An ‘epic, unusual and strategic study’

Introduction: An ‘epic, unusual and strategic study’
[ version française ]

The research project on perceptions of insecurity and violent extremism drivers in the cross-border regions of the Sahel offered a unique opportunity to embark on a major and innovative study. At a regional level, it encompasses global issues such as armed violence, radicalization, jihadism and security and the scope of eight countries through their border areas. The project was designed and conducted without preconceptions as reflected in the generous and ambitious decision to listen to and take account of the views, perceptions and ideas of the region’s own people. This complex exercise was difficult to plan and its implementation even more challenging. While this socio-anthropological research – undertaken in a humanitarian spirit – has been demanding and difficult throughout, its success has been dependent, above all, on the scientific team’s commitment and determination. Furthermore, the helpful and co-operative spirit of the respondents, those who have been the principal objects of this research has been an invaluable asset. This study should enlighten, for a decade to come, debates on the challenges the Sahel will face.

In addition to the difficulty and danger involved, readers of this report should be aware of the experimental nature of this enquiry, which was undertaken simultaneously in eight Sahelian countries. This wide area of research, studied in depth over a short period of time, has opened up ideas for action and reflection which have hitherto been disregarded or insufficiently considered, thus assisting the promotion and reinforcement of security in the Sahel in its various expressions and aspects. It has also given access to fruitful lines of research (for the comprehension of the sociological origins of radicalization and ways to avoid a drift towards the economy of violence), and it has identified latent solidarity networks which may be mobilised for the improvement of the situation of populations suffering the destructive effects of conflict in the cross-border regions. 1.

Perceptions: the challenges
In general, very little is known about how the populations most affected by armed violence, extremism and insecurity perceive and react to it. In fact, a dominant paradigm exists regarding these questions, which are generally seen from ‘top-down’ perspective by national and international institutions. These institutions opt for political, security, police and military responses to violent radicalism based on religion. Little or no consideration is given to the societies exposed to these phenomena, who are, however, able to offer the basis for an approach which relies instead on social cohesion and the reinforcement of the resilience of the countries of the Sahel in the face of such threats.

While perceptions and representations do not necessarily precisely reflect reality, they contribute towards conveying some idea of its depth, intensity and texture: its sound, its tonality and its contrasts. Most often what is ‘perceived’ is a distortion, an exaggerated vision of what is, in fact, ‘lived’. However, the characteristic distance between what is lived and what is perceived may also take an inverted form, with the latter offering an attenuated and filtered reconstruction of reality. Thus, in Europe and in North America, terrorist acts affect very few victims but are exaggerated in terms of how they are perceived and represented. What is striking from the outset in the Sahel, however, is that for the respondents in the study, especially the women, who have directly experienced terror and violence. Their narrative account involves a kind of distancing from the frightful events which are associated with the inexpressible suffering that is represented by the murder of a person close to them, such as a father, brother, husband or neighbour. The respondents express themselves, for the most part, in a sober manner in describing the misfortunes and the mortal dangers they have suffered. In other words, what is perceived is not necessarily blurred by emotion. While some of the respondents, in fact most of them, live in a state of utter deprivation, the dignity and decency which emerges from what they have felt puts into perspective their lived experience, to some extent, serving to shut off their very realfear, as if this were a way of taming it, circumscribing and finally defeating it. The responses of the 800 Sahelians who have been interviewed during this study reveal a practical rationality in the face of the challenges of radicalization, violence and insecurity, which is evinced by vulnerable individual actors whose circumstances are precarious and painful. There is much to be learned from them in terms of resistance and resilience. From the primary material represented by the perceptions of the respondents, this study has derived a number of operational concepts relating to “radicalization”, “jihad” and “security”.


A feeling or cause of danger, threat, fear, anxiety, unease.
An Impression or observation of being unprotected inrelation to dangers that might occur which could damage the vital interests of the individual or the social group.

A feeling or reason for calm, peace of mind, a lack ofunease in relation to a present or future threat or danger.
An Impression, observation or certainty of beingprotected or defended if threatened; the existence of protectors.

