The Sahel, a region south of the Sahara desert stretching from the Atlantic coast to Sudan, is experiencing its worst escalation in violence in ten years. The Sahel includes the five states of the ‘G5 Sahel’, a regional security grouping: Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad. When the instability began in 2012-13, the conflict was primarily in northern Mali, caused by an uprising of the Tuareg and jihadist groups. However, since 2015 there has been a rapid increase of intercommunal violence between ethnic groups in central Mali. This violence has spread in recent years to Burkina Faso and Niger, with jihadist groups taking advantage of inter-ethnic tensions to recruit new members. The Sahel is a strategic priority for Europe for three reasons. First of all, its location just below Algeria and Libya makes it relevant to the EU, which is seeking to limit migration flows from Africa. Many Europe-bound migrants travel through Niger and then towards the Mediterranean. Networks of smugglers have used the region’s porous borders to traffic migrants through Libya to cross the sea in boats.
Second, the presence of jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and IS in the region is of great concern to Europe. France, in particular, is worried that these organisations could sponsor terrorism in Europe or attack French-owned uranium mines in Niger, which are crucial to France’s nuclear power programme. The French army has been heavily involved in counter-terrorism in Mali since the Tuareg and jihadist uprising in 2012, when it launched Opération Sérval. Sérval drove back the armed Islamist groups which had been gaining control over swathes of territory in Mali’s north and centre. In 2014, France launched Opération Barkhane, with a longer-term mandate to counter jihadist groups. French forces help troops from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – which make up the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force – to carry out counter-terrorism operations. The Joint Force, founded in 2014, brings together soldiers from the G5 states to deal with cross-border terrorist threats.
Third, the region is of wider importance to European security. The Sahel conflict is a rare example of Europe deploying not only significant resources but also political capital. The EU has been involved in development projects in the region for decades, but it had to re-direct this funding when fighting broke out in 2012. The EU now plays a role as a crisis manager in the region, with three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in Mali and Niger. The European Commission has adapted and boosted development funding so that it can be used for security-related purposes, and the EU has appointed a Special Representative to the Sahel, Ángel Losada, who co-ordinates diplomatic engagement with the region. As a result, Mali has been referred to as a “laboratory of experimentation” for the EU as a security actor. By investing so much energy and so many resources in the Sahel, the EU has given itself an opportunity to demonstrate its competence as a crisis manager to the rest of the world, and to prove it can manage instability in its own neighbourhood.
Europe is at a critical juncture in its engagement in the Sahel. Violence is at its worst since 2012, with nearly 6,500 people killed in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in 2020 alone. As a result of rising intercommunal and Islamist violence, the number of internally displaced people has increased from less than 100,000 in 2018 to 1.5 million in 2020. At the same time, the region has undergone significant political upheaval. In August 2020, Mali’s government was overthrown by a military coup in the wake of mass protests against corruption and the government’s inability to stop violence in the centre of the country. Discontent with governing elites in outlying regions of northern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger is growing, as intercommunal violence worsens in these countries. The head of the French external intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), recently voiced concerns that jihadist activity could spread further south to the Gulf of Guinea.
Europe will always have strong interests in the security and stability of the Sahel region. Geographically it is part of Europe’s wider neighbourhood, and against a background of escalating violence in the region both the EU and its member-states are anxious to avoid a repeat of the refugee crisis of 2015. France’s strong focus on counter-terrorism will similarly keep it engaged in the Sahel for the foreseeable future. But what Europe gets back from this engagement depends on how it reshapes its strategy at this critical juncture. As the EU reviews its Sahel strategy, its future success as a crisis manager depends on it reordering priorities, so that it puts accountability and good governance ahead of building the capacity of the security forces.
Europe’s approach so far has done little towards achieving a lasting solution to the problem of insecurity. European strategies are designed to address migration flows and terrorism. But these problems are only the symptoms of deeper-rooted instability. As a consequence, Europeans are in danger of playing whack-a-mole with raids against jihadist groups, which will continue to return so long as intercommunal tensions and mistrust of government persist. France and the EU know that they need to engage with questions of governance, justice and accountability; their importance is now consistently mentioned in European strategies. But Europeans will be wary of articulating any substantive ideas for the political future of the region, or of making ambitious rhetorical commitments that are hard to implement. State-building in Afghanistan has shown few signs of success after 20 years of international efforts.
Rather than seeking to impose any top-down vision for the region, the best path for Europe is to engage with civil society and help build trust between governments and their citizens, so that a process of reconciliation can begin. The EU will need to impose strict conditionality on governments and security forces in the region, to ensure its interventions do not make the conflict worse. This approach could also force Europe to consider difficult compromises, such as whether to put a lower priority on migration in EU strategies, vis-à-vis the importance of good governance. But such shifts may be necessary in order to stop violence and eliminate the conditions that drive irregular migration and terrorism. While France, as the former colonial power, says it is reluctant to engage with the domestic politics of the Sahel, the EU is well placed to play such a role. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has maintained that engagement with civil society and greater focus on good governance will be central to the new EU-Africa strategy. Given that the EU already has a strong presence in the region, the Sahel would be an excellent place to set this new approach in motion.
A traditional argument for backing state security forces and strongmen in Africa is that they ‘get the job done’; they have the means to impose stability through force and ensure that violence does not spread across a region. But Europe’s track record in the Sahel suggests that a security- and state-centric approach has not only failed to stop a catastrophic escalation in the violence – 2020 was the deadliest year since the violence began in 2012 – but also has proved that backing regimes that commit atrocities against their civilians undermines stability. Abuses and corruption by governments are driving recruitment to jihadist groups, causing civil unrest and perpetuating the conflict. There is no contradiction in the Sahel between the EU’s interests in ending the conflict and its values such as democratic governance, accountability and the rule of law. Unless the EU lives up to these values, and does more to ensure that its regional partners do the same, conflicts will continue. The sooner Europeans realize this, the better.
‚The Sahel: Europe’s Forever War?‘ – Policy Brief by Katherine Pye – Centre for European Reform / CER.