A Course Correction for the Sahel Stabilisation Strategy
Since 2013, when it sent troops to Mali, France has led international efforts to root out Islamist militancy from the Sahel. Yet the jihadist threat has grown. Paris and its partners should reorient their military-centred approach toward helping improve governance in the region.
What’s new? Key international backers of French-led Sahel stabilisation efforts, including some French officials, are disappointed with the results of the military-heavy approach developed primarily by Paris and are looking for alternatives. COVID-19 has hobbled international efforts to accelerate and expand stabilisation operations in the Sahel.
Why does it matter? The current approach has not stemmed the Sahel’s security crisis, which continues to expand into new areas. Meanwhile, popular frustration with Sahelian governments is growing, as exemplified by the unrest that led to the August coup in Mali.
What should be done? France and its allies should prioritise addressing the region’s governance crisis: encouraging Sahelian states to engage in dialogue with not only rural dwellers but potentially also militants; provide social services; and adopt fiscal reforms. Military operations are important but should be at the service of such an approach.
The Sahel stabilisation strategy, led by France, is foundering amid a rise in communal killings and jihadist militancy as well as eroding public confidence in the region’s governments. The strategy is intended to calm the region with wide-ranging investment in security, development and governance, but for the most part, it has fallen short on such promises. Instead, it increasingly centres on French operations aimed at jihadists’ military defeat. COVID-19 has aggravated this tendency, crimping UN peacekeepers’ operations in Mali, the EU’s training of Sahelian security forces and development activities. Some of France’s allies express disquiet, especially after Mali’s August 2020 coup. Paris and its partners should reorient their approach to one rooted in efforts to prioritise governance, notably by soothing the escalating tensions among communities and between communities and the state in rural areas, which jihadists exploit, and by improving governments’ delivery of basic services to citizens. Outside actors should also create incentives for Sahelian governments to reform, notably by tightening public finances.
Seven years after French forces deployed to the Sahel to battle jihadists in Mali, the region faces a profound crisis. France’s early operations in 2013 played a critical role, halting the jihadist advance toward the country’s centre that had captured much of northern Mali and driving fighters out of northern towns. Since then, however, militants have swept from the north into the centre and across borders into south-western Niger and northern and eastern Burkina Faso. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State’s local branch have profited from frictions within and among rural communities in these areas, recruiting angry locals to expand operations. Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. The January 2021 killings of more than 100 civilians in Niger’s northern Tillabery show the devastating consequences for rural dwellers. Despite a strong push by France, its partners and Sahelian states to hold battlegrounds and recover lost territory, militants continue to entrench in several rural hotspots as they seek to expand southward.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Mali’s coup have brought further challenges. Despite the pandemic, military campaigns led by France’s anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane have continued apace. But the UN’s mission in Mali has had to curb its activities while EU support missions for Malian and Nigerien security forces have put theirs on hold. The pandemic has also affected development budgets, which have been partly repackaged around COVID-19 aid for 2020-2021. International efforts have accordingly become even more heavily weighted toward military operations. Meanwhile, the coup in Mali was a stark illustration of the eroding popular trust in governments across the region. The mass protests that triggered the coup were sparked by indignation at voting irregularities but were sustained by exasperation simmering on Bamako’s streets with corruption and the state’s failure to check rampant insecurity. Similar discontent is evident in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thus far, these events have prompted little change in the international approach. Military operations by Barkhane, often together with Sahelian security forces and in some cases local militias, aim to keep jihadists at bay, recapturing and holding areas they seize. In principle, such campaigns should create space for the return of state authority and officials to rural areas. The UN’s stabilisation mission also supports the state’s return and aims to protect civilians, among other things. The EU’s missions and operations build the capacity of the Sahel’s security forces to eventually take over. Development projects aim to help governments win over residents of insurgency-affected areas. In January 2020, at the Pau summit, France and Sahelian states largely doubled down on the approach and have since stepped up military operations.
Yet spiralling violence in rural areas and mounting public anger at the region’s governments cast an ever-longer shadow over this strategy. Military operations clearly must be part of the picture. Recently, they have achieved some tactical gains, notably killing jihadist leaders. Yet Sahelian security forces and local militias appear to be committing more abuses against civilians, driving more recruits into jihadists’ arms. Heavier military operations, particularly those relying on local militias, can also fuel the communal violence from which the militants profit. Reinforcing state authority has primarily taken the form of capacity building and infrastructure projects. The strategy neglects what are arguably more important efforts to calm local disputes and convince rural dwellers of the state’s good-will. Supposedly “quick-impact” development projects too often prove ineffective in areas where insecurity reigns or citizens distrust the state. Officials in Brussels and other European capitals increasingly voice doubts about the present approach.
