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Instability in the Sahel: how a jihadi gold rush is fuelling violence in Africa


On the side of a rural highway leading south from the city of Kaya in central Burkina Faso, Boureima Ouedraogo mixes gold ore slurry with soapy water in a rusted oil drum, then pours it down a crude metal sluice into a shallow pit. He plies a small mine just over a stubby plateau nearby with a dozen other men, some of whom are mixing clean ore with toxic mercury in blue plastic tubs. 

Two months ago, Ouedraogo was forced to flee a mining site near Solhan, a village 100 miles to the east. “They wore turbans and they had guns, and 100 of them came one day riding motorbikes and shooting,” says Ouedraogo, one of the more than 1m artisanal miners who excavate half the gold in Burkina Faso, much of which ends up being refined in Dubai. “They said you guys have to leave or you’re dead, so I ran.”

Solhan lies in northeastern Burkina Faso, which forms part of the tri-state region with Mali and Niger that has for the last few years been at the centre of a surge in jihadi activity, killing thousands, displacing millions and rendering wide swaths of the region completely ungoverned. The wave of violence, now increasingly targeting gold mining areas, is threatening to destabilise the wider region, including coastal states such as Ivory Coast and Ghana.

“There is a big danger because these terrorists’ goal is to be able to manoeuvre from the coastal states to the Sahara,” a region bigger than western Europe, says Zéphirin Diabré, federal minister of reconciliation.

If the Sahel collapses, there will be “a domino effect of insecurity, wholesale violence [and a] breakdown of borders as internally displaced persons spread across the Sahel, first into ‘safer’ countries within the region and then across to Europe,” says Ayisha Osori, head of the Dakar-based Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

On June 4, extremists on motorcycles arrived in Solhan, a centre for gold mining in the area, and massacred more than 130 people. The government and the UN said last week that the assailants were mostly children aged 12 to 14. It was the deadliest attack in the country’s history, and a visceral sign of how Islamists, keen for lucrative sources of funding, are directly targeting the country’s thousands of artisanal mines, which together are estimated to produce up to 30 tonnes of gold a year. After the attack Burkina Faso’s Sahel region announced a ban on all artisanal mining — recognition of the growing link between extremism and gold.

Men like Ouedraogo are at the sharp end of the surge in gold mining across the Sahel. Beyond the reach of governments, which often receive no tax on its extraction, criminal gangs including jihadi groups are taking control of informal mining sites. Burkinabè gold is mostly smuggled through the country’s porous border with Togo and flown to Dubai for refining. Wealthy consumers end up buying the finished products unaware of the illicit production or export process.

Zéphirin Diabré, a former mines and industry minister, says terrorists are trying to acquire more territory in mining regions
Zéphirin Diabré, a former mines and industry minister, says terrorists are trying to acquire more territory in mining regions © Joe Penney/Reuters

Diabré, a former mines and industry minister, says the terrorists are trying to acquire more territory in mining regions “because it’s a source of revenue” — gold prices have soared roughly 30 per cent to around $1,800 an ounce in the last two years. Burkina Faso is Africa’s fourth-biggest producer, according to the World Gold Council, which includes estimates of artisanal output.

“What happened in Solhan, it had to do with the [desire] of these terrorist groups to take hold of these artisanal mines,” says Diabré. “The terrorists want to grab hold of them to be able to exploit them for resources and money.”

BigRead: Jihadist activity and mining

‘They need gold’

Gold mining can be a murky business. Artisanal processing by the likes of Ouedraogo and his colleagues is fraught with health and environmental issues. Children often work in small-scale mines. The informal side has long been a playground for money launderers, smugglers and criminals. Unlike precious stones, traceability remains elusive — there is no equivalent of the flawed Kimberley Process for diamonds. In part that is because it is not as easy to chemically trace a particular piece of gold to a specific mine. Gold from all over the world gets melted together in refining centres such as Dubai, where most west African gold is shipped before it heads to jewellers in the west, India and China. 

Deposits of the precious metal are abundant in countries across Africa, especially the Sahel region. Like other natural resources, it can be a curse for local populations. A 2019 Reuters report detailed how billions of dollars worth of gold is smuggled from Africa into the United Arab Emirates every year, skirting trade rules and depriving African governments of much-needed tax revenue. Traders in the region confirmed that much of the Sahel’s artisanally mined gold is smuggled into Togo, where it is taxed at the country’s lower rate, before being flown off to Dubai, mostly in hand luggage on commercial flights. A 2018 OECD study suggested that around 20 tonnes of gold is smuggled into Togo from Burkina Faso each year.

