Disorder from Chaos: Why Europeans Fail to Promote Stability in the Sahel

Written by | Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

Hopes were high when French President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of the Sahel Alliance at a G5 meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania in July 2017. The new alliance’s goal was for France and Germany, along with other international partners, to play a more effective role in improving stability in the Sahel by bringing development concerns together with security and governance work. The activities of the Sahel Alliance since its formation demonstrate some of the wide-ranging ambitions of European and international policy in the region. But the Alliance has also revealed the difficulties facing efforts to coordinate ongoing work and make existing and future policies more effective.

Confusion surrounding European programmes and international strategies in the Sahel has been made all the more serious by the worsening security situation there. In 2019, the deadliest year in the region since the 2012 jihadist occupation of northern Mali, at least 4,000 people, including soldiers and civilians, were killed. The dynamics of the conflict have also grown more and more complex, with rival jihadist groups clashing and an increasingly diverse cast of other armed groups fighting for an advantage over one another. This troubled security environment is coupled with serious political unrest followed by a full-blown coup d’état in Mali, and with upcoming presidential elections in Niger and Burkina Faso that could further disrupt the region. Whatever the international community has been trying to achieve, it has clearly failed to make headway as desired. Regional politics remains troubled and, at times, highly unstable.

The P3S and Coalition, like the Alliance, aimed to address the poor political and security situation in the Sahel and to better integrate and coordinate European and international initiatives. In particular, they intended to further internationalise military and political responses to the Sahel’s crises, draw greater attention to the region, and help France especially share the burden of military operations and political and development efforts there. This was even as French military forces remained predominant among international actors in anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel and French officials continued to take the lead on a number of non-military initiatives.

However, at times, it can be difficult for policymakers to even keep track of the multitude of different programmes and strategies at work in the Sahel, not least since they must also monitor the additional initiatives and bodies put in place to coordinate them all. At its founding, the Sahel Alliance promised to implement a new approach to integrating security, development, and governance strategies and tools. From the start, however, it was unclear whether the Alliance was a coordination mechanism, a way to raise money, or a more structured grouping that could reduce waste and foster a new awareness and mode of operations for various parts of the international community. Failures in organising and communicating with and within the Sahel Alliance slowed its development. After repeated efforts to revamp and relaunch it, the work to chart a new approach to development, security, and regional politics appeared to bear some fruit. The addition of new joint initiatives, like the P3S and now the Coalition for the Sahel, risks complicating rather than streamlining efforts; money continues to flow into the region, but human security and governmental stability remain fragile.

So far, there has been only limited progress on reinforcing the importance of governance in international frameworks for the Sahel. And these newer initiatives may even make it harder for concerted governance efforts to succeed. More specifically, they present three risks. Firstly, they risk focusing primarily on security; and while this is no doubt essential, any approach to security in the region must also be balanced with medium- and long-term goals. The second risk is that, where governance has been taken into account or more fully integrated into operations, these new initiatives generally focus on the return of state powers without paying sufficient attention to preventing a repeat of past governance problems. Finally, with France continuing to have a dominant military and political role in the region, there remains tension over initiatives and programmes that are French-driven and have little input from the country’s partners – even as French officials try to create greater burden sharing and discussion around these initiatives.

As such, European and international partners should consider, firstly, apply funding pressure to facilitate improvements in civilian protection and meet key governance benchmarks within the mutual accountability framework of the Sahel Alliance; secondly, ensure that coordination mechanisms like the Coalition for the Sahel secretariat have real institutional authority; thirdly, expand multilateral training missions like EUTM while ensuring that contributors can accompany troops into the field, when political conditions allow for the full resumption of programmes; and fourthly, seriously consider the use of sanctions within the UN Sanctions Committee for Mali or an expanded regional authority.

‚Disorder from Chaos: Why Europeans Fail to Promote Stability in the Sahel‘ – Policy Brief by Andrew Lebovich – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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