Shifting tack requires changing the narrative underpinning the international strategy from one highlighting insecurity to one centred on a crisis of governance. The governance crisis that lies at the root of the Sahel’s problems is prompting growing hostility toward governments, whether expressed in rural insurgency or urban protest. A new approach, flowing from that new narrative, would not entail throwing out the current multidimensional strategy but reordering priorities. It would emphasise, first, local dialogue as a means of presaging the state’s return to rural areas, and, secondly, wider governance reform. Outside actors should encourage states to step up efforts to broker truces between warring local factions and calm disputes among and within communities and between them and state actors. They should also give greater priority to government service provision, notably health care and education, including in areas where security forces are not yet deployed. They should encourage Sahelian states to improve public-sector financial management, potentially by conditioning some funds on reform.
Military operations, while still key, should be at the service of this strategy. In some places, Sahelian states and their external partners might use military pressure to confront jihadists or keep them from capturing new areas. Elsewhere, they might press the pause button to allow civil authorities to initiate local peacemaking efforts, potentially even with insurgent leaders. For their part, Sahelian states must prevent abuses by security forces and their non-state allies. They could also assume responsibility for activities of benefit to the locals, such as recovering stolen livestock. These would complement efforts to win over rural populations in insurgency-affected areas, who often perceive the state as more devoted to repression and helping Westerners get rid of jihadists than to providing basic services.
Dakar/Brussels, 1 February 2021
Since 2013, when France sent troops to stop a jihadist advance on Mali’s capital Bamako and kick militants out of the country’s north, outside powers have been working to stabilise the Sahel. Paris has led the strategy, which is multifaceted but heavy on military operations. For this mission, it has enlisted the aid of Germany and other European countries, as well as the United States, UN and European Union (EU), and the Sahelian states themselves.
Seven years on, however, there is no convincing success story in the Sahel, but rather a steady deepening and expansion of its conflicts. Many of France’s partners, and even some within the French system itself, are increasingly sceptical about a stabilisation strategy that has burned through vast resources with meagre results. The coronavirus pandemic may compel Western states to reassess their budgetary priorities, possibly putting Sahel stabilisation programs on the chopping block.
Building on Crisis Group’s 2017 report Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, and on recent pieces on the conflict’s roots in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, this report analyses the French-led multilateral stabilisation project in the central Sahel in the shadow of COVID-19. t is based on interviews with dozens of African, French, other European and U.S. military officials and other policymakers involved in security and development initiatives in the region. It examines how the stabilisation strategy has floundered and suggests ways for France and its partners to rethink their approach.
II. The Stabilisation Strategy under Pressure
A. Defining the Approach
Mali’s 2012 collapse, brought on by a Tuareg-led rebellion and a coup, which opened the way for groups with links to al-Qaeda to seize the north, was a seismic shock to European officials who had considered the country a model African democracy. Fearing contagion from Libya in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, and intervening at the Malian government’s request, French troops under the banner of Operation Serval deployed in 2013 to fight jihadists who by that point had pushed the rebels aside and appeared to be marching on Mopti-Sévaré, central Mali’s capital. The intervention, which was widely popular among Malians, arguably saved the country from being overrun by militants. Determined to keep the jihadists at bay, Paris replaced Serval with Operation Barkhane, envisaged by Jean-Yves Le Drian, then France’s defence minister and today its foreign minister, as a way to bolster Sahelian security forces and, in his words, prevent the spread of “jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic”.
France’s intervention was also critical to building an international coalition to support stabilisation efforts in Mali.
France’s intervention was also critical to building an international coalition to support stabilisation efforts in Mali. In April 2013, Paris pushed the UN Security Council to mandate a UN stabilisation mission in Mali (MINUSMA), tasked with protecting key population centres, acting as a buffer against the return of armed groups, re-establishing a state presence, especially in the north, and helping the Malian security forces rebuild.
In 2015, taking advantage of the UN deployment and the jihadists’ retreat, an Algerian-led international mediation effort, backed by the UN and France among others, forged a peace deal involving the government and various armed groups in the north. Signatories did not include the jihadist groups that had held the north, although many of their foot soldiers and some mid-level commanders had defected to other militias as the political winds changed. This “Algiers accord” has proven fragile: it provides a roadmap for redeploying state officials and institutions to northern Mali, but the peace it secured is uneasy at best.
Paris sees its Sahel strategy as multidimensional. The military presence, of which Barkhane is a crucial component with key logistical support from MINUSMA, seeks to stop jihadists from again overrunning towns and holding territory. This containment creates space for efforts to improve security, development and governance and restore state authority in rural areas. UN peacekeepers can help in areas where they operate, but French counter-terrorism operations provide a necessary hard edge for dealing with agile militants. Foreign partners can then assist national and regional security institutions with financing and training, allowing them to take primary responsibility for securing areas they had previously neglected or left to fall prey to jihadists and other armed groups. In parallel, to reinforce state authority over contested areas, donors can scale up development efforts to re-establish state services.
Paris has taken other steps aimed at building the region’s capacity to police borders and territory. It has leveraged its influence within the EU, which has deployed training missions in Niger and Mali (EUCAP Sahel Niger and EUCAP Sahel Mali), focused on law enforcement, and in Mali (EUTM), dedicated to the national army.France has also been the lead external advocate for drumming up aid and logistical support for the G5, a grouping of five Sahelian countries created in 2014, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the military alliance that Paris envisages will eventually take on primary responsibility for regional security coordination and joint operations across common borders. In June 2020, European armies committed to standing up a new European force, Takuba, to relieve the pressure on French troops and support the Malian army in its fight with jihadists.
