Significant progress on funding and co-ordination, but problematic partnerships with local militias and abuses by security services still hamper prospects for EU’s Sahel strategy.
The Brussels conference that took place at the end of February capped off a year of frantic activity on the part of regional countries, the EU, and France to create a joint military force of the G5 Sahel nations.
The meeting, co-hosted by the EU, the UN, the African Union (AU), and the G5 under the auspices of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, accomplished a series of important goals. Most notable was the achievement of raising a whopping €414 million for the joint force’s operating budget, more than €100 million more than the original target. The EU doubled its planned contribution to the force, now up to €100 million, while France increased by 40% its planned contributions to development and governance assistance to the region, now totally €1.2 billion over the next five years.
The G5 Sahel force continues to advance rapidly in European capitals, but more slowly on the ground. The progress made so far is important, but it must be kept in perspective with the region’s deepening security challenges. There is also a risk that an overly securitized approach could squeeze out equally necessary work on governance, justice, and the protection of local populations.
What was accomplished in Brussels?
The influx of cash, particularly from the EU and its member states, will in theory allow the G5 to fund its first year of operations at its stated budgetary goal. However, President Issoufou, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the organization, stated that the joint force would require a €115 million each subsequent year, meaning the G5 will need to continue to raise funds for years beyond the initial round of international fundraising.
Issoufou added that it was unclear how long the current battle with militants in the region would last, and emphasized that “the Sahel is a dam that must not break.” In this he echoed previous comments from Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), leveraging European concerns about terrorism and migration to mobilize support for regional security initiatives.
The international community and the G5 states also took an important step toward being able to use these funds effectively. Previously the EU and G5 had disagreed over who would manage the funds given by donors, a major stumbling block for the organisation. Last month the G5 set up a fiduciary fund for donations, and the EU announced that its specially established “coordination hub” for channeling international donations would work with the G5’s fund to aggregate and eventually disburse funds. Such a mechanism can help alleviate the risk already posed by so many international actors intervening in the Sahel, ideally avoiding duplication of efforts and wasted investments.
Another positive development is that, despite the wide mandate of the G5, its initial operations have remained tightly focused on the border regions between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, as I recommended when the force’s mandate began to take shape last year. These operations continue to face major logistical, information sharing, and cooperation hurdles, but they are a start toward better interoperability and autonomy.
That’s the good news. Now it’s time for the bad.
These early efforts at coordination and streamlining are a good start, but there are still too many actors rushing to intervene in the Sahel, and huge amounts of money flowing in that will be difficult to manage.
While another roundtable to discuss pledges and coordination is scheduled for June, European actors and the G5 countries themselves have significant work to do in terms of harmonizing their goals and creating more unified structures to allocate and disburse money. As EU countries like Italy and Denmark push to open new embassies in the region and allocate more resources to it, this process becomes ever more necessary, lest confusion arise over investments or even military deployments.
The military situation on the ground also continues to get worse. Insecurity and armed attacks from jihadist groups continue to increase in Mali as well as in northern Burkina Faso. Some military operations in G5 areas - including the recent joint operation Pagnali carried out by Malian and Burkinabe troops - have also driven refugees into areas of Mali like Gossi, which are already wracked by food insecurity, banditry, and growing communal conflict.
In other areas along the Mali-Niger border, recent deadly attacks against French forces (in particular by the al-Qaeda-aligned Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM in Arabic)) have prompted major offensive operations against militants operating along Mali’s borders with Algeria and Niger. These operations have combined French forces, armed groups aligned loosely with the Malian government, and others involved in the peace process as well as local conflict and security efforts. These operations also reportedly involve the ongoing support of Niger’s government, which has worked in the past with the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA) and the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA).
These operations have reportedly generated results, on top of a wave of recent French operations successfully targeting senior JNIM militants. But alleged MSA and GATIA attacks against Peul (known elsewhere as Fulani) civilians may have also fueled jihadist recruitment in the region. Jihadists present themselves as protecting aggrieved communities, and are actively recruiting Peul fighters.
These operations have therefore fragmented the very communities who could help play a role in restoring stability. As G5 operations continue, the tactical need to work with “friendly” local armed actors could end up further destabilising local security arrangements in the name of combatting terrorism.
Such complicated local arrangements could also undermine European efforts to restore governance in conflict-ridden areas. While last week’s conference featured a laudable emphasis on governance and establishing trust between local populations and G5 forces, this emphasis must extend much further than just high-level meetings.
This issue is particularly problematic in central Mali, but also applies to the borderlands where the G5 joint force will operate. Despite an ambitious government plan to reinforce security and governance in the country’s centre, interviews in Bamako confirm that the Malian government will have only a fraction of the troops it has said it will use to protect local services and commerce, and troops continue to face accusations of arbitrary killings and arrests of civilians, particularly Peul.
Additionally, the devastating attack on the French Embassy and the army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou on March 2 hints at the limits of the G5 force in enforcing broader regional stability. The attack, claimed by JNIM, killed eight and wounded at least 80, and demonstrated the group’s continued ability to strike beyond the border areas of the G5’s operations and tie down security and intelligence services in the process.
Without a sustained emphasis on tactical training through the EU Training Mission (EUTM) as well as real security sector reform in Mali and other G5 countries, particularly Burkina Faso, abuses by G5 troops and attacks by militant groups like JNIM will continue to imperil security and governance in the region.
Without both security and governance, any development goals of the Alliance pour le Sahel (among others) will be either unsustainable or impossible to implement in the first place. More broadly, any Sahel operations that are implemented without in-depth understanding of local conflict and governance challenges risk undermining the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) plans in the region.
The EU has clearly indicated the importance of the Sahel for the CSDP in general. But the varied and multifaceted risks of further instability and governance failures in Mali as well as Burkina Faso continue to demonstrate the constraints and limits of these missions, and the need to constantly reevaluate the EU’s policies in the region in light of their impact and the changing circumstances. A continued decline in the effectiveness and stability of states like Mali will also have serious implications for Europe, and for the future of EU foreign policy strategies in general.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.