Violent Extremism
A propensity or inclination towards violence, whetherverbal or through actions, increasing intolerance towardsdifference and the rejection or refusal of the Other.
Rejection, refusal to coexist with those who live, think orbelieve differently, to accept the possibility of coexistingwith those who are different, of accepting their presence,or of respecting them or having any relationship withthem.
Symbolic or verbal violence: may change quickly into realviolence.

Before making the attempt to understand how the Sahelians of the cross-border regions describe and conceive the phenomena linked to what is generally known in the international community as “violent extremism” and insecurity, the study needed to define the terms of the enquiry in simple expressions which were easily translatable into the local languages required during the interviews1. These terms do not necessarily make sense to a person living in sparsely populated regions where the presence of the state and its institutions remains, in the end, more symbolic than truly operational and systematic.

In an era where the image serves as symbol and primal fetish, in which the omnipresence of communication outweighs all other modes of existence and production, issues relating to perceptions and representations are of the highest importance, particularly those concerning conflict and new forms of warfare. In addition, whatever perspective may be adopted (sociological, political, religious, psychological, or that of the media), the manner in which violence and insecurity are described has much to say about their outward appearance. While political science is well acquainted with the phenomena of radicalization, especially in relation to Islamism, it struggles to describe this process from within, from the vantage point of those who are exposed to it at the forefront, whether as actors or targets. If everything is a matter of point of view, studies of perceptions at least offer a vision from this perspective of disparity, conflict and war. Such studies thus bring into play the multiplicity and relativity of points of view as a means of apprehending a complex reality which is often beyond the reach of analytic investigations framed within the classic disciplinary fields. This enables observers and policy-makers to operate on the differential between perceptions, such as those of the denizens of border zones as opposed to the inhabitants of the interior or the capital; those of the administrators as opposed to the administered; those of civilians as opposed to the military; those, in terms of development, between those who produce as opposed to those who demand; those of the young or women as opposed to the male “elders” of society; or those of the deprived as opposed to the upper class.

2. Methodology
Over a period of between five and eight days, 59 researchers made round trips totalling some 24,000 kilometres, covering the frontier zones linking Senegal to Mauritania and Mali, the zones linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and those of the countries bordering on Lake Chad, namely Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon. A questionnaire was used to collect responses from 698 individuals in all, spread throughout these eight countries of the Sahel including, in decreasing order, 147 respondents in Mali (21 per cent of the regional sample); 120 in Nigeria (17 per cent); 100 in Niger (14 per cent); 88 in Mauritania (12 per cent); 74 in Senegal (10 per cent); 71 in Chad (10 per cent); 60 in Burkina Faso (8 per cent); and 38 in Cameroon (5 per cent). Supplementary in-depth interviews were carried out with more than 50 people during additional consultations. Through these two stages of the inquiry process, the teams identified a pool of 80 key contacts who were subsequently invited to come to Abuja, Bamako, Dakar, N’Djamena, Niamey, Nouakchott, Ouagadougou and Yaoundé to compare and exchange their perceptions of the reasons for insecurity and violent extremism in their respective frontier zones. This pool of contacts, consisting of people who were well known and/or activists in their respective localities, informed the thinking on the study regarding the existing capacity for a ‘bottom-up’ dynamic of resilience. Interviews were also set up, to the extent this was possible, with those who sympathised with armed groups or with reformed group members. Lastly, national and international consultants were approached to produce case studies and conceptual analyses which were complementary to the empirical work of gathering and processing the data.

[click to enlarge]Sahel_Survey UNDP-HD Centre

In Mauritania, the frontier zones where the research was carried out were the Prefectures of Hodh El Gharbi, Hodh Ech Chargui (in the far south-west), and Assaba (in the east), all three of which border on Mali, as well as the wilaya of Brakna (in the south-central area) which borders, in part, on the Senegal River. In Senegal, the areas where the research was undertaken were the northern regions of Podor and Rosso, as well as the east of the country (Kidira); while, in Mali, the three regions researched were Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu. In Burkina Faso, research was undertaken in six places on the frontiers with Mali and Niger (Markoye, Tin-Akoff, Oursi, Mamassi, Deou and Goudebou). In Niger, it was concentrated in the regions of Tchintabaraden and Zinder, and the research was supplemented by information gathered in the northern band of Tillabéri. In Nigeria the research took place in the States of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, where – according to official representatives – it was the first time sociological research had been attempted in areas susceptible to Boko Haram violence (normally people from these regions would be interviewed in the capital, Abuja). In Cameroon, the research work was undertaken in the far north, in the three departments close to Lake Chad (Mayo-Tsanaga, Mayo-Sava, and Logone-et-Chari). In Chad, the research was centred on four crucial regions, the Lake, Kanem, Bahr el Gazel and the capital, N’Djamena, which is, itself, on the frontier.