In addition, France rallied a number of external partners to commit to extending development financing to the region. In 2017, France, Germany and the EU launched the Sahel Alliance, in collaboration with the UN Development Programme, African Development Bank and World Bank, to coordinate and improve development assistance to the G5 countries. The alliance has wielded a basket of more than €11 billion and aims to support investments in education and employment, rural development and food security, decentralisation, and the provision of basic services and internal security. In 2019, France and Germany then announced a Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S), which committed to mobilising international support to strengthen justice systems and improve domestic security through capacity and training programs for local forces.
B. An Evolving Challenge
Interventions by France and its partners have struggled to keep up with dramatic changes to the nature and geographic scope of the Sahel crisis. Violence has spread from Mali’s north into rural stretches of central Mali, south-western Niger and northern Burkina Faso. Groups under the banner of the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State (ISIS)’s local branch have recruited disgruntled youths, picked up the pace of their attacks on national security forces and tightened their territorial grip.
Sahelian states’ scaled-up military operations against jihadists in these rural areas have been part of the problem.
The last few years have seen a striking rise in rural insurgency in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Both the JNIM and the Islamic State exploit spiralling rural discontent to recruit from disaffected ethnic groups, in particular but by no means exclusively the nomadic and cattle-rearing Peul. Militants step in to offer protection and firepower to help in local disputes, while providing arbitration and regulating access to resources. In the Macina delta of central Mali, ethnic-based violence between Peul and Dogon has driven angry locals into the ranks of both militants and self-defence groups. In Burkina Faso’s Soum and Centre North provinces, the jihadists have similarly exploited intercommunal tensions between Peul and Mossi. In Tillabery, in south west Niger, where on 2 January 2021 militants killed more than 100 people in attacks on two villages, and across the border in Mali’s Ménaka region, the Islamic State’s local branch has taken advantage of unregulated competition for natural resources and local power between (and among) Peul, Djerma, Tuareg and Daosahak to entrench itself as an insurgent force.
Sahelian states’ scaled-up military operations against jihadists in these rural areas have been part of the problem, helping trigger a disastrous cycle of violence against civilians. State security forces frequently ally with local militias, who often use the counter-terrorism fight as pretext to pursue their own local agendas.Security forces, themselves often unable to distinguish civilians from militants, and local proxies have on occasion targeted communities wholesale, particularly the Peul. For their part, militants have also attacked individuals, families and even entire villages they suspected had collaborated with state authorities. Such abuses have led to others, with more self-defence militias emerging and often taking indiscriminate revenge. As long as such violence grips the rural Sahel, jihadists will find opportunities.
Many locals question the presence of foreign forces fighting one category of violent actor but leaving others free to mount attacks upon civilians nearby.
Despite the evolution in the nature of violence, Barkhane has continued to focus on military operations against jihadists. French officials portray the proliferation of violence in rural areas as either a diversionary tactic by jihadists or an expression of “ethnic violence”, which they argue is outside Barkhane’s mandate to tackle.During 2019 and 2020, for example, Barkhane intensified its operations in the tri-border Liptako-Gourma area – especially around Gossi in the southern part of Mali’s Timbuktu region, a main jihadist stronghold – while 200km south, intercommunal killings in the Mopti region ballooned, accounting for more violent deaths than anywhere else in the country. Barkhane officials say they did not intervene because Malian authorities did not request support and because the French force’s mandate is counter-terrorism, not dealing with intercommunal violence. The French position is understandable, given the counter-terrorism focus. But many locals question the presence of foreign forces fighting one category of violent actor but leaving others free to mount attacks upon civilians nearby.
Barkhane’s counter-terrorism emphasis has other drawbacks. It means that gains tend to be short-lived: often militants return or simply move elsewhere. It has also sometimes put pressure on MINUSMA’s attempts to adjust its own operations to a changing environment. In the past, French diplomats resisted efforts to redeploy additional UN blue helmets to protect civilians in central Mali while Barkhane’s command was concerned that sending more peacekeepers to the centre might dilute MINUSMA’s ability in the north to continue providing logistical support to France’s counter-terrorism operations.
C. Mounting Popular Anger
Mounting insecurity has coincided with a gradual erosion of popular confidence in Sahelian governments.
Mali’s August coup is the starkest illustration. The military overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was preceded by weeks of protests fuelled by popular anger at a worsening security situation and a government viewed by the public as corrupt and self-serving. Much like the 2012 coup that set the current crisis in motion, Keïta’s ouster illustrated how quickly governance failings can undercut stabilisation efforts, especially if they prompt people to take to the streets and soldiers to mutiny. It was sobering for foreign partners who were pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Malian security forces. The German defence minister pointed out that some junta leaders had been trained in Germany and France. Following the coup, the EU suspended its security and defence missions in Mali.
