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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Hostage crisis in Gaza draws attention to scourge of kidnappings in Africa’s Sahel
TUNIS: The hostage situation in the Gaza Strip is receiving saturation media coverage, but attacks and kidnappings by extremist groups in the countries of the Sahel have been occurring for years with tragic regularity, garnering little attention.
The abduction of a group of mostly Christian girls in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram in 2014 was a particularly high-profile incident. But since then, extremist groups have continued to target civilians and military forces alike in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad with increasing regularity.
It remains to be seen whether interest in Gaza, where more than 200 Israeli and foreign hostages are being held by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, will prove helpful or harmful to the struggle to draw global attention to the situation in the Sahel.
The statistics speak for themselves. More than 180 kidnappings were documented in Mali and Burkina Faso in the first half of 2023 alone, averaging one per day. This aligns with the trend since 2019, with figures recording about 400 victims in each country annually.
Both of these countries recently experienced military coups, which led to the removal of French forces stationed there to support counterterrorism operations. These shifts in the security balance likely benefited those behind the kidnappings.
However, the overall landscape of kidnappings in the Sahel region has changed with time.
Once primarily driven by financial motives, with groups like Al-Qaeda amassing substantial amounts in ransom, the nature of abductions has since evolved into a strategic tool of warfare.
Despite occasional instances of foreigners being targeted, there is a discernible shift toward the kidnapping of Sahelians.
“This change is propelled by the expansionist objectives of insurgents,” Beatrice Bianchi, a Senegal-based consultant and Sahel expert with Med-Or Leonardo, an Italian think tank, told Arab News.
Conflict zones in the region are now seeing a surge in abductions, “reflecting the multifaceted role kidnapping plays in influencing, recruiting and gathering intelligence in the evolving conflicts of Africa,” she said.
However, within the region, “the prevalence of kidnapping extends beyond the actions of Islamist groups to encompass self-defense organizations and governmental forces,” as arbitrary arrests, detentions, and forced disappearances also classify as kidnappings.
As a result, the utilization of kidnapping by forces ostensibly tasked with safeguarding the civilian population has far-reaching repercussions.
- 180 Kidnappings in Mali and Burkina Faso in first half of 2023.
- 3.2 m Africans believed displaced by conflict in the past year.
“The erosion of trust in state forces among the local population becomes a catalyst for a troubling dynamic — people either reluctantly accept dealings with extremists or resort to armed resistance as a desperate response to the deteriorating security situation,” Liam Karr, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told Arab News.
The recent rescue of two Nigerian women abducted by militants nine years ago highlights the distressing cycle of kidnapping violence in Nigeria, further eroding public trust in state institutions.
In response to Nigeria’s perceived failure to protect its citizens from insurgencies, vigilante groups have emerged in the northeastern part of the country, where militant groups like Boko Haram are active.
Boko Haram’s overarching strategy is to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria and neighboring West African countries, governed by strict Shariah law, with a fundamental aim of opposing Western education and influence.
Despite efforts to free some individuals, the infamous 2014 Chibok incident remains a haunting reminder of the state’s failure, with almost 100 girls still missing.
Since Boko Haram was founded in 2002, it has been held responsible for up to 50,000 deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people. Its later affiliation with Daesh appears to have only intensified its brutality.
Analysts have also underlined a significant correlation between the number of kidnappings and the contested nature of specific regions.
In conflict-ridden areas like the eastern part of Burkina Faso, kidnappings have surged, with a particular focus on representatives of the state and other influential actors.
Conversely, in regions where extremist groups wield influence, kidnappings primarily target non-conforming individuals associated with opposition groups.
Bianchi points out the role of Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, another transnational extremist organization, whose expansion has been a driving force behind the surge in abductions in the Sahel.
“As the group infiltrates communities, kidnappings spike, targeting individuals associated with authorities and influential local figures,” Bianchi told Arab News.
Such attacks are designed to intimidate locals, gather intelligence and reduce potential threats to the group’s imposed order.
The impact of this dynamic is evident in the targeting of local populations caught between insurgent groups vying to expand their reach.
In the Mopti region of central Mali, JNIM’s strongholds see a focus on strategic targets like health workers, while contested areas witness a greater focus on suspected collaborators and rule-defying individuals.
Compounding the crisis, the surge in kidnappings is further exacerbated by the displacement of more than 3.2 million Africans due to conflict in the past year alone.
The total number of forcibly displaced Africans, now at 40.4 million, has more than doubled since 2016. This figure, exceeding the populations of Angola, Ghana, or Morocco, underscores a growing humanitarian challenge.
Displaced individuals, grappling with the challenges of relocation, are especially vulnerable to kidnapping, particularly women searching for food in rural areas.
“These incidents extend beyond individual tragedies, causing not only loss of life, displacement, trauma, and disruption on a personal level, but also leaving a lasting impact on the social fabric of the region,” Alex Nkosi, a Togo-based security and migration expert, told Arab News.
“This, in turn, undermines stability efforts in the affected areas.”
To improve trust in governing institutions, Bianchi said that proper documentation of incidents must be prioritized and robust security mechanisms put in place.
“Monitoring and documenting such violations is crucial not only for shaping government and international strategies but also for mapping incidents to enhance security measures and plan actions to reduce the population’s vulnerability,” she said.
Experts believe economic factors are also significant contributors to the heightened risk of kidnapping in the Sahel region. Although the region’s agricultural industry has lately seen growth, low-productivity and poor investment still prevail.
“In areas with a reduced presence of the state and little economic opportunities, parts of the population — especially youth — may be more attracted to join extremist groups,” Domenico Vincenzo Papisca, a Sahel expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told Arab News.
Papisca also highlighted the impact of poverty on the confidence of the population in their government and the overall stability of the region.
“This dual threat not only amplifies the risk of kidnapping but also poses challenges to state authority and trade.”
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