Some 50 NGOs on Tuesday called for a fresh approach to fighting jihadism in Africa's vast Sahel region, including dialogue with insurgents and protecting civilians from soldiers.
The insurgency is linked to the Islamic State group (IS) which, like Al-Qaeda, is vying for influence on the continent as both recover from defeats and growing pressure in their original bastions of the Middle East and South Asia.
The People's Coalition for the Sahel, created last year, is backed by bodies such as Oxfam and Human Rights Watch and includes women's rights groups and legal associations from mainly three countries -- Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
"Across the Central Sahel, more civilians were killed by soldiers supposed to protect them than by non-state armed groups. Yet no Burkinabe, Malian, Nigerien soldier or militia leader implicated in human rights violations has yet been brought to justice," it said in a report.
The coalition called for fair and impartial trials into cases of killings, rape and torture committed by both sides and "a zero tolerance policy on offences committed by the defence and security forces and the militia".
"The current approach clearly failed to stem attacks by so-called jihadist groups, which have almost doubled each year since 2016," it said.
"Between 2017 and 2020, attacks against civilians quintupled, from 205 to 1,096, and the number of unarmed civilians or suspects killed, including women and children, rose from 356 to 2,443, a seven-fold increase."
Africa accounts for 16.5 percent of all attacks claimed by IS since January 2020, according to a well-respected terrorism analyst who publishes on Twitter as Mr. Q.
The coalition called for a "drastic reordering of priorities so that the measure of success of interventions is not only military -- through the list of 'neutralised terrorists' -- but also includes the number of civilians protected, the number of displaced people who have voluntarily returned to their homes, schools that have reopened, and fields that are once again cultivated."
The report said about two billion euros ($2.4 billion) was spent every year fighting terrorism in the Sahel -- four times more than the average annual amounts allocated to humanitarian aid over the past four years.
Security spending in the three countries meanwhile accounted for up to a fifth of national budgets -- often at the expense of basic social projects and huge sums were pilfered.
"In Niger, 76 billion CFA francs (116 million euros, $137 million) were embezzled between 2014 and 2019, according to a provisional audit by the General Inspectorate of the Armed Forces revealed in February 2020," it said.
According to the coalition, about two million people have had to flee their homes due to the violence in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger and 14.4 million people are in need of assistance.