The erosion of public confidence in the authorities had become intertwined with widespread resentment of Western intervention in the Sahel.
The erosion of public confidence in the authorities had become intertwined with widespread resentment of Western intervention in the Sahel.Protesters who took to the streets in the build-up to Mali’s coup voiced particular anger at French operations. Several Malian cultural, religious and political celebrities derided the government as a puppet of neo-colonial France. Such antipathy for France was an understandable source of frustration for French officials, given the resources Paris has invested in the region.
Similar popular resentment has risen in Niger, where protests have been directed at both the government and its international allies. In March 2020, demonstrators took to the streets to rail against government corruption in the wake of a defence sector audit that revealed some $137 million had been lost to overcharging, embezzlement and kickbacks over the course of President Mahamadou Issoufou’s two terms. This affair, along with the authorities’ subsequent choice to crack down on protesters – resulting in the death of three protesters and the arrest of five leaders – rather than the perpetrators of the fraud, have tarnished the reputations of Issoufou, whose alleged close political and military allies were implicated, and the ruling party as the country enters its presidential election cycle. In early 2020, authorities prohibited planned anti-French protests after jihadists attacked Nigerien military outposts in Tillabery, leading to clashes between security forces and civil society activists, who denounced the heavy losses Nigerien security forces were suffering and demanded the departure of French and U.S. forces.
In Burkina Faso, popular protests have accelerated since 2018 over everything from living conditions to mass displacement and insecurity, as citizens excoriate a government that, in turn, is increasingly resorting to repression and the use of vigilantes. The risk of anti-French protests – some such protests took place when President Emmanuel Macron visited Ouagadougou in 2017 – could return if the Burkinabé associate greater military French intervention in their country with further instability. Such an association appears possible, given that Barkhane increasingly operates in Burkina Faso and the Burkinabé government now looks to rely on armed civilian volunteers to participate in counter-terrorist operations, a recipe for further intercommunal conflict.
COVID-19 has dealt a further blow to the Sahel strategy. The pandemic’s arrival has complicated external interventions in the Sahel, which were forced to adapt, hibernate or freeze at a time when they sought to expand or get started. Barkhane commanders have insisted that COVID-19 will not hinder their operations, though whether that will remain the case is unclear. The virus has nonetheless disrupted the UN mission, the EU missions and the Takuba force. It has slowed development initiatives by introducing new restrictions on meetings and travel; staff had to work remotely or saw their focus and some funding redirected toward virus-related relief and mitigating the pandemic’s socio-economic impact. Donors have suspended some projects for the time being.
The pandemic’s arrival has complicated external interventions in the Sahel, which were forced to adapt, hibernate or freeze at a time when they sought to expand or get started.
Thus far, Barkhane operations appear unaffected but that may change. Commander General Pascal Facon said the virus was merely an “additional operational constraint” that would have “no impact” on anti-Islamic State operations in the tri-border area.Still, the effects of COVID-19 on France’s national finances mean that the military budget may come under the knife. With France projecting an 11-14 per cent GDP drop in 2020, parliament was already questioning the defence minister and chef d’etat major in April about military spending, seeding doubt that it would survive the pandemic unscathed when other budget lines, such as development and aid, are being slashed to reallocate money to fight the virus. Defence Minister Florence Parly claimed that the amended financial law for 2021 did not alter her ministry’s budget, but the French military fears that its budget will likely face cuts, even as the cost of its engagement in the Sahel rose by 10 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019.
MINUSMA has already suffered. In March, as the virus spread through its camps, the mission took preventive measures both for staff safety and to ensure that camps did not become vectors of infection for Malians. It suspended regular UN flights in and out of regional bases and in-country transport of personnel. It also ordered many staff to work remotely.Camps with confirmed cases – including those in Mopti and Gao – were subject to total confinement to limit contagion. Despite these steps, by June there were 70 confirmed COVID-19 cases within the UN force, including at least two deaths. In some cases, UN programs diverted resources earmarked for reducing community violence toward improving hygiene in rural areas.
The pandemic created similar roadblocks for European operations. The virus forced the EUTM to hunker down and suspend operations even as it sought to expand to central Mali. On 3 April 2020, the EUTM and the two EUCAP Sahel missions went into “hibernation”, suspending most training activities, reducing deployed staff by half and adapting to new virus-related restrictions. COVID-19 also erected new hurdles for Operation Takuba. In November 2019, officials projected that the force would reach full capacity in the autumn of 2020, but they now expect to achieve this goal in early 2021 or perhaps even later.
For now, the virus appears likely to skew the international strategy in the Sahel even further toward Barkhane’s military operations
Meanwhile, development projects faced similar new restrictions and roadblocks. National rules banning foreign arrivals and meetings that went into effect from April to July appear to have held up planned projects. For good reasons, part of the EU development funding, especially that designated for health and education budgets, was repackaged to encompass projects aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as outfitting airplanes with medical kits and supplying hospitals with breathing machines. The EU also accelerated the transfer of funds to the Malian government so that it could finance its plan of action for combating the pandemic. In a few cases, donors reoriented development funding to support the anti-coronavirus fight. For instance, France reallocated €1.5 million first intended to help rebuild the health system in the Mopti region to fund the Malian health ministry’s COVID-19 action plan.