Much of the gold excavated in Burkina Faso ends up being refined in Dubai
Much of the gold excavated in Burkina Faso ends up being refined in Dubai © Francois Nel/Getty Images

As gold prices soared from the early 2000s, industrial mining took off in Burkina Faso. The production surge drove the metal to the top of its export list — from 2 per cent of all exports in 2007 to 77.5 per cent in 2019, according to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity

Meanwhile, an artisanal gold rush has swept the Sahel since a rich seam from Sudan to Mauritania was discovered by artisanal miners nine years ago. Small-scale miners now produce 20-50 tonnes of gold in Mali, 10-30 tonnes in Burkina Faso and 10-15 tonnes in Niger, according to a 2019 International Crisis Group report, employing more than 2m people directly and 6m indirectly. Burkina Faso’s 1m artisanal miners support roughly five dependants each, according to UN estimates, covering a quarter of the country’s population.

Sahel locator map

Armed groups in all three countries have been seizing sites since at least 2016, according to ICG, which noted that some major artisanal miners are also key drug traffickers. In December, Interpol seized 40,000 sticks of dynamite during an operation at land borders in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali and Niger: “all intended for illegal gold mining which constitutes a new source of financing, and even a recruiting ground, for armed terrorist groups in the Sahel.”

Some mining sites are secured by volunteer self-defence forces, such as the Koglweogo in Burkina Faso, traditional hunters such as the Dozo in Mali and rebel groups in Niger. But in the tri-border region, where violence is at its most potent and the reach of the state minimal, the takeover of artisanal mining by extremist groups is spreading at an alarming pace, particularly in Burkina Faso.

“In the beginning they weren’t targeting mining sites so much, but now they are,” says Dieudonné Nonaba, president of the Wendkouni Association of Namentenga province, an NGO that works with artisanal miners. “And it is only increasing.”

A young miner exits the well of a clandestine gold mine in the village of Nobsin, 10km from the city of Mogtedo in the Ganzourgou region
A young miner exits the well of a clandestine gold mine in the village of Nobsin, 10km from the city of Mogtedo in the Ganzourgou region © Ahmed Ouoba/AFP via Getty Images

Daniel Eizenga, research fellow at the US defence department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, says the violence in Burkina Faso over the past year is “more and more concentrated in areas where we know there are also concentrations of gold . . . it’s pretty clear that those are related”.

The three countries have been at the centre of a dynamic mix of violence that has spread across the region ever since Tuareg rebels joined Islamist groups to capture northern Mali in 2012, only to be pushed out by the extremists. France intervened to crush the insurgency in 2013 but is now overhauling its Operation Barkhane counterterror mission in an effort to get a grip on the crisis. But that original jihadi-rebel marriage of convenience in Mali is typical of the grey zone of criminality in the Sahel, where a man might be a smuggler, an extremist, a rebel, a bandit or an ethnic militia member depending on the day or the context.

The main jihadi groups in the Sahel are the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, a coalition of groups that is more widespread and has engaged in negotiations with authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso; and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an IS offshoot which is considered more brutal and unwilling to negotiate with governments. Both groups have exploited existing communal tensions in the region, slipping in and out of alliances with ethnic militias. Each makes money from cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom, and a protection racket for smuggling routes, through which cigarettes, drugs, arms and people cross the Sahel and the Sahara Desert. 

With ports and borders shut many of those revenue streams slumped during the coronavirus pandemic, driving both JNIM and ISGS further into gold, says Christian Nellemann, director of Rhipto, a UN-linked non-profit Norwegian security analysis group. In the Gourma area of Mali, for example, the two groups, until recently collaborators, have for the past year been engaged in a fierce battle, including for control of mining sites.

“The critical thing is that if these groups want to get big, they need financing. It’s only in the movies that a Kalashnikov is the price of a chicken,” he says. “They desperately need gold.” 

Prime minister Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré meets wounded people after an attack in the village of Solhan in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region
Prime minister Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré meets wounded people after an attack in the village of Solhan in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region © Burkina Faso Prime Minister’s Press Service via Reuters

‘A kind of mafia’

Sitting at his home on the outskirts of Kaya, Kibsa Ouedraogo is surrounded by masks and statues from his life as an antique dealer. Now he serves as head of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP, by its French initials) in the Centre-Nord region, which borders the Sahel and East regions that have been the hardest hit by extremist violence. 

