Sahel Security Watch: 5 deteriorating situations for NGO safety

A scene from the camp of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali in Timbuktu. The camp sustained an attack on May 3, 2017, which caused the death of a Liberian peacekeeper and injured others. Photo by: Sylvain Liechti / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

ABIDJAN — West and Central Africa have become hotspots for violence targeting aid workers and civilians, with attacks against humanitarians increasingly common across central and northern Mali, the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2017 crises across the region accounted for more than half of all violent incidents against aid workers in the world. Eighteen humanitarian workers have lost their lives this year alone. Until now, 232 NGO incidents have occurred in the CAR, 116 in Mali, 76 in the DRC, and 19 in Nigeria.

Internal, locally fueled conflicts have created both turbulent working conditions for aid workers and growing humanitarian needs. Across West and Central Africa, 34 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 8 million are displaced. Insecurity has put hundreds of thousands out of the reach of relief efforts. Local aid workers say that their support capabilities are restricted by local security conditions, but also a lack of funding.

Humanitarians in the region continue to push the “Not A Target” campaign to promote the acceptance of aid organizations, emphasizing foundations based on humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality.

A Sahel Joint Force, comprised of armed forces from Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, also aims to improve conditions. Joint force member countries will have a planning conference in Brussels in December to garner international support, aiming to secure 423 million euros for the coming year.

Here is a closer look at the conditions and specific threats in these four hotspots.


Tension remains high in the northern cities of Mali, including Timbuktu and Gao, while pockets of violence have flared up across central parts of the country since 2017. Experts believe violence in the latter region stems from a lack of governance and services in remote areas, creating “a very fertile ground for Islamic militants or radical discourses to take place,” Vincent Rouget, West Africa analyst at Control Risks, told Devex.

In August, two separate attacks on U.N. bases left nine dead and half a dozen injured. Information collected by the International NGO Safety Organization indicates that NGO incidents have doubled in 2017 over the same period last year, with the second most attacks against aid workers in the region. Certain organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, temporarily suspended operations during the summer months. Other agencies have completely removed expatriates from field offices across central and northern Mali, and have tightened travel and security protocols for workers.

Burkina Faso

The deteriorating security climate in landlocked Burkina Faso has concerned humanitarians and led to the recent evacuation of all Peace Corps volunteers. Militant groups here are suspected of having affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror affiliate that claimed responsibility for an Ivory Coast beach attack in March 2016. Some worry that Burkina Faso, if left unmonitored, could become the next stronghold for jihadists and a breeding ground for terrorists in the Sahel region.

Last month, an attack at a local cafe in the capital of Ouagadougou killed 18 people — mostly foreign nationals. Direct attacks against humanitarians have yet to be recorded, but aid groups worry about the trend of violence targeting expatriates.

Armed groups are more active in the northern region near the border with Mali, which some analysts say has been serving as a transit point for militants. Although difficult to verify, Long War Journal reported at least eight attacks, many by ambushes with improvised explosive devices within the past week. Attacks targeted Burkinabe troops and counterterrorism forces, they wrote.

In these areas, local “radical insurgents” are fighting against the state and looking to remove government presence in these areas, said Rouget. The government “has really struggled to respond,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to the legitimacy of state authorities in these central areas, and the approach to deploy more forces and have more military on the ground hasn’t quite been effective, in some cases even have exacerbated some tensions.”

Central African Republic

The Central African Republic is one of the most dangerous places in Africa for humanitarians to work. The country has seen more attacks against humanitarians than any other country on the continent this year.

Tensions involving Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-Balaka armed groups date back to 2013, when Seleka rebels ousted then-president, Francois Bozize. However, the latest wave of violence has forced 1 million people — more than one in five residents — to flee their homes. Roughly half of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The health system is in tatters, drinking water is scarce, and 2 million people need protection from armed groups. Last week, Cameroon closed its borders to CAR residents in light of the escalating violence.

“It is without hesitation to say Central African Republic is one of the most poorly funded humanitarian response plans globally,” Joseph Inganji, head of office for U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in CAR, told Devex. He categorized assistance priorities into three categories: new needs, protracted needs, and areas suffering from chronic underdevelopment. “Because of lack of funding, or due to insecurity, stabilization development efforts have not happened, and certain areas have fallen back into crisis,” he said.

With limited enforced governance outside of the capital of Bangui, populations rely on aid organizations to access basic services. But Inganji said teams are overwhelmed by the increasing need and limited funding.

In September, previously calm areas in western CAR were overrun by armed groups, causing many to flee into forested areas. As incidents increased, humanitarian organizations, including U.N. agencies, closed their field offices and relocated. Many moved operations to country offices in the capital of Bangui — one of the few locations in the country still under government control.

Internally displaced populations hiding in the bush face potential exposure to malaria and waterborne illnesses. With the dramatic influx of new development needs, UN OCHA and other partners have revised the Humanitarian Response Plan, which Inganji said remains only 9 percent funded.

Kasai, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since August 2016, fighting between a local militia and the Kinshasa-based government has created a dire humanitarian situation in the country’s southwest region of Kasai province. Villages have been attacked, burned, and destroyed, blocking access to fields and causing a massive departure of local populations. An estimated 1.4 million have been uprooted from this previously stable region since the unrest began last year. The total number of internally displaced in DRC has doubled since this time last year, due largely to violence in the Kasai region.

Many NGOs have left the area, citing security concerns. Security and logistics continue to delay aid efforts among the few NGOs still active in the region. Certain zones are completely inaccessible to cars or motorcycles, and others require negotiation with armed forces.

Rodrigue Alitanou, medical coordinator for ALIMA, an international humanitarian medical agency that stayed, told Devex they are targeting “urgent priorities such as primary health care treatments, including supporting primary health centers that focus on maternal health and providing primary medical aid.”

In September, the government hosted a peace and reconciliation forum meant to bring parties together to discuss long-term solutions to end fighting in the region. The event failed to make a significant breakthrough, and President Joseph Kabila accused international NGOs of supporting armed groups. Aid groups, he said, “have not had the courage to denounced the true perpetrator” of attacks. Such accusations could further complicate NGO efforts in the region, as comments like these could raise the risk of pro-government forces targeting NGOS.


An ambush earlier this week on a joint U.S. Army Special Forces and Nigerien patrol ended in three deaths and two injured, representing the first attack of its kind against U.S. Special Forces in Niger. The U.S. military is providing training and security assistance to Nigerien armed forces. The attack took place 120 miles north of the capital, Niamey, near the border with Mali in the country’s east. Here, militants associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been known to conduct cross-border raids.

Although Niger is less prone to attacks against NGOs and aid workers than other countries in the region, in August 2016, a U.S. NGO worker was kidnapped and his guardians killed at his home.

People living in the country’s southwest Diffa region continue to face the threat of Boko Haram. Farmers in this regions still live in fear of a resurgence of violence. UN OCHA estimates that 250,000 are still living in displaced persons camps.

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.