For now, the virus appears likely to skew the international strategy in the Sahel even further toward Barkhane’s military operations, given its relative impact on that strategy’s other components.
III. Limitations of the Current Approach
External actors, including France and its European partners, rightly argue that stabilising the Sahel requires a multidimensional approach, comprising military operations, security provision, development and better governance. Yet they have struggled to get the balance among the different components right.
A. Security and Development Nexus
The security-development nexus, a central tenet of the French-led Sahel stabilisation strategy, is based on the idea that security and development can mutually reinforce each other. Military operations clear the way for development efforts and the state’s redeployment, which in turn bring stability. In practice, however, efforts have come up short. While military surges against jihadists in target zones like Liptako-Gourma have made real gains in recapturing territory, the next step – following up with development projects and redeployment of state services and authorities – often barely begins before jihadists return and new violence breaks out. Compared to military offensives, development projects need longer timeframes and a stable environment to succeed, but such conditions tend not to exist. In addition, because of the low level of consideration for tensions between communities, development work can also aggravate conflict.
The experience of trying to follow up military operations with development efforts in Mali’s Ménaka region is one example. After Barkhane partnered with local militias in a 2018 campaign that eliminated over 100 militants, the Agence française de développement, other partners and state authorities developed plans to redeploy services, especially local administration personnel (préfets and sous-préfets) and functioning courts and schools, to the area. But security conditions were still fragile and staff were unable to operate beyond Ménaka city without a military escort. Militants rebounded at a grander scale. The incapacity of Malian forces to patrol outside big camps while militias, bandits and jihadists proliferated created such high levels of insecurity that it was almost impossible for development workers to function outside Ménaka town.Even under soldiers’ protection, in areas like Ménaka, the approach simply has not worked.
Moreover, the notion of a security-development nexus is often underpinned by the erroneous assumption that the population in an area recaptured by military operations will welcome the return of state institutions. In reality, some communities are ambivalent and others, particularly those that state security forces portray as allied to jihadists, view all state actors warily. In parts of the rural Sahel plagued by competition over natural resources, militants themselves have learned to manage such contestation better than states. In Mali’s Macina region, in particular, nomadic herders now rely on jihadists to guard their cattle and regulate access to pasture, while also showing satisfaction with the militants’ mediation of their disputes with farmers. In contrast, those herders fear state intervention, which they associate with previous agricultural policies that have favoured farmers to their detriment.
B. Governance: Reform Trails Capacity Building
While Western officials commonly express frustration that Sahelian governments’ poor track record contributes to instability, they despair of being able to bring about change. That, inevitably, depends on Sahelian elites themselves, popular demand and negotiations between citizens and state. As far back as 2014, a top EU official lamented the failure of European attempts to get Sahelian states to reform. Such sentiment remains prevalent today.
Strengthening governance is a pillar of the stabilisation strategy but both donors and Sahelian states accord it lesser importance than meeting security benchmarks.
One issue is prioritisation. Strengthening governance is a pillar of the stabilisation strategy but both donors and Sahelian states accord it lesser importance than meeting security benchmarks, to the extent that some European officials say that in practice, reform efforts at times amount to little more than lip service. Western partners understandably view reform as difficult and complicated, a longer-term objective than short-term security deployments. They also fear that it may stir tension between them and Sahelian governments that have diverging agendas. For Western partners who hold the purse strings, curbing terrorism and containing migration tend to be the priorities, whereas Sahelian elites often perceive such stabilisation initiatives as primarily useful in bringing new resources that can reinforce their own power. Some Western officials are reluctant to rock the boat, out of fear that their Sahelian partners will become less cooperative.
Western partners also tend to depoliticise the issue of governance. For instance, donors often reduce political challenges like returning the state to rural areas and improving its relations with locals to an infrastructure or capacity-building problem. This leads them to focus, for example, on training state security forces or building new gendarmerie posts and courthouses in the countryside, while at the same time neglecting policies aimed at making the state’s presence more useful to rural dwellers. Efforts to boost institutional capacity tend to gloss over political factors that may undermine efficacy, such as the recurrent abuse of residents at troops’ hands or the partiality of the justice system to ruling elites.
Even among policymakers, many recognise the shortcomings. As one European diplomat with over a decade of experience in the Sahel pointed out: “People are more comfortable with a technical approach to facilitating the return of the state and holding elections. But the problem lies at the political level, in the relationship between states and their citizens”.
Some Western-backed programs address political challenges head on, showing particular promise in tackling the crisis of rural governance. These tend to focus less on institutional capacity and more on local dialogue, for instance, forums in which residents and security forces may air grievances and build trust, talks between warring communities that may lead to local ceasefires or initiatives connecting herders and farmers to help them resolve disputes.
