Media CenterNew Report: Inequality - Not Religion - Driving Sahel Conflict

Photo by Annika Hammerschlag for CRS

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Michael Stulman
Catholic Relief Services
[email protected]
+221 77 370 3037

Nikki Gamer
Catholic Relief Services
[email protected]
(443) 955- 7125

A new analysis by Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Church in West Africa looks at the conflict at the heart of the world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis

DAKAR, Senegal, Sept. 30, 2020 – In the Sahel region of West Africa, which is quickly turning into the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, deeply rooted economic inequality, not religious beliefs, are driving the surge of violence, according to a new report just released by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

The study, entitled “Steps Towards Peace,”  examined the root causes and impacts of the spiraling conflict across three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – and found that insufficient and inequitable access to wealth, livelihoods and natural resources are the driving forces behind the deterioration of the social fabric and surge in violent conflict.

“Our report underscores the fact that while the crisis may be painted by some as religious or ethnic in nature, it’s actually a result of perceived inequality and a growing discontent with government,” said Jennifer Overton, CRS’ West Africa regional director. “Those living in the Sahel deserve good governance, security, access to livelihoods and improved living conditions.”

The humanitarian needs across the Sahel are staggering, with upward of 1.8 million people displaced from their homes by the violence. According to the United Nations, more than 20 million people, half of them children, are in need of life-saving assistance and protection – the highest number ever recorded in the region.

According to the analysis, jihadists and organized crime groups are exploiting the poor and unemployed, small communal grievances and mistrust of national political leadership to recruit fighters to carry out acts of violence. Religious extremism does not appear to be a driving factor for the unrest. In fact, many of those surveyed openly stand against religious extremism.

“Whether one is a Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Protestant or of a traditional African belief, terrorism has spared no one and causes everyone to lose their livelihoods, their home, activities, life and freedom for those who have been taken hostage,” said Monsignor Laurent Dabire, President of the Burkina-Niger Episcopal Conference.

Community and religious leaders – both Muslim and Christian – have stood up for unity and peaceful resistance and as a result are the targets of assassinations in attempts to undermine their influence.

“In West Africa, our brothers and our sisters are being chased, slaughtered and kidnaped. Our homes and our farms have been burned. Women and children have been mercilessly targeted. Others are being enlisted by various ideological leaders. This has forced people to leave, abandon their land for oftentimes harsh landscapes,” said Théodore TOGO, secretary-general of OCADES (Caritas/Mali). “Lives are broken, families displaced and children out of school. We are tired of war and violence. We call for all local stakeholders to come together and focus on the healing of humanity.”

For the report, CRS conducted focus groups, interviews and surveys across 20 demographics, including farmers, herders, local militias and religious and traditional leaders. The analysis was conducted in April 2020 and included those living in the epicenter of the violence, in the Liptako–Gourma area, which straddles Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

According to the study, those surveyed stated there could be no meaningful peace without security. CRS, which has worked in the region for more than six decades, calls for an increased investment in peacebuilding, and for more involvement of women, youth and local leaders as part of national and regional plans to resolve the crisis.

In November 2019, the Catholic Church in West Africa, with support from CRS, launched the Sahel Peace Initiative, to respond to the millions of people displaced from their homes without livelihoods or enough food, and to promote peacebuilding activities that can achieve long-term stability and development.

“The daily atrocities we’re seeing reflect an extremely complex reality that is rooted in despair,” said Patrick Williams, CRS’ program manager for the Sahel Peace Initiative. “We’re talking about communities where the number of unemployed people far exceeds the number of those able to earn a meaningful living.”

Other key findings:

  • Youth from traditional pastoralist backgrounds are among those most impacted by poor economic status, and many emigrate or join violent groups as an escape from poverty and injustice.
  • The scale and scope of violence surpass the capacity of government and local leaders to coordinate a unified and effective response.
  • The conflict has impacted men and women differently, with women the least involved in conflict management at national and local levels.
  • Unaccountable and unresponsive political leadership, especially at national levels, has eroded faith in democracy and civic engagement.

Click here to read the full report and its recommendations on how to respond to the crisis.


Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality. CRS’ relief and development work is accomplished through programs of emergency response, HIV, health, agriculture, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. For more information, visit or and follow Catholic Relief Services on social media in English at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; and in Spanish at: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Nikki Gamer

Senior Public Affairs Manager

Nikki Gamer &
Michael Stulman
September 29, 2020

Based in Baltimore, MD

Nikki is the Senior Public Affairs Manager for CRS and connects journalists to regional stories and sources related to the agency’s life-saving development work. Previously, Nikki worked as the Communications Officer for the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia. She has covered CRS’ response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the mass displacement...More