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Comparing explosive violence patterns in the Horn of Africa and Sahel

Introduction

The Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions, stretching across the continent from east to west, are fraught with numerous challenges. Conflict, climate change, unconstitutional changes in government, and terrorism are pervasive threats. These escalating trends of fragility, conflict, and violence underscore the urgent need for effective responses, impacting global stability and development.

Despite sharing common challenges, the regions differ significantly in geography, demographics, and size. These differences influence how fragility manifests, including the use of explosive violence. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for developing tailored strategies to address the unique security and developmental needs of each region.

Figure 1: Map of the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions

Key Findings and Insights

Utilising data from Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) explosive violence monitor – which tracks English language media sources reporting on explosive attacks around the world – this research reveals stark contrasts in explosive violence trends between the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. While both regions experience significant violence, the actors, motivations, and trends differ markedly.

  1. Volume of Violence: The smaller Horn of Africa region accounts for over 50% of explosive violence incidents (1163 events) compared to the Sahel (1090 events) from 2010 to 2022. This disparity calls for deeper analysis to understand underlying causes. One possible explanation could be the concentrated presence of extremist groups in the Horn, which have a long history of utilising explosive violence to achieve their aims.
  2. Locations of Attacks: Most attacks in both regions occur in populated areas, with roads, armed bases, villages, and urban residential settings being common targets. However, markets are frequently attacked in the Sahel, whereas entertainment facilities are targeted in the Horn. This difference in target locations may reflect varying strategic objectives and operational capacities of militant groups in each region. For instance, targeting markets in the Sahel might be aimed at disrupting economic activities and creating widespread fear among civilians.

Figure 2: Most Frequent Locations for Explosive Violence

  1. Targets and Perpetrators: In the Horn of Africa, armed groups and state representatives are the primary targets. In contrast, the Sahel sees military or police institutions and civilians as common targets. Non-state actors perpetrate most violence, but state-sanctioned violence also plays a significant role, especially against armed groups. This indicates a complex interplay of power dynamics where state and non-state actors vie for control and influence, often at the expense of civilian safety.

Figure 3: Most Intended Targets of Explosive Violence

Figure 4: Most Common Perpetrators of Explosive Violence

Figure 5: Most Common Targets of Explosive Violence (disaggregated by perpetrator)

  1. Weaponry and Techniques: The Sahel predominantly uses non-specific IEDs and roadside bombs, whereas the Horn of Africa employs airstrikes and IEDs. Activation methods are often unclear, but suicide attacks and victim-activated devices are prevalent. The choice of weaponry and techniques can be attributed to the availability of resources and the operational tactics preferred by different groups. For example, the use of airstrikes in the Horn of Africa may be linked to state military strategies aimed at countering insurgent activities from the air.

Figure 6: Most Used Type of Explosive Weapons and Activation Method

  1. Hotspots: Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, and Sudan are the most affected by explosive violence. Civilian casualties are highest in Nigeria and Somalia, while armed actors suffer most in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger. These hotspots highlight regions where conflict is most intense and where interventions are urgently needed. The high civilian casualties in Nigeria and Somalia underscore the severe humanitarian impact of explosive violence, necessitating robust protective measures and support for affected communities.

Figure 7: Heatmap of Number of Recorded Incidents of Explosive Violence

Figure 8: Civilian (Orange) and Armed Actors (Blue) Casualties due to Explosive Violence

Contextual Analysis

The historical context of the Horn of Africa includes colonial and post-colonial struggles, leading to protracted conflicts and state fragility. Contemporary drivers include state and non-state violence, exacerbated by issues like climate change and food insecurity, which push individuals toward radical activities. The legacy of colonialism has left deep scars, creating fertile ground for grievances and insurgencies that exploit historical injustices.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the conflict in the Tigray region is rooted in long-standing political and ethnic tensions. The use of airstrikes and other forms of explosive violence by both state and non-state actors has resulted in significant civilian casualties and displacement. Similarly, in Somalia, the ongoing conflict with al-Shabaab, an extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, continues to destabilise the region, with frequent use of IEDs and other explosive devices.

The Sahel, comprising twelve diverse countries, faces unique challenges such as weak governance, resource competition, and increasing coups. Militant and jihadist groups exploit these divides, perpetuating cycles of violence. The region’s vast and porous borders make it difficult to control the movement of weapons and fighters, exacerbating the security situation.

In Mali, the presence of jihadist groups like Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has intensified the conflict, with frequent attacks on military and civilian targets. The competition over natural resources, such as gold and other minerals, fuels conflict as various groups vie for control. This is further complicated by the involvement of international actors, including peacekeeping missions and foreign military interventions, which sometimes lead to unintended consequences and collateral damage.