On the whole, however, initiatives such as the Coalition for the Sahel and P3S reproduce flaws of previous approaches in that they make little attempt to build Sahelian state institutions’ accountability and performance or ensure that they can deliver basic public goods in a relatively fair and inclusive manner. For example, while the Sahel Alliance is on track to have funded and coordinated 730 projects in the G5 countries by 2022, many of those projects focus on building infrastructure, sidestepping core issues over how these are used and who benefits. Few get at the core issue of poor government performance.
C. The Pau Summit and its Aftermath
The death of thirteen French soldiers in a helicopter accident in Ménaka on 25 November 2019 prompted President Macron to call an emergency meeting on the Sahel. First scheduled for December, amid rising anti-French demonstrations in Sahelian capitals, the summit was postponed after a devastating ISIS attack on a Nigerien military outpost in the Tillabery region on 10 December led to a period of national mourning. In January 2020, Macron finally hosted the heads of the G5 Sahel states along with senior representatives of the EU, African Union (AU) and UN. The summit took place in Pau, France, the home base of seven of the dead soldiers, in what Macron hoped would be a moment when the Sahel recommitted itself to curbing the regionwide rise of militancy. The president hinted beforehand that he was prepared to withdraw French forces if he detected lack of support for French military intervention in Sahelian government circles.
The approach that emerged from Pau did not, however, mark a major departure from the existing strategy. France committed hundreds of new troops to the effort and the signatories launched what is formally known as the International Coalition for the Sahel, resting on four pillars: maintaining counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIS; stepping up capacity building for Sahelian armed forces; supporting the return of the state; and assisting development initiatives. President Macron himself described the summit as a “turning point in our military strategy”. Still, even some French policymakers admit that the approach remains rooted in the same security-development nexus, with capacity building once again defined as the path to improving government performance. Indeed, a French diplomat said it reflected France’s decision to give a strategy in which it has invested resources and energy for years a “last chance”.
Since Pau, Barkhane’s command has played up the success of a number of joint military operations with Sahelian governments.
Since Pau, Barkhane’s command has played up the success of a number of joint military operations with Sahelian governments. The French Joint Staff billed the offensive with security forces from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, which killed dozens of Islamic State militants in Liptako-Gourma, destroyed hideouts and seized weapons, as proof that the new strategy was working. The June killing of al-Qaeda’s regional emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, one of the JNIM’s most senior leaders, prompted President Macron to say in June that “victory is possible in the Sahel … thanks to the efforts that have been made over the past six months”.
But the advances may be short-lived. Gains have been undermined by a spike in abuses committed by the national security forces. Indeed, during the course of 2020, killings of civilians by state forces in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have surged. On 9 April, Burkinabé soldiers allegedly arrested and summarily executed 31 men in Djibo following a counter-terrorism operation in the area. A month later, Burkinabé security forces raided a refugee camp at Mentao, wounding dozens. At roughly the same time, Nigerien forces reportedly disappeared or executed 102 residents of the border area between Inates and Ayorou.They also reportedly killed dozens of civilians on the Malian side of the border. In Mali, MINUSMA documented 101 summary executions in Mopti and Segou, attributing the killings to Malian security forces.All of these attacks created new grievances against the state among rural dwellers.
Moreover, the success of the operations against the JNIM and Islamic State owes partly to infighting between the two groups that has erupted after five years of fairly peaceful coexistence. That infighting saw both groups waste combatants and resources and exposed them to airstrikes. Indeed, in early 2020, tensions over territorial control and competition over recruitment that had begun building the previous year came to a head.
Almost a year after the Pau summit, not a single insurgency-affected area can claim to be rid of jihadists or to be reaping benefits from the return of state authority. Indeed, for the most part, violence continues to take a heavy toll on civilians and the conflict appears ever more intractable.
IV. Looking for an Alternative
A range of partners, including Sahelian states, European governments and the U.S., officially support the French-led stabilisation strategy in the Sahel. Behind closed doors, however, some Western officials express disquiet about its achievements, though they offer few concrete alternatives. The African Union plans its own mission, but even if it does deploy, it appears unlikely to change the tide in the Sahel.
A. Western Concerns
While European partners officially back the French approach, signs of dissent are emerging, with diplomats privately suggesting that the overall strategy needs adjusting.
Europeans express a number of concerns. Some European officials question the extension of the EUTM training mandate beyond Mali. “If EUTM was not effective in Mali, why would it be more effective in Burkina Faso?”, one diplomat asked. Others are increasingly worried that Western troops in the Sahel will end up in a quagmire and fear for European credibility among the Sahelian public as conflicts continue to rage. As one EU official noted in the August coup’s wake: “If the EU wants to make a difference, the only conclusion that should be drawn from Mali is that our strategy has failed”. Some suggest that a more effective approach would, broadly speaking, require greater African ownership and lesser prominence for military operations.
Meanwhile, Brussels has begun a review of the EU’s broader strategy. Some officials acknowledge that Europe’s emphasis on curbing terrorism and countering illicit migration has led to the capacity-building focus, support for a security-centred approach, and reluctance to press Sahelian governments and their security forces on their own failings. Some also stress that the EU should adopt policies better tailored to today’s reality, namely mitigating local conflicts and supporting reforms targeting corruption, poor governance and security forces’ impunity.
