Sahel: Inequality Not Religion Driving Conflict in West Africa

A new analysis by Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Church in West Africa looks at the conflict at the heart of the world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis

In the Sahel region of West Africa, which is quickly turning into the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, deeply rooted economic inequality, not religious beliefs, are driving the surge of violence, according to a new report just released by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

The study, entitled “Steps Towards Peace,” examined the root causes and impacts of the spiralling conflict across three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – and found that insufficient and inequitable access to wealth, livelihoods and natural resources are the driving forces behind the deterioration of the social fabric and surge in violent conflict.

“Our report underscores the fact that while the crisis may be painted by some as religious or ethnic in nature, it’s actually a result of perceived inequality and a growing discontent with government,” said Jennifer Overton, CRS’ West Africa regional director. “Those living in the Sahel deserve good governance, security, access to livelihoods and improved living conditions.”

The humanitarian needs across the Sahel are staggering, with upward of 1.8 million people displaced from their homes by the violence. According to the United Nations, more than 20 million people, half of them children, are in need of life-saving assistance and protection – the highest number ever recorded in the region.

According to the analysis, jihadists and organized crime groups are exploiting the poor and unemployed, small communal grievances and mistrust of national political leadership to recruit fighters to carry out acts of violence. Religious extremism does not appear to be a driving factor for the unrest. In fact, many of those surveyed openly stand against religious extremism.

“Whether one is a Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Protestant or of a traditional African belief, terrorism has spared no one and causes everyone to lose their livelihoods, their home, activities, life and freedom for those who have been taken hostage,” said Monsignor Laurent Dabire, President of the Burkina-Niger Episcopal Conference.

Community and religious leaders – both Muslim and Christian – have stood up for unity and peaceful resistance and as a result are the targets of assassinations in attempts to undermine their influence.

“In West Africa, our brothers and our sisters are being chased, slaughtered and kidnapped. Our homes and our farms have been burned. Women and children have been mercilessly targeted. Others are being enlisted by various ideological leaders. This has forced people to leave, abandon their land for oftentimes harsh landscapes,” said Théodore TOGO, secretary-general of OCADES (Caritas/Mali). “Lives are broken, families displaced and children out of school. We are tired of war and violence. We call for all local stakeholders to come together and focus on the healing of humanity.”

For the report, CRS conducted focus groups, interviews, and surveys across 20 demographics, including farmers, herders, local militias, and religious and traditional leaders. The analysis was conducted in April 2020 and included those living in the epicentre of the violence, in the Liptako–Gourma area, which straddles Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

According to the study, those surveyed stated there could be no meaningful peace without security. CRS, which has worked in the region for more than six decades, calls for an increased investment in peacebuilding, and for more involvement of women, youth and local leaders as part of national and regional plans to resolve the crisis.

In November 2019, the Catholic Church in West Africa, with support from CRS, launched the Sahel Peace Initiative to respond to the millions of people displaced from their homes without livelihoods or enough food, and to promote peacebuilding activities that can achieve long-term stability and development.

“The daily atrocities we’re seeing reflect an extremely complex reality that is rooted in despair,” said Patrick Williams, CRS’ program manager for the Sahel Peace Initiative. “We’re talking about communities where the number of unemployed people far exceeds the number of those able to earn a meaningful living.”