Broader Challenges

Both regions grapple with interconnected threats, including environmental crises, arms proliferation, and political instability. Terrorist groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab exploit these conditions, using explosive violence to achieve their aims. The indiscriminate nature of these attacks often results in significant civilian casualties, eroding trust in government and international institutions.

Climate change is a significant threat multiplier in both regions. In the Horn of Africa, recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall patterns disrupt agricultural production, leading to food insecurity and mass displacement. These conditions create a breeding ground for radicalization as individuals seek alternative means of survival. Similarly, the Sahel is experiencing severe desertification, which exacerbates competition over scarce resources and fuels conflict between different communities.

Arms proliferation is another critical issue, with weapons easily accessible to militant groups. The illicit arms trade, often facilitated by weak border controls, allows these groups to acquire sophisticated weaponry, including IED components and explosives. This not only enhances their operational capabilities but also increases the lethality of their attacks.

Political instability, marked by frequent coups and unconstitutional changes in government, further destabilises the regions. In countries like Sudan and Burkina Faso, the political vacuum created by coups has been exploited by armed groups to expand their influence and operations. The lack of effective governance and rule of law hampers efforts to address the root causes of conflict and implement long-term solutions.

Response Efforts

Efforts to combat explosive violence span national, regional, and international levels. The African Union (AU) plays a pivotal role through discussions at the Peace and Security Council and initiatives like Silencing the Guns. These initiatives focus on conflict prevention, mediation, and post-conflict reconstruction, aiming to create a more peaceful and stable continent.

National programs, such as Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor, aim to rehabilitate former militants. Since its inception in 2016, the program has facilitated the surrender and reintegration of hundreds of Boko Haram and ISWAP fighters, providing them with vocational training and psychological support. This approach seeks to break the cycle of violence by offering alternative livelihoods and addressing the root causes of radicalization.

Despite these efforts, challenges remain due to limited resources and the complexity of addressing root causes of conflict. Many governments in the region lack the capacity and infrastructure to effectively counter the sophisticated tactics employed by militant groups. Additionally, the need for comprehensive strategies that encompass not only military interventions but also socio-economic development and good governance is paramount.

Additional Considerations

Beyond the immediate impacts of explosive violence, there are long-term consequences that need to be addressed. These include the psychological trauma experienced by survivors and the broader community, the disruption of education and health services, and the economic toll on affected regions.

Psychological trauma is a significant yet often overlooked aspect of explosive violence. Survivors and witnesses of such attacks frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Providing adequate mental health support and rehabilitation services is essential for the long-term recovery of affected individuals and communities.

The disruption of education is another critical issue. Schools are often targeted or caught in the crossfire, leading to prolonged closures and depriving children of their right to education. This not only affects their immediate learning outcomes but also has long-term implications for their future prospects and the overall development of the region.

Similarly, health services are severely impacted by explosive violence. Hospitals and clinics may be targeted or overwhelmed by the influx of casualties, limiting access to essential healthcare services. Strengthening healthcare infrastructure and ensuring the safety of medical personnel is vital for maintaining public health and addressing the needs of those affected by violence.

Economically, the regions suffer from the destruction of infrastructure and the loss of livelihoods. Markets, roads, and other vital infrastructure are often targeted, disrupting trade and economic activities. Rebuilding and rehabilitating these infrastructures, along with providing economic support to affected communities, is crucial for fostering resilience and economic recovery.

Moving Forward

Addressing explosive violence in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel requires a holistic and multi-faceted approach. This involves not only strengthening security measures and counter-terrorism efforts but also addressing the socio-economic and political drivers of conflict. Promoting good governance, ensuring inclusive development, and fostering dialogue and reconciliation are key to achieving sustainable peace.

International partners have a crucial role to play in supporting these efforts. This includes providing financial assistance, technical expertise, and capacity-building support to national and regional initiatives. Additionally, sharing best practices and lessons learned from other conflict-affected regions can help inform and improve strategies in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

Conclusion

The research underscores the need for integrated, context-specific approaches to address explosive violence in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Emphasising civilian protection, good governance, and deradicalisation is crucial. International support and collaboration are vital to developing long-term, multidimensional strategies for peace and stability.

By focusing on these key areas, the regions can move towards a more stable and peaceful future, mitigating the devastating impact of explosive violence on communities and nations alike. The path forward requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including local communities, national governments, regional bodies, and international partners, to create a sustainable and resilient framework for peace and development.

In conclusion, while the challenges are immense, the resilience and determination of the people in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel offer hope. By addressing the underlying drivers of conflict and violence, and by fostering an environment of trust and cooperation, these regions can overcome the spectre of explosive violence and build a brighter future for their inhabitants.