Navigating borderlands in the Sahel Border security governance and mixed migration in Liptako-Gourma

The following is the introduction to a research report published by the Mixed Migration Centre

The Liptako-Gourma is the area adjacent to the River Niger bend between the cities of Gao (Mali) and Niamey (Niger), which broadly comprises the adjacent administrative regions of Gao in Mali, Sahel in Burkina Faso, and Tillabéry in Niger. Because of its tri-state composition, since decolonization the region has also come to be known as the “three-borders zone”. Despite its administrative divisions, environmental, sociological and historical commonalities mean that this area is characterized by coherence and homogeneity. It therefore provides a valuable case study on the mutual relationships, influences and variations between security and mobility in border areas.

Significant cross-border flows have shaped the unity of Liptako-Gourma. Livelihoods in the region depend on the management of natural resources, which in turn is closely linked to mobility. Seasonal rainfall variability dictates the movements of transhumant pastoralism (mobile livestock raising using regular migration routes) and small-scale farming, leading to the development of a common way of life built on cross-border interdependence and cultural interaction. As a result, the same social, livelihood and ethnic groups are found throughout Liptako-Gourma, including the Fulani, the Tuareg, and the Songhai/Zarma.

Weak governance & transnational “threats”
After gaining independence, the three neighbouring states did not apply strict border controls both because of weak enforcement capacity and the need to win over border communities which feared marginalization. In the past decade, however, the fragility of regional states and the lack of adequate governance frameworks have made the Liptako-Gourma region a fertile ground for the entrenchment of illicit activity, organized criminal groups, non-state armed actors and jihadist insurgents. Moreover, since 2012, the collapse of the Malian state has further undermined state presence, contributing to the spread of transnational threats across the region.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, MUJAO), which in 2012 managed to attract recruits from across Liptako-Gourma, is a case in point. Military action by international and Malian forces chased MUJAO from northern Mali’s towns in 2013; but failed to regain control of Liptako-Gourma’s porous borderlands. This prompted the reorganization of the MUJAO into smaller units, giving rise in subsequent years to a variety of splinter jihadist armed groups with strong local rooting, such as the Macina Liberation Front (Front de Libération du Macina, FLM) in Central Mali, Ansarul Islam in the north of Burkina Faso, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (Etat Islamique au Grand Sahara, EIGS) in Tillabéry Region. The borders among these groups remained porous, in terms of both membership and ideology, and observers suggest that they are loosely coordinating under the umbrella organization of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, JNIM).

An escalation of local and regional conflicts has been fuelled by the unconstrained circulation of weapons, people and ideas and the inherent tensions between traditional and state rule.

The Sahel: a testing ground for security policies
As security has rapidly deteriorated, Liptako-Gourma has attracted growing international concern.6 Multilateral initiatives and strategies to respond to these challenges have proliferated. Restricting cross-border mobility and enhancing controls over borders and borderlands have emerged as the standard approach to forestalling the spread of violent insurgency and transnational threats in Liptako-Gourma. On the one hand, the rise of transnational and transborder phenomena has helped further cement the continuity of Liptako-Gourma’s security dynamics across national divides. On the other hand, Liptako-Gourma has become something of a laboratory for the experimentation of internationally sponsored policies designed to strengthen national sovereignties and international boundaries.

These measures are usually negotiated in international forums and adopted under the pressure of emergencies unfolding on the ground. As a result, they often fail to adequately consider the complexity of the context, and they may yield unexpected, if not counterproductive results. For instance, recent research has suggested that state force projection alone is unlikely to prevent the rise of insecurity, radicalization, and crime, unless underlying socio-political issues are addressed, including respect for human rights, good governance,8 equitable management of natural resources9 and job creation.