As for the U.S., its interest in supporting Sahel peace and security operations waned significantly during President Donald Trump’s administration.
As for the U.S., its interest in supporting Sahel peace and security operations waned significantly during President Donald Trump’s administration. The U.S. has been a pillar of counter-terrorism operations, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, air-to-air refuelling and military transport to Operation Barkhane. U.S. activities in the Sahel began facing more domestic scrutiny after 2017, when Islamic State fighters killed four U.S. servicemen in Niger. Since then, U.S. officials have also begun losing confidence in the French-led approach, arguing that it has failed to reverse the trend of insurgency on the ground.The U.S. also pushed back against earlier French requests to increase MINUSMA’s resources and expand its role beyond Malian borders to support the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which would have been costly; instead of increasing support for MINUSMA, the U.S. argued for a force drawdown and a defined exit strategy.
A review of the U.S. military posture overseas undertaken by then U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper with a view to aligning military spending with the goal of competing with Washington’s principal international rivals, Russia and China, raised fears in Europe that U.S. military engagement in Africa was set to dwindle. In the end, the Trump administration did not cut Sahel spending. Rather, it may have given Sahel diplomacy more political visibility by appointing J. Peter Pham, an academic specialising in African affairs, as the first-ever U.S. special envoy for the region in March 2020.
The turnover in administrations presents an opportunity for a fresh review of the U.S. posture. Yet the importance that the Biden team places on the transatlantic relationships with France and others would seem to make a troop drawdown or spending reduction fairly unlikely.
B. A Prospective AU Force
In 2020, the African Union said it was considering sending a force to the Sahel. On 27 February, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smaïl Chergui announced the Union’s intention to deploy 3,000 troops to the region, calling for a strategic “reset” involving greater appropriation by African actors. The Peace and Security Council has asked the AU to set up a technical planning committee, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and AU Secretariat to develop a Concept of Operations for this mission.Meanwhile, Chergui has launched consultations with the G5 and ECOWAS to drum up more political support for his idea.
For the time being, however, the chances of this force coming into existence appear low. Indeed, in Addis Ababa, many AU officials and diplomats concede that great uncertainty surrounds the questions of which African countries would commit troops and where funds for the deployment would come from.
Some German and U.S. policymakers like the idea of handing over more security responsibility to Africans.
Some German and U.S. policymakers like the idea of handing over more security responsibility to Africans. German officials already support the extension of the G5’s capabilities.Some U.S. diplomats go a step further, suggesting that an African force could one day take over MINUSMA, which itself grew out of an ECOWAS military mission deployed in 2013, the African-led International Support Mission to Mali. Others are less enthusiastic, however, arguing that such a transition is unlikely to get off the ground any time soon, with the major questions regarding funding unresolved.
Still, even were it to come about, it is doubtful that an AU mission would have a transformative effect. It could instead end up as yet another vehicle in what has become a “traffic jam” of security operations in the Sahel.Indeed, AU officials remain unclear about how such a force would integrate into an already crowded field, alongside MINUSMA, Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, although the Concept of Operations document might help answer these questions. It is also doubtful that an AU force would succeed where France and others have failed. The challenges still facing the African Union Mission in Somalia, deployed now for almost a decade and a half and allied with low-performing state forces in a war with no end in sight against Islamist militants, should serve as a cautionary tale.
V. Righting the Sahel Stabilisation Strategy
COVID-19 and the coup in Mali have dealt further blows to already staggering international efforts to stabilise the Sahel. The virus has meant that military operations are today relatively more prominent in those efforts, while Mali’s coup and protests elsewhere throw into stark relief the anger that many citizens, even beyond rural areas wracked by insurgency, feel toward the state. No end is in sight to the violence roiling much of the region. A rethink is urgently needed. The EU’s plans to revise its Sahel strategy in the coming months provide one opportunity for a course correction, and the arrival of a new U.S. administration another. But it is Paris in particular that should consider revising its approach
The first step would be to shift the narrative to give greater weight to the idea that a crisis of governance underpins the Sahel’s insecurity.
The first step would be to shift the narrative to give greater weight to the idea that a crisis of governance underpins the Sahel’s insecurity. The growth of jihadist militancy in the Sahel has many causes, but in large part it is a symptom of this governance crisis, which has led many citizens to distrust underperforming states. Decades of mismanagement of public finances and rural resources have fuelled popular resentment that contributes to both rural insurgencies and urban protests.
A new approach would flow from this new narrative. It would not require fully rewriting the multidimensional strategy. It would, however, reorder priorities, setting out a focus on, first, political dialogue as a means of presaging the state’s return to rural areas, and, secondly, wider governance reform. Military operations, while still key, should be subordinate to such a strategy. In places, this might mean using military pressure to counter jihadists, keep them from expanding into new areas, disrupt their supply chains or, perhaps, encourage them to come to the table. Elsewhere, it might mean pressing the pause button to allow state authorities to initiate peacemaking efforts, even with local militant leaders.
