West Africa region is experiencing an upward trend in infections with coronavirus (COVID-19) since the first infection was announced in the region in March 2020. This comes at a time when terrorist organizations have intensified their attacks to benefit from the preoccupation by governments with combating the epidemic. This raises questions about the risks of the epidemic spread for counter-terrorism efforts and the likely scenarios.

Increasing rates of infection with the epidemic in West Africa

West Africa has experienced increasing rates of infection with coronavirus (COVID-19).[1] According to a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 28 April 2020, the number of infections exceeded a thousand cases in some countries where 1705 cases were recorded in Cameroon, 1671 in Ghana, 1337 in Nigeria, 1240 in Guinea and 1164 in Côte d’Ivoire. In the week ending on 26 April, Equatorial Guinea experienced an increase in infection rates by 299 percent (from 79 to 315 cases). This rate was 147 percent in Nigeria (from 541 to 1337 cases) and 108 percent in Sierra Leone (from 50 to 104 cases).[2] Burkina Faso recorded four infections among members of the cabinet, and the disease led to the death of the second vice president of parliament.[3] Under the circumstances, WHO has warned, through Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director for Africa, of the risks of the epidemic spread in countries west of the continent.[4]

Despite the measures taken by countries of the region, particularly curfews and travel restrictions between cities, closure of schools and places of worship, banning of gatherings, and social distancing measures,[5] in addition to funds allocated to combating the epidemic (nearly 11 billion CFA francs were allocated by Burkina Faso and 6.3 billion CFA francs by Mali to combat the epidemic),[6] some countries, such as Ghana and Burkina Faso, lifted the general isolation measures for fear that a long-term lockdown could have a permanent impact on their economies. That is why WHO warned that those countries are at risk of experiencing an increase in infection rates as a result of lifting restrictions and precautionary measures before the epidemic was brought under control.[7]

Catalysts for the spread of the epidemic in West Africa

The main catalysts for the spread of the epidemic in the region are as follows:

1. Fragility of the health structure: most countries of the region have fewer than five hospital beds and fewer than two medical doctors per 10,1000 of the population (while for comparison Italy and Spain have 34 and 35 hospital beds and 41 medical doctors per 10,1000 of the population). Per capita expenditure on health in countries of West Africa is lower than 50 dollars (compared, for instance, to 2840 and 2506 dollars in Italy and Spain).[8] In addition, medical supplies and ventilators are limited.

2. Deteriorating health conditions and spread of chronic diseases: especially increased rates of infection with HIV and tuberculosis and malnutrition in children which makes those patients more vulnerable to infection with coronavirus. For instance, 27 percent of Gambians suffer from hypertension and 6 percent from diabetes.[9] Doubtlessly, this puts pressures on governments to treat those infected with coronavirus through health care systems that are already bound by meeting the needs of patients suffering from other health problems.

3. Poor response by the population and difficulty of implementing social distancing measures: especially in African cities and densely populated areas, and the difficulty of persuading the population in rural areas to observe social distancing and stay at home for long periods as many of them rely on daily wages to provide their food needs.[10] These measures have led to protests and demonstrations condemning the closure of mosques, as was the case in Niger and other countries.

Risks of epidemic spread for counter-terrorism efforts

The main risks are as follows:

1. Inadequacy of resources needed to combat the epidemic and continue counter-terrorism efforts: governments have to allot an increasing portion of their resources to the health sector, in addition to the challenges associated with taking measures to limit the potential negative effect on the economy, labour, income and food security. These pressures are exacerbated by the decline in oil prices and exports.[11]

2. Inward orientation of countries supportive of counter-terrorism to counter the crisis of the coronavirus spread, especially after some infections have been recorded among their troops involved in counter-terrorism operations. The French operation Barkhane has witnessed the infection of four of its soldiers, and the number of infections within the French army has increased, reaching nearly 4,000 cases. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which incorporates troops from 57 countries, has announced the infection of a number of its soldiers (26 cases),[12] which places increasing pressures on troop rotations in the Sahel region.

3. Exploitation by terrorist organizations of the preoccupation of armies and security forces with countering the coronavirus crisis to win over and recruit those affected by the precautionary measures. Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria, has criticized those measures in a voice recording.[13] ISIL organization tended to prevent villagers at the border between Burkina Faso and Niger from adhering to the ban on group prayers.[14] The increasing and accelerating pace of recent attacks indicates that the epidemic spread has not changed the determination by those organizations to carry out their attacks in the region.