The VDP — farmers and hunters given two weeks training and an AK-47 — are the frontline in the fight against extremism and the main defence for many mining villages. They’ve also been accused of gross human rights violations. They get little support from the military, Kibsa says: “We ask for help and no one comes.”

The Burkinabè government has not officially acknowledged any negotiations with terrorist groups. But Kibsa says that three months ago he was invited to three rounds of talks in Kaya, where, he says, military and government officials, international NGO workers and traditional leaders were also present. Similar localised negotiations on ceasefires have been held in other parts of the country. This agreement lasted one month.

“We laid down our weapons but the terrorists did not — they kept attacking us,” he says. “They took advantage of it to expand their territory.”

Kibsa is chief of the village of Noaka, 29km away and surrounded by mining sites. “The terrorists hear that this site or that one is thriving with gold, and then they target those sites — they can kill everyone or they take control and take taxes,” he says. “To me, it’s not about religion — it’s a kind of mafia.”

Mahamadou Sawadogo, a Burkinabè security analyst, says jihadi groups spent the last year expanding their territory around the country. “No matter which region, their first target is to control the mining area,” he says. “It’s their top revenue source, and also a good place for them to recruit young men.”

After initial threats some Islamist groups work to build trust, says Sawadogo. If artisanal mining has been outlawed locally, they tell miners to work and that they will guarantee their safety, highlighting the difficulties for authorities trying to impose bans. “No more robbery, no more banditry, no more [communal] feuds,” he says. Crucially, they also buy gold, “and they pay the normal [market] price”.

In some ways, the jihadis step in for a government that has long abandoned the area, and is unable to oust them. They can exploit local frustration with government policy that many argue favours the foreign industrial mining groups which have also been subjected to major attacks by Islamists.

“They engage in more low-level violence to maintain compliance from populations and regulate social behaviour in areas under their influence, including at artisanal mining sites,” says Heni Nsaibia, Sahel analyst at the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

A Burkinabe herder is searched by a French soldier as a suspected jihadi collaborator
A Burkinabè herder is searched by a French soldier as a suspected jihadi collaborator © Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images

‘It is only spreading’

Artisanal mining is back-breakingly hard work. In the western Sahel, it is also often the only work available. Men set out for territory they’ve heard is promising, hoping to get lucky. They pay the local community for access and spend months digging by hand. If they’re lucky enough to strike gold, they might be robbed by bandits. Sometimes ethnic tensions bubble up between miners and locals and there is bloodshed. 

And, increasingly, young men on motorcycles arrive and tell the miners to cut their trousers and grow their beards. And then the luckier among them flee, to start all over again somewhere new.

At a roadside café in the capital Ouagadougou, two miners who recently fled the north speak about their three decades in the industry. Rasmane Ilboudo, 52, says he first encountered extremists three years ago, but has since had nearly a dozen run-ins.

In late May, scores of men rode into Sonda, where Ilboudo was working, just down the road from Solhan. “They set up camp, and now they run the mine,” he says.

Sana Seydou, 53, says the last attack he witnessed was near Bouroum, about a month ago, in a Centre-Nord area where the jihadis operate openly. “You see the terrorists in the market,” he says. 

The Goudebou refugee camp, in northern Burkina Faso, shelters thousands of Malians who have fled jihadi violence in the region
The Goudebou refugee camp, in northern Burkina Faso, shelters thousands of Malians who have fled jihadi violence in the region © Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images

They usually come to the mine and preach. “They say you should grow your beard, wear short trousers and pray every day,” he says. Asked how he responds to the threats, he laughs ruefully. “Look at my beard!” he says, tugging the hairs on his chin. 

For artisanal miners such as Seydou and Ilboudo, the Islamists’ increased focus on gold heralds an ever more precarious future in one of the most neglected places on earth, as high prices for the precious metal beneath their soil fuels mining activity — and extremists embed deeper into their lives.

Ilboudo says he’ll probably never return to the north. Instead, they have started mining in the south-west, which is less affected by violence. But extremist activity has spread to another porous tri-border area, where Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast meet. Data from Acled illustrates how jihadi activity has grown around artisanal mining areas along Burkina Faso’s southern borders with Ivory Coast and Ghana.

“We know they could come there too,” Ilboudo says. “It’s not diminishing — it’s only spreading.”

Both say every miner they know has a story of an encounter with jihadis. The others are dead. “The terrorists say, wherever you go, we will find you,” Ilboudo adds. “Anywhere you go to, they say, we’re coming.”



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