A. Dialogue and Reform
External actors usually agree in principle on the need for government reform in the Sahel but are often lost on how they might support such efforts. Making headway on this matter is more challenging and the horizons longer-term than dispatching military forces. Whereas international counter-terrorism efforts often bypass local sovereign decision-making, changes in governance depend principally on whether leaders themselves buy into such reforms and whether outside actors can create incentives and pressures that encourage them to do so. There are, however, steps external partners can take.
First, they should encourage states much more assertively to mediate and engage in dialogue to resolve disputes between and within local communities and between them and state actors, especially in Liptako-Gourma, where international efforts have recently focused, as well as in other hotspots like central Mali and eastern Burkina Faso. Such efforts should underpin the state’s return to rural areas. External partners should also encourage Sahelian governments to launch dialogues to peacefully regulate competition, increasingly stoked by climate change, over access to natural resources, especially between farmers and herders. They could both push authorities to undertake such efforts and contribute expertise. If local authorities reach the conclusion that talking to jihadist militants is necessary to such an approach, foreign partners should give them space to do so. Governments that have shown an interest in talking to militants – like Mali’s – encountered obstacles, especially from France, up to and including outspoken opposition.
Secondly, external actors could support state authorities in providing basic services, notably health care and education, including in areas where security forces are not yet deployed. By leading with a security approach, external actors are implicitly encouraging Sahelian states to do the same. At present, Sahelian states spend as much as 40 per cent of their budgets on security. State resources are no doubt limited, but some of this money could perhaps be used toward trust-building measures in the form of improving health, education and more equitable systems for managing rural resources. Such measures would be a useful step toward persuading communities to welcome the state.
Local governments themselves should consider building up such services in vulnerable areas before, for example, constructing new gendarmerie camps and courts. There would be risks in doing so. Militants could capture medical supplies or destroy schools before they can be used. But such risks could be mitigated if any provision of basic public goods is based on the dialogue described above and meets local needs. Jihadists tend to be less prone to disrupting activities that enjoying local support, particularly as many militants are intimately connected to communities and share their grievances.
Thirdly, external actors should consider encouraging Sahelian states to improve public-sector financial management. Citizens in all these countries call for such reform. Nudging governments in this direction is never easy, but one option might be to more strongly link aid packages to fiscal transparency and accountability. In Mali, for instance, donors could ask the transitional authorities to develop an action plan committing to transparent use of state resources before they unlock assistance suspended after the coup. In Niger, partners should push authorities to prosecute those who, as the audit published in August 2020 revealed, embezzled funds and be ready to halt security cooperation until proceedings are at least under way. In Burkina Faso, donors might condition assistance on government commitments to prosecute security personnel who abuse civilians. Such an approach would not entail threatening to end military support but instead tying some programs – and thus resources that Sahel leaders value – to reforms. Suspending these programs would likely not have a major impact on the balance of power between state forces and militants.
B. Military Efforts in Support of a New Political Approach
Military efforts remain a key component of multidimensional strategies, but they need to be conducted in ways that fit with overall priorities. Interventions in insurgency-affected zones should be built around strategies adjusted to the local political environment and designed to defuse – instead of aggravating, which too often is the case now – the tensions underpinning violence. In the Liptako-Gourma tri-border area, for example, those trying to overcome distrust between state actors on one side, and local leaders and communities on the other (as well as between communities themselves) should begin the hard work of addressing resentment toward and fear of the state. Local settlements, which in some cases would require dialogue with militants, might precede the redeployment of state services, especially the gendarmerie and national guard. Development projects should also be rolled out only once such settlements are in place. While settlements are being forged, Western militaries should refrain from getting involved on the side of communities or local political leaders whom they regard as allies
Military efforts remain a key component of multidimensional strategies, but they need to be conducted in ways that fit with overall priorities.
For their part, Sahelian security forces must do more to protect civilians. First and foremost, they must prevent abuses by security forces and their non-state allies. They should also diversify their role to include activities that aid local livelihoods, such as recovering stolen livestock in rural areas where cattle theft has been a catalyst of conflict. Thus, they could complement efforts to win over rural populations in insurgency-affected areas, who often perceive the state as more devoted to repression and helping Westerners get rid of jihadists than to providing them basic public services.
The French-led Sahel stabilisation strategy is at a critical juncture. COVID-19 has set back some of its multilateral components and could even lead to budget cuts affecting Operation Barkhane. Meanwhile, the Sahel’s problems, which have only grown as the nature of conflict has changed and its geographical scope widened, require a more nuanced approach. France’s allies – and indeed some French officials – are increasingly aware that the strategy needs updating. Sustaining the suite of stabilisation efforts or adding more financial or military resources will not reverse the deterioration of security, which continues after almost a decade of well-intentioned efforts costing billions of dollars. What is needed is a strategic reset that centres stabilisation efforts around improved governance and political engagement at the grassroots where the conflicts are burning. Only then can security deployments and development projects help build links between states and their rural inhabitants.
Dakar/Brussels, 1 February 2021