Scenarios for counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa

First scenario: cessation of counter-terrorism operations and expansion of terrorist activity in the region. This scenario is based on several facts, mainly: involvement by security services in operations for combating the epidemic and allocation by governments of a portion of their limited resources to health care efforts, in addition to the inward orientation by western countries to counter the implications of the coronavirus crisis at home, while terrorist organizations seek to intensify their attacks in the region by benefitting from these conditions amidst expectations of a rise in infection rates in the region and in view of the modesty of results so far achieved by international efforts to develop a suitable drug to stop the global spread of the epidemic.

Second scenario: continuation of counter-terrorism operations in the region: despite the accelerating pace of infection with the coronavirus in countries of West Africa, according to the rationale of this scenario, countries sponsoring counter-terrorism efforts would remain committed to continued efforts to protect their interests and national security. So far, France has not suspended its military operations in the region, and French troops have joined Nigerian troops in carrying out a military operation that resulted in killing 120 terrorists in Tillaberi region in Niger last February.[15] On the other hand, Operation Bohoma Anger, announced by Chad at the beginning of April 2020, has resulted in successfully driving Boka Haram out of Lake Chad and killing nearly a thousand terrorists.[16] Subsequently, Nigeria announced a major military operation to eliminate Boko Haram operatives in the country’s northeast.

Overall, it seems that the second scenario is more likely in light of the victories scored by counter-terrorism efforts in the region and the recommendations of the EU-G5 Sahel Summit, held on 28 April 2020, which underlined determination to continue to support counter-terrorism efforts.[17] Therefore, it is also expected that the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Mali will be extended for another term. There is no indication that terrorist organizations in the region boast good health systems to put them in a better fighting position. Such organizations (al-Qaeda and ISIL) continue to suffer from intellectual and field conflicts. In April 2020, the Mopti region of the Republic of Mali witnessed fierce confrontations between Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).[18]


[1] Patrick Dupoux, Jim Larson, Shalini Unnikrishnan, and Wendy Woods, “Fighting Covid-19 in Africa Will Be Different,” March 26, 2020, available at:https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/fighting-covid-in-africa.aspx

[2] World Health Organization (Who),covid-19: situation update for the WHO African region”, 28 April 2020.

[3] Crisis Group,”COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch”, Crisis Group Special Briefing, N°4, 24 March 2020, https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[4] WHO says very concerned at community spread of coronavirus in West Africa, Reuters, 30 April 2020. Available at: https://ara.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idARAKBN22C2MZ

[5] Crisis Group, “Covid-19 au Niger: réduire les tensions entre Etat et croyants pour mieux contenir le virus”, 23 April 2020, available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/niger/covid-19-au-niger-reduire-les-tensions-entre-etat-et-croyants-pour-mieux-contenir-le-virus

[6] Limam Nadawa, “Sahel Sahara: Covid 19 and insecurity,” 31 march ,2020, available at: https://www.newcentre4s.org/EN/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Sahel_Sahara_Covid19_and_insecurity-_EN.pdf

[7] WHO says very concerned at community spread of coronavirus in West Africa, Reuters, op. cit.

[8] The Lancet Global Health, “COVID-19 pandemic in West Africa”, Comment, Vol 8, April 1, 2020, available at; https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2214-109X%2820%2930123-6

[9] Ibid.

[10] Patrick Dupoux, Jim Larson, Shalini Unnikrishnan, and Wendy Woods, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Rasha al-Sayyid Ashri, “Coronophobia, the impact of coronavirus on foreign presence in the African continent, Qiraat Africa, 23 April 2020. Available at: http://qiraatafrican.com/home/new

[16] G5 Sahel agrees on steps to combat COVID-19 in Africa, 27/4/2020, available at: https://uk.ambafrance.org/G5-Sahel-agrees-on-steps-to-combat-COVID-19-in-Africa

[17] Sahel country leaders hold a meeting with the EU, Al-Ahram Daily, 28 April 2020. Available at: http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/2401057.aspx

[18] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Regional Overview: Africa, 12-18 April 2020, April 22, 2020, available at: https://acleddata.com/2020/04/22/regional-overview-africa12-18-april-2020/

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