Border security governance: a response to rising mobility and forced displacement?
A growing international focus on migration management and the fight against irregular migration have caused these tensions to become even more acute. Strategically positioned over routes connecting West Africa with North Africa, the Liptako-Gourma region has been greatly affected by an increase in regional and interregional migration, with hundreds of thousands of people in transit since 2014. Well-established regional networks of cross-border trade, both small-scale and large-scale, formal and informal, have helped grow the infrastructure that supports these movements of people. As a result, the towns of Gao, Tillabéry and Dori have emerged as important hubs and transit points for migration towards Libya, Algeria and, in some cases, to Europe. At the same time, escalating local and regional conflicts have generated both internal and cross-border forced displacement. As of early 2019, approximately 80,000 Malian refugees were hosted in camps in neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, while at least 160,000 people were displaced by conflict in the regions of Gao, Ménaka, Tillabéry, Sahel, and Nord.11 While forced displacement increased significantly in the first half of 2019, these flows intermesh with widespread mobility habits of cross-border communities living in Liptako-Gourma, including transhumant pastoralists, nomadic people and dual-nationals.

While mobility has traditionally been a resilience strategy in the region, an alarmistic rhetoric conflating mixed migratory flows with “irregular migration” and “human smuggling” has helped fuel a narrative of a global migration “crisis”. In this context, the views of foreign interveners and outsiders contrast sharply with local perceptions of migration. The portrayal of violent insurgencies as a transnational phenomenon reinforces the framing of Sahelian borderlands as “ungoverned” spaces characterised by cross-border irregular activity. At the intersection of these dynamics, border security governance has rapidly gained prominence as one of the top priorities pursued by the international community in Liptako-Gourma.

Research gaps, driving questions, and objectives of the report
In spite of much policy discourses, the relationships between cross-border mobility and border security governance remain poorly understood to date. While there is some research about how border security governance and migration influence each other, it has mostly focused on other migration routes from and across Africa, including those from the Horn of Africa to Libya, from Gao to Algeria, from Agadez (Niger) to Libya, and from Libya to Italy.

Research specifically on Liptako-Gourma has mostly focused on border(lands) security governance in relation to radicalization and security. Less research has been devoted to understanding how the variations of border security, including the weakening and strengthening of border controls by state and non-state actors, has affected mixed migration flows across Liptako-Gourma. This paper aims to bridge the gap between the research on migration and border management, and violent insurgency, and responses thereto, and aims to shed light on their mutual interactions.

This research addresses several questions relevant to policy-makers, humanitarian agencies, migration actors, and scholars. Exploring the extent to which various security considerations affect mobility choices and practices, for example, can provide insight as to whether mixed migration flows are more likely to occur in conflict zones, where violent insurgencies thrive, or in peaceful zones fully controlled by state authorities. In other words, do unstable borderlands tend to reduce migration flows – because of insecurity, unpredictability, and disruption of communication – or attract them because of reduced border controls?

In a context where research suggests that security providers, both state and non-state actors, engage in abusive behaviours, to what extent does state presence or absence impact the safety of refugees and migrants? Is mobility a source of resilience or of danger (or both) in a conflict context? And how does border security, and variations thereof, affect mixed migration flows, in terms of both infrastructure (routes, use of smugglers, means of transportation, etc.) and composition (nationality, gender, legal status, social origin, etc.)? What does “security” actually mean in these contexts and to different actors? What are the threat perceptions of refugees, migrants, IDPs, smugglers, local authorities, security and defence forces (SDF) and international actors? Who are, or who are perceived to be, security spoilers and security providers where state authority fluctuates between local challenges and international sponsorship?

Analytical approach and structure of the report
The prism of governance provides our entry point to address these questions. Throughout Liptako-Gourma, state actors do not have a monopoly on coercion and political authority but rather operate in a densely populated and highly competitive environment. Alongside (admittedly weak) states, one finds other important actors, both non-governmental (international NGOs, local civil society organizations, customary authorities) and intergovernmental (regional and international organizations, UN agencies, foreign donors), to which the region’s states have a demonstrated tendency to outsource some of their sovereign functions.

To fully understand the complex dynamics between border security and cross-border mobility in Liptako-Gourma, this plurality of actors, standards and practices cannot be overlooked. In other words, one needs to pay attention to governance more than to governments in order to capture this inherent hybridity between government control and government outsourcing.

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