The current situations of the countries that make up the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin (LCB) regions[1] are crucial for the stability of West Africa since they represent half of the sub-continent[2] and have been battling insecurity for years. Despite years of interventions aimed at addressing the myriad of structural issues facing the regions, these countries continue to grapple with multiple vulnerabilities to fragility and protracted conflicts – which include climate change impacts, violent extremism, organized crime, poverty, political instability and a weakened social contract between the countries’ respective governments and populations. The stakes continue to rise as vulnerabilities combine to exacerbate one-other, as evidenced by the consistently poor FSI ranking of Sahelian and LCB countries year-on-year.

Burkina Faso featured as the third most worsened country in 2021 and also as the fourth most worsened country in 2019[3] in the annual FSI rankings. In line with this negative trend, humanitarian funding for Burkina Faso rose from $117 million in 2019 to $311 million and $384m in 2020 and 2021, respectively[4]. While Burkina Faso’s neighbours, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, do not feature on the top-five most worsened list, they are also ranked poorly across several indicators, particularly Refugees and IDPs and Security Apparatus. Despite growing national efforts and external assistance, conflicts continue to intensify and spiral with increasing attacks on civilians, growing food insecurity and massive displacement across the region. West Africa has recorded a fourfold increase in food insecurity since 2019, with seven Sahelian and LCB countries representing the most severe cases[5]. This highlights the Sahel’s growing need for humanitarian assistance, amidst a backdrop of the Burkinabé insurgency that resulted in one of the world’s fastest growing displacement situations in 2021, with rising internally displaced populations and pressures of refugee outflows to neighbouring countries[6]. The World Food Program has stressed that the number of extremely food insecure people in the Sahel and West Africa will hit 35.7 million in 2022 and immediate, efficient, and coordinated action is needed to respond[7].

The drivers and impacts are not only interwoven, they are also multidimensional, structural, dynamic and encompassing of a wide range of actors. Violent conflicts within and across countries involve a steadily increasing number of non-state actors such as jihadists, smugglers, political rebels, bandits and self-styled vigilante groups. The multiplicity of terrorist groups operating across the regions alone makes tackling violent extremism a complex problem that transcends international borders. Although military interventions by national and international actors have recorded successes in reclaiming territories previously overrun by terrorists[8], Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) activities remain widespread in Nigeria and Niger; Mali continues to be an epicentre of Al-Qaeda and ISWAP affiliated activities; and Burkina Faso has endured spill-over of terrorist activities across Malian borders[9]. These actors are enjoying increased access to intelligence, training cells, arms and financiers based on their expanded local and international networks – making their operations increasingly sophisticated, with greater leverage over vulnerable youths and communities needing livelihoods opportunities and essential public goods not provided for by the state.

Violent extremism is therefore combining with several long-term economic, environmental, social and political weaknesses across the region, acting both as a cause and effect to heighten the occurrence of varied violent conflicts and limitations of state control. Sahelian and LCB countries are amongst the world’s poorest countries[10], with significant climate vulnerability, an agriculture-heavy subsistence economy, neglected border regions and a long-term presence of illicit transnational crime networks that thrive based on economic and political leverage. Since over 80% of this regions’ population rely on agriculture and pastoral activities[11], climate change is putting significant pressures on limited natural resources and exacerbating resource competition which worsen pre-existing ethnic-tinged and intercommunal conflicts, as well as other fragility risks. The Lake Chad has reportedly lost approximately 90% of its volume over the years[12], further limiting livelihood options in the region alongside access limitations caused by ongoing military operations to decimate terrorist activities in the region. Farmer-herder clashes have intensified and spilled into several parts of Nigeria[13], due to a climate change-induced increase in pastoral mobility and worsening social inequalities. Similarly, in Burkina Faso and other Sahelian states, there are increasing violent clashes over pastoral access and competition[14].

Largely unimpeded transnational arms proliferation and ungoverned borders are also reinforcing the spiraling of resource competition into armed banditry, with terrorists strategically capturing natural and economic resources for more control and financial inflows. There are cases of insurgents taxing communities for fishing in the Lake Chad Basin[15], as well as involvement in Burkina Faso’s largely informal artisanal gold mining sector[16]. In addition, population growth[17] is compounding pressures on limited resources, services and climate-resilient livelihoods options – making youths and communities increasingly vulnerable to terrorists’ recruitment strategies and offer of protection or alternative statehood[18]. Since a weak social contract already exists where neglected communities and populations have barely enjoyed the presence and provision expected from their governments, insurgents and numerous self-defence groups offer communities some respite. There are, however, human rights abuses associated with these actors, as well as with military offences by states – again, contributing to persistent social tensions, conflicts, uprisings and threats to democracy. Yet, the regions’ democratic institutions lack adequate capacity to effectively meet the multifaceted challenges of mitigating fragility risks, combating terrorism, managing conflicts, meeting humanitarian needs, stabilizing post-conflict situations, facilitating justice and offering sustainable and equitable opportunities for climate-resilient livelihoods. Based on the transnational drivers and impact of the insecurity across the region, effective regional coordination and political governance remain critical for addressing the situation.