“One participant in the group interview told us he was surprised by the subjects on our agenda. Normally, we don’t talk so openly about such things.” (Niger)

“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with our researchers to get everything translated into local languages.” (Burkina Faso).

“People were very happy to welcome us into their homes and work-places once they trusted us: it was easier because our researchers came from the region.” (Senegal)

”We had to be sure that women were properly represented among the informants. One woman said “normally our husbands speak for us” and another was surprised we wanted to hear what she had to say, since she’d never been to school.” (Niger)

“In some places, the older people outnumbered the young and most of them refused to talk about violent extremism.” (Mauritania).

“In the Tombouctou area, the researchers had to abandon plans to go to Léré because there was too much danger from anti-personnel mines and from vehicle attacks.” (Mali)

“We had to exclude the islands in Lake Chad from our circuit because of the active presence of Boko Haram. In other places it was important to be able to rely on local help.” (Tchad)

“One group of our researchers found themselves stuck in Geidam, in Yobe State, after bombings in the nearby towns of Busari and Tarmuda. At that point we lost touch with them because our communications broke down.” (Nigeria)

“We had to be cautious when travelling about and stay in contact with the local authorities because of the presence of Boko Haram and military operations that were going on. Our route also took in areas close to N’Jamena at a time when the town was being attacked by Boko Haram. We had to change our itinerary. And another thing: fuel prices shot up fast.” (Cameroon)

The organisation of the research itself represented a substantial challenge. Problems arose from the recruitment of teams to administer the questionnaire (these were composed of teams of researchers and university personnel made up entirely of nationals from the countries concerned) as well as from the simultaneous initiation of research on the ground in all eight countries. Other issues were associated with the necessity to follow a protocol in relation to security; communication covering the entire group of researchers dispersed throughout the cross-border conflict zones; and the organisation of the transfer of the contact group of key respondents to the various capitals. Plans needed to be constantly revised to react to circumstances and to various constraints. These included administrative considerations (permits and co-ordination with the authorities); political concerns (the post-election situation in Nigeria and the transition in Burkina Faso); security scares (Boko Haram attacks in the region of Lake Chad); financial difficulties (failed transfers, budget overruns); technical problems (electricity and internet failures); and even climatic and cultural obstructions (the rainy season and the onset of the month of Ramadan). The methodology used in the study was entirely focused on the difficulties involved in communicating with local inhabitants who were somewhat inclined to mistrust anything touching on sensitive political issues. In the majority of the areas covered, however, the populations received the researchers favourably and opened up to them without any major problems throughout the entire critical phase: the research on the ground. In Mali, the locals were particularly appreciative of the courage of the researchers who had come to see them where they lived and had posed direct questions, going straight to the essential issues. In Nigeria, the teams were all the more favourably received because their respondents were conscious that no-one representing the authorities had ever seen fit to concern themselves with what the population had been suffering for years, since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurrection.

The researchers and interviewers involved in the study had to be courageous, since the research took place in regions which were often politically dangerous. Those co-ordinating the study were apprehensive that they were exposing their own personnel to a major risk in relation to insecurity and violent extremism in most of the places in which the research was conducted. However, the level of training undertaken by the teams, the solid but flexible logistical support afforded to them which facilitated the efficient, and above all swift, deployment of the researchers, together with – it must be admitted – a fair amount of good luck, meant that no major problems were encountered either during the research phase or during the finalisation of the reports2. It should be noted that, in certain sensitive cross-border areas, unusually, none of the teams were escorted by security forces or police during their work on the ground, despite the fact that the study had laid down no procedure on this issue. However, the teams were, themselves, supposed to announce their arrival and make contact with the public authorities and with the military command in the districts they proposed to visit. Both of these elements formed an important part of the approach since, in the view of those involved in the study it had an impact on the way the neutrality of the study was perceived by local inhabitants. In some cross-border regions where tensions are high in relation to security, international agencies customarily work and move around entirely under military protection. This, as far as the population is concerned, is sufficient in some extreme cases (when the local people have complained of abuses and extortion on the part of the police and security forces) to confuse the issue regarding their legitimacy and to generate an impression of ‘collusion’.

