that such conflicts stem from outdated modes of control over resources (pastures, farmland, theft of livestock), we must consider the risks faced by women exposed to intense activity and weakened by systems of distribution and in particular land distribution.

But beyond being merely “victims”, women and their various forms of manifestation, could constitute an important pillar in researching local solutions to conflict. Intercommunity dialogue, sensitization, and mediation stand out in particular.

To do so, women’s roles must be recognized and reinforced by States and all other actors intervening in the region; simple declarations and “gender approaches” are superficial and no longer suffice. In other words, resolution 1325 and its essential clauses and recommendations must be swiftly followed, particularly as inter-communal conflict begins to rise in Mali.

It is true that with the increasingly complex regional situation, a certain number of initiatives have been undertaken at the regional and international levels (conferences, roundtables, military operations, etc.). Following the same logic, UNWOMEN, fully integrated in the dynamic resulting from Resolution 1325 via the Bamako Declaration, has tried to alert decision-makers and the international community to take further action. Until recently, such action has been timid compared with the larger issue of women’s empowerment and women’s involvement in questions of peace and security. The G5 Sahel could have given more importance to this aspect, specifically an expert dedicated to gender within the permanent Secretariat in Nouakchott.

For decades, tensions have multiplied in West Africa including in countries where, until quite recently, it was difficult to imagine there would be theaters of conflict- let alone the most worrying conflicts in the region. The typical case study is that of Mali, once peaceful, where the North has been taken hostage by armed groups, sometimes claiming terrorist affiliation and sometimes claiming irredentism[1]. This Northern sickness has contaminated the Center, notably the region of Mopti, where interethnic and occasionally deadly conflict has arisen. Although Mali is the epicenter of these phenomena, these types of conflict have been reported in Burkina Faso in Dori (province of Séno, Sahel region), Soum, and other hotspots in Oudalan.

Longstanding conflicts between herders and farmers also complicates intercommunal violence rooted in countering terrorism [2]. It should be noted that within this type of conflict, the management of land which is often discriminatory towards women, is at the forefront of this complex and sensitive issue. This situation has provoked significant displacement of people, not sparing women, to other countries or towards the capital including Sénou- only a few kilometers from downtown Bamako. This Malian conflict has ultimately spilled over into almost the entire band of the Sahel, resulting in extremely high vulnerability.

Leaving behind the simplistic paradigm of victimhood

Women are often presented as simply « victims » of conflict both in regard to communal violence and acts of terrorism. Their roles as actors, stakeholders, or mediators are neglected or relegated to the background in conflict analysis.

This image of « victims » that dominates perception was amplified in April 2014, when 276 high school girls were abducted in Chibok by Boko Haram, warranting indignation from the international community. Despite counterinsurgency operations by Chad, Niger, and Cameroon to weaken the Nigerian jihadists, these attacks continue to make regional headlines.

This wave of abduction of women and girls continues in part to force some into marriage, but also to train others as militants to carry out attacks. But beyond this brutality that has been mediated by the magnitude and spectacular nature of the phenomenon, lies a more complex reality and process worth revisiting.

It is often forgotten that over the past twenty years, women have determined methods of countering religious extremism before it became a national security concern. Well before Nigeria but without the same level of international interest, Mali was the scene of a long and fraught debate between Islamist fringe groups and women’s organizations. This came about after the vote to pass a new family law with consolidated measures favoring women’s rights in 2009. In this scenario, women were still considered victims of religious extremism. Yet they have been at the forefront of the struggle against the radicalization of discourse and religious attitudes. Politicians imprudently waited until extremism became a security issue to worry about it.

But the surprising appearance of female suicide-bombers in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin has revitalized the rapport between women and violent radicalization. It has launched a debate, far from being concluded, on the identity of Boko Haram’s female suicide-bombers, whose first attack was carried out on June 8, 2014, in Gombe State, Nigeria. Attacks by female suicide-bombers have multiplied since February 22, 2015 ; a 7 year-old girl killed seven people in an explosion in Potiskum. Another woman used a belt of explosives at the Damaturu bus stop, resulting in a similar death toll. This phenomenon raises new questions that have yet to be answered, as it is new to and was unexpected in the Sahel. Its appearance could be due to a globalization of operating methods of radical movements that would have otherwise not appeared in the Sahel and which has standardized terrorist attacks despite differing socio-cultural contexts.