Unfortunately, national and regional political instability and incoherence are setting back the desired progress. Burkina Faso recently experienced a coup that ousted its democratically elected President in January 2022 – representing West Africa’s fourth coup in two years[19]. Poor regional cooperation also lingers with Mali’s recent exit from the regional G5 Sahel force, on the heels of the withdrawal of French troops from the country[20]. It is evident that these developments have further widened the vacuum and that complex structural weaknesses continue to jeopardize the efforts of governments and their partners to contain and stem insecurity in the Sahel and LCB. Despite the current primacy of the situation in Ukraine in the media and on the international agenda, stakeholders must acknowledge and address the rising stakes that the deteriorating situations in the Sahel and LCB pose – not just for West Africa but on a global scale.


[1] Sahel countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Cape Verde, Senegal, the Gambia  ; LCB countries: Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon https://reliefweb.int/report/cape-verde/west-africa-sahel-sub-region-appeal-no-01412003

[2] World atlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/geography/west-african-countries.html

[3] Spotlight on Burkina Faso in 2020 FSI Report. https://fragilestatesindex.org/2020/05/10/regional-instability-drives-worsening-in-burkina-faso/

[4] UNOCHA (2021). https://fts.unocha.org/countries/36/summary/2021

[5] Relief Web (2022). For the third consecutive year, Sahel and West Africa countries are facing exceptional food and nutrition crisis. https://reliefweb.int/report/burkina-faso/sahel-and-lake-chad-regions-fao-joins-global-effort-reinforce-response-food

[6] UNHCR (2022). Burkina Faso recorded a 50 per cent increase in refugees fleeing to neighboring countries like Cote d’Ivoire. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/briefing/2022/2/61fcf11c4/insecurity-drives-burkinabe-exile-further-straining-fragile-sahel-region.html

[7] (WFP, 2021) https://www.wfp.org/news/conflict-economic-fragility-and-rising-food-prices-drive-hunger-west-and-central-africa

[8] GIGA (2020). Military operations in the Lake Chad region helped recapture a territory the size of Belgium in northern Nigeria https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/giga-focus/growing-state-fragility-in-the-sahel-rethinking-international-involvement

[9] Fraym (2020). Malian insecurity expanded first into Burkina Faso’s northern regions and then spread primarily to its eastern regions. https://fraym.io/blog/violence-in-burkina-faso/

[10] Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (2016). https://www.eda.admin.ch/dam/deza/en/documents/laender/factsheet-lake-chad_EN.pdf

[11] European Commission (2022). https://ec.europa.eu/trustfundforafrica/region/sahel-lake-chad_en

[12] Wilson Center (2020). https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/Climate%20Change%20and%20Violent%20Extremism%20in%20the%20Lake%20Chad%20Basin%20Key%20Issues%20and%20Way%20Forward_0.pdf

[13] International Crisis Group (2021). An estimated 1,000 violent farmer-herder clashes occurred between 2010-2019 compared to less than 100 in 2000-2016; with a south-ward spread beyond Middle-belt states and gendered dimensions.

[14] International Crisis Group (2020). https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/burkina-faso/287-burkina-faso-sortir-de-la-spirale-des-violences

[15] Institute for Security Studies (2019). https://issafrica.org/iss-today/economics-of-terrorism-in-lake-chad-basin

[16] The Nordic Africa Institute (2021). https://nai.uu.se/news-and-events/news/2021-09-21-insecurity-in-burkina-faso—beyond-conflict-minerals-the-complex-links-between-artisanal-gold-mining-and-violence.html

[17] Population in LCB countries is growing and expected to double over the next 20 years.


[18] Adelphi (2019). There is a self-reinforcing feedback loop between increasing livelihood insecurity, climate change vulnerability, and conflict and fragility. https://www.adelphi.de/en/system/files/mediathek/bilder/Lake%20Chad%20Climate%20Risk%20Assessment%20FINDINGS%20September%202018.pdf

[19] Institute of Security Studies (2022). https://issafrica.org/iss-today/what-caused-the-coup-in-burkina-faso

[20] Aljazeera News (2022). https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/16/mali-government-pulls-military-out-of-regional-g5-sahel-force

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