Picking sides and intervening via local proxies often makes matters only worse, not better, in the countries of the Sahel.
Last month, militants killed 71 Nigérien soldiers in a raid on the rural commune of Inatès, near the border with Mali. Shortly afterwards, the heads of state of the G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – met to pay homage to the deceased. The sight of the leaders gathered by the flag-draped coffins provided a poignant example of regional solidarity. It was also a sharp reminder of the Sahel’s deteriorating security situation. Since then, further attacks have killed government forces and several dozen civilians in Arbinda in Burkina Faso, while the new year has seen attacks on French and United Nations forces in Mali, as well as against customary leaders and regional forces in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
The attack at Inatès was the deadliest ever to strike Nigérien forces, and it came at a time of increasing fragility and doubt about the security of the Sahel – and about the many international efforts that aim to stanch the flow of blood in the region. The assembled leaders, who had initially planned to meet in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, applauded African and international efforts to support security and development operations in the region. Niger’s president, Mouhamadou Issoufou, in particular called for a more robust UN mandate in Mali, and for increased support from the allies of Sahel countries, in Africa and abroad.
However, those efforts are incomplete, and are at odds with the most immediate needs of the region. They remain focused on military demands, and regional and international organisations are still failing to integrate governance and development goals in the way that regional countries and the international community claim to want. And they continue to do little about the political conflicts that fuel instability and insecurity.
The G5 heads of state meeting was initially meant as a precursor to a summit in the French city of Pau called by Emmanuel Macron. The French president’s initiative followed the deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter accident during combat operations in north-eastern Mali in late November. That meeting has now been rescheduled for 13 January.
Macron had sought “clarification” following a wave of anti-French protests and increasingly wild accusations against French forces that have boomeranged around print and social media with increasing rapidity in 2019. The critique with the most resonance in Europe and the region was a video from world-renowned Malian singer Salif Keita, who accused France of supporting terrorists in the Sahel and called on Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, to either reject France’s military presence or resign from office.
The symbolism of the location could hardly be missed, as Pau was the home base for many of the soldiers killed in the accident, and the meeting was to include formal recognition of their sacrifice from the assembled chiefs of state. Macron also wanted the leaders to discuss the “conditions” for France to remain in the Sahel – including formal affirmations of support for a continued French presence there. He also seeks affirmation from the G5 leaders that France is not present in the region to satisfy neocolonial aims or to steal resources.
Responding in part to these concerns, the rescheduled summit will feature a wider array of leaders, possibly including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, African Union (AU) Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamet, European Council President Charles Michel, and the new EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who recently called for a reinforcement of the EU’s CSDP and other missions in the Sahel.
This extended coordination is welcome, but is not enough to start stemming the tide of violence and instability sweeping the countries of the region.
A wider meeting helps avoid some of the heavy images of France demanding fealty from its former colonies, although it is already a bit late to overcome that impression. This new meeting also helps further integrate the AU and EU within discussions of regional security, which is another welcome continuation of existing policy. The new Sahel strategy announced by France and Germany at last year’s G7 summit is designed to better engage with the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s first trip outside Europe was to Africa – a sign of the continent’s importance for the EU.
Current efforts remain focused on the military and do little about the political conflicts that fuel instability and insecurity
It also appears that, despite the maladroit and aggressive nature of his diplomacy, Macron has already achieved some of what he was looking for. Although Mali’s and Burkina Faso’s leaders have both said they would come to Pau ready for discussion and a frank examination of the state of military and other interventions in the region, Niger’s presidential majority parties have already issued a strong statement supporting France’s presence in the Sahel and condemning accusations of neocolonial plots. And some in the Malian press are urging caution and warning of the dangers to Malian stability should France withdraw its forces from the region.
Not that Macron’s heavily implied threat to withdraw French forces was a particularly serious one. France’s military and political leaders – not to mention those of the EU and member states – have repeatedly made clear that they consider the security of the Sahel to be linked to their own security. If anything, the trend is towards closer cooperation and intervention, as demonstrated by French-led plans for Operation Tacouba, a largely Special Forces mission that may allow for more direct European involvement in combat operations in the region. These forces, though not fully committed or organised yet, are intended to take a more proactive role in training and accompanying regional security forces in the field. This would be an important step as France pushes for a continuation of patrols and operations with the G5 countries, in which regional soldiers represent the majority involved.
But even if they represent real progress, these advances do little to address the harsh realities on the ground. For one thing, many of these processes are ongoing or have not really begun to take shape (like Operation Tacouba), meaning that they would not, even under perfect circumstances, have their full effect at least until the middle of this year. In the meantime, not only does the security situation continue to get worse, but the Inatès attack, as well as others against major Malian, Nigérien, and Burkinabé bases, shows that, despite the military pressure in place, jihadist groups continue to operate effectively and in large numbers.
Even with additional assistance and resources, the problem is not just one of stopping the spread of jihadist groups, but also of coping with them in places where they have persistently operated and made deep inroads into local communities. Looking at the military bases that have been attacked in recent months confirms the depth of this problem. For instance, the G5 base at Boulikessy in Mali has been a target of jihadists for more than two years, and sits in a zone where jihadist groups as well as militias and the Malian armed forces have displaced and at times killed civilians and made for a dire human rights situation. Inatès has also been a regular target not just of jihadist intimidation of local officials. But it is also a space where interventions using community-based armed groups helped fuel cycles of revenge killings and created space for jihadist groups to operate.
These examples demonstrate that the problems even in the border areas of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are much more complicated than simply a lack of international coordination, or insufficient support from external allies. In these political situations, efforts to pick sides in ongoing conflicts or intervene via local proxies have often worsened, rather than improved, the situation. Better coordination, training, and integration of local forces with external operations can help. But only by rethinking approaches to politics and governance within Sahelian states can we hope to improve the outlook for the region, and ensure that the Sahelian and international soldiers who died there did not do so in vain.
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.