The present UNDP project, “Perceptions of insecurity and violent extremism in the cross-border regions of the Sahel”, has proved to be an exemplary exercise in international co-operation which has enabled the production of a comprehensive, socio-anthropological survey of perceptions regarding radicalization, violence and insecurity. The empirical observations which have been made, and the analysis of the results which has been produced, have been innovative steps which have facilitated an analytical breakthrough in relation to the human and sociological dimension of religious radicalism. The decision to work with university researchers and interviewers of local nationality rather than with external consultants was a risk, but one which has paid off. The goal was to construct a team which had the most appropriate profile for a method of enquiry which was adapted to local realities; was able to suggest the best places to go; was able to select the most able interviewers; and, finally, was able to bring insight to the analysis of the results. The common methodology across the survey was the outcome of interactions with the eight national teams and thus emerged from a collective effort. The quality of the data and the analysis which has come out of the responses of the 800 Sahelian respondents is opening up a range of options for mitigating their vulnerability to violent extremism and enhancing the resilience of the populations concerned. The study has deliberately ignored the conventional taxonomy of the armed groups and the interpretation of religious motivation which is typical of political science approaches in order to concentrate on a conceptual framework which stays closer to the perceptions of the inhabitants of the cross-border regions themselves.

Amidst the observations, the results and the avenues for reflection there are facts which might seem, at first sight, to be embarrassing, since it is evident that the perceptions of the individuals interviewed prioritise some striking truths which demand to be considered. However, within what the responders have to say and their ideas for change there is, above all, a demand for the reinforcement of the state, and a desire for normality and security indissociable from a citizenship which is in the course of formation. The stories of the respondents, though sometimes tragic, also have the merit of not permitting the future to be previewed in a too deeply apocalyptic a manner. Those involved in this study have refused to analyse the situation using fear as an explanatory principle (the heuristic of fear), although by the end of this research it had become clear that radicalization is a durable phenomenon to which people will have to adapt and respond. At the very moment when the international community finds itself embarked in a second “war against terror” in the Middle East, the questions dealt with here are not merely of local concern. What the 800 Sahelian respondents have told this study – as well as the study’s efforts to explain, interpret and contextualise what has been discovered – should lead to a renewed understanding of the social motivations associated with radicalism and jihadism.

The analysis of this unprecedented collection of perceptions from the population in the frontier zones of the Sahel who are most vulnerable to, and most concerned with, security is structured around four considerations which are indicative of the complexity of the subject of the study. In this report, the perceptions are first placed in the context of the state and citizenship, religion and identity (Section I), before being examined in relation to inter-communal relations and cross-border issues (Section II). These two initial stages contribute to the understanding of the process of radicalization and its measurement (Section III), before the report puts into perspective the part played by women and young people (Section IV). The report concludes with avenues for reflection. While this report is based on the results and observations in the eight national reports within the international study, it is not to be regarded as a substitute for them.



1 The principal languages involved were: Hassaniya-Arabic, Peul/Pulaar/Fulfudé/Fulani, Wolof, Soninké, Tamasheq, Sonraï, Hausa, Kanouri, Mandara, Matakam, Awoussa, Toubou, Djerma, English, French.

2 While there were no security problems during the research phase, two researchers in two different countries were, however, detained by the security forces and held for some days of interrogation on the subject of their research activities in the context of the UNDP-HD project and outside it. In the case of one of the two, the case was made public. It is, therefore, possible to say that the operational head in Cameroon – Claude Linjuom Mbowou – a researcher at the University of Paris, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, was held by military security from the 6th to the 14th September 2015. Reports of this appeared in the press and an international effort was rapidly instituted. These detentions, in the course of which neither of the two colleagues were shown to have committed any contraventions, disrupted work on the study to some extent so that a delay arose in the preparation of two national reports.


[ top ]