May 02, 2020


A total Regional Lockdown of frontiers and trade routes has successfully stopped all trade not just in the huge Sahara proper, but also in the thousand-mile-wide belt called the Sahel immediately to the South where innumerable others are also at immense risk.
The direct result of the sudden lockdown has been the triggering of immense and growing hunger, a growth in widespread abuse of fundamental human rights, and a huge Jihadist upsurge of activity.
While the whole world is now fighting tooth and nail to limit the spread of the deadly Coronavirus and to prevent countless premature deaths, conceivably to be numbered in the millions, the consequence of that one widespread type of action has been to suddenly stop dead a vital network of trading activities in and around large parts of the Western Great Sahara. Appalling hunger looms over large tracts of territory and this is happening in the midst of a huge Jihadist upsurge so that these separate overlapping crises together spell terrible extra trouble for different population groups and States.  The risks go far beyond the already globally catastrophic social and economic effects of the Great Pandemic which normally operates 'on its own' so to speak, as if that wasn't enough!
On the 13th of April, 2020, the Algerian authorities declared their national border with Mali to be closed and that all movement in and out of Algeria was suspended until further notice.  Niger followed suit that day, and similar restrictions were quickly imposed by Burkina Faso, Mauritania and other states around the region.  The immediate consequence of that total shutdown was that the whole Western Sahara and Sahel region a truly vast area, came to a total standstill.   Much may be largely inaccessible but all is totally dependent on trade and the free flow of goods.  The stoppage remains to this day. Food shortages and the imminence of famine have now become central topics of ordinary conversation for all the innumerable widely scattered inhabitants.  "The Great Sahara" region previously depended on food supplies coming out of Algeria. All the countries involved have suspended normal free movement. There is most impact in the northern parts of Mali and Niger where, although some indigenous Tuareg nomads are now settled, most are still nomadic, being accompanied in their travels by various livestock.
The lockdown on free movement has impacted badly not only on cross-border trade but on other types of movement; with one major exception, however.   Criminal gangs and terrorist groups are now ever more active and thriving, particularly flourishing in the vicinity of Tellabere, Inaker and Menka.  Last week, according to eye witness reports, the fundamentalist Islamic State in the Greater Sahara started to allure ever more young people into their ranks.  The group goes back to 2015 and is led by Abu Walid al-Sahraoui.
One of the organization's recruiting agents has recently been seen near Menaka and Inaker, Mali.  He was distributing both food and hard cash to some of the very poor families that are suffering the most. This same agent is one of the organisation's most active local leaders.  According to one local source, he has managed to recruit at least 35 young men in his area.  Another member of the same terrorist organisation appears to have a similar assignment and recruiting mission in the Tellabere region, close to a small village near the border of Western Niger, where it adjoins neighboring Mali.   Security sources in that area also suggest that the expansion of recruitment by terrorist groups is targeted mainly at young people from poor families.  Activity is thought to have increased tenfold since April 13, when many countries in the Sahel region closed their national borders.  The Coronavirus now threatens at least three million Africans according to the W.H.O.
The worst consequences of the current pandemic also now include numerous serious violations of human rights as stated earlier, alongside the hunger or starvation that is putting the lives of thousands on the line.  Incidentally, a recent OXFAM report warned that at least 50 million people are now threatened by impending famine in West Africa.
The Coronavirus has come on top of actual armed conflict that was already present arising from serious pre-existing tensions and insecurity.  It is particularly common in places like Northern Mali where some of the Tuareg have long been fighting the government of Mali in pursuit of the desired independent state to be called Azawad.
The increasingly fragile food-market situation in the region exacerbates things amidst all the tension, instability and conflict which is both between various armed groups and the very weak government of Mali in Bamako. Further South atrocities have also been taking place against the Tuareg and Fulani people.  In the last couple of weeks more than 36 Tuareg have been killed by the Nigerian Army.  That was at Ayarou and Tera areas.  One of the victims by the name of Abdulaye was only 27 years old when murdered by Nigerian Army soldiers near Tellabere. The victim, a Fulani herder was tied up and shot dead, along with his animals, before military tanks ran over the bodies. The Nigerian government has only commented on these stories with a bald assertion that its army has killed a number of terrorists in the area.
That dismissive Nigerian Army version of the truth has subsequently been refuted both by local civilians and by Human Rights bodies including the Imouhagh International Organization for Justice and Transparency.  The latter is a well-informed organisation concerned with the whole region.  They have now published a letter demanding a thorough investigation by the Nigerien Government, followed by impartial justice for the families of innocent victims. One victim in a different but adjacent post-colonial state was Attyoub Ag Allou, 40 years old, and the father of six children.  He is someone totally dependent on UNHCR support for survival and was living at Mentao Refugee Camp in the province of Djibo, Burkina Faso.  This man was arrested, before being tied up in front of members of his family and severely beaten.  Fortunately, he survived to tell the tale and managed to escape from a place where he was being held, a few days later. A second victim from the same refugee camp of Mentao was less fortunate however. He was a 60-year old blind man, hired by the camp residents to look after their animals.  He is alleged to have been arbitrarily killed inside the camp, right in front of his family.
In conclusion, we can only say that the need to write this troubling story arose when it became clear once we were in possession of the above facts that anyone with some power and ability to act, has a duty to do share the information. We should all try to re-focus public attention, however briefly at this time of universal self-centered distractions, on the much worse plight of the people in the places mentioned above.  We must ask our leaders to try to reduce the likely scale of the impending disaster.

By:  Akli Sh’kka, filmmaker, journalist and human rights activist