From « victims » to bearers of solutions: women’s initiatives as part of a local and inclusive solution

Strangely, in the world of counter terrorism and peace initiatives, the important roles women play in community resilience (as with the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu and Gao) are often omitted. The low-profile women’s march resistance in the communities have subsequently shaped the resilience of local populations following an unprecedented shock in terms of a take-over and reconciliation. 

In Nigeria, the role of women leaders - like a pastor from Jos, capital of Plateau State who organizes inter-religious meetings in a climate of great distrust – is notable. This pastor unites people around messages of peace and conciliation despite the impulse and persistence of a belief in a country divided between Northern and Southern states. It is important to recall that in this country, disputes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen cause killings that are not based in any ideology but caused by divergences parallel to those in the Macina, central region of Mali.

A recent study by the IOM established a potential link between these facts and the influence of extremist groups in the Lake Chad Basin on geographic proximity, commercial exchanges, and linguistic connections with Nigeria. Moreover, one of the most vulnerable social strata, in this case women, suffered the exactions of violent extremist groups early on. In 1993, the secretariat of the Women’s Association of Niger, located in Zinder, was burned down by Islamist assailants under the pretext of « defending the values of Islam » and purifying « practices and traditions »[3]. Also, it has been noted in a recent study of violence and the threat of terrorism on the youth of Zinder, almost all the women interviewed in identified households refused to speak in the absence of the head of the family[4]. This causes an issue for women’s expression in the public sector and their empowerment, specifically in terms of exercising their rights, despite their demonstrated capacities to resolve conflict and in zones afflicted by conflict.

In Chad, a country developing resiliency despite the pressure of its security situation, is building a rare community resilience initiative with the inestimable support of women. Active within the interfaith platform in a country that is somewhat religiously diverse, « preaching women » and other religious leaders have developed a number of initiatives particularly in the Lake Chad province, an area that is considered a natural extension of the security crisis in Northern Nigeria.

Following the same logic, sensitization caravans in the province of Kompienga (East region), Burkina Faso, are the work of women active in the consolidation of peace and conflict prevention and have maintained an indispensable social link mediation and conflict resolution.

Despite the multidimensional crisis that afflicts the country, more than 30 Malian women have self-organized based on their advocacy capacities into an informal group named « women and consolidation of peace ». They lead reflections on the partition of women in the search for solutions to intercommunal conflicts and national reconciliation at a moment when politicians are constantly trapped within their own contradictions and their difficulty in creating synergies beyond partisan logic in a country faced with multiple sources of tension.

Thus, the Bamako Declaration, announced after a meeting of UNWOMEN in the Malian capital, should be operationalized via the integration of women free from socio-religious pressures and constraints, as called for by YagueSamb (Head of Conflict Resolution, Timbuktu Institute)[5]. To this effect the Timbuktu Institute, which builds community resilience through inclusive dialogue, supports and appreciates the recommendations of the Bamako Declaration, notably :

-        The execution of a national and regional framework of cooperation between women’s organizations and religious groups

-        The integration of radicalization and violent extremism modules into school and university curricula

Within its Observatory on Radicalization and Religious Conflict in Africa (ORCRA) and the activities of its program « Educating for Peace » within institutions of education (Mothers for Peace), the Timbuktu Institute actively participates in the « sensitization of women, young people, thought leaders (religious and customary authorities), communities, and the media on the effects and consequences of violent extremism, » recommendation number 5 of the Bamako Declaration that must urgently take shape.

More in depth research must be conducted to better document the non-negotiable implication of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts at a moment when the complexity of intercommunal crises necessitates an approach based on local strategies instead of military or security interventions.