France and the EU in the Sahel
10 March 2021 /
On 15 and 16 February 2021, the G5 Sahel gathered in N’Djamena, capital of Chad, to discuss the future of Operation Barkhane. France, which was the initiator of this military operation in 2014, stated from Paris that there will be no reduction of military troops for the time being. Indeed, for some time, France is criticised about its presence in the Sahel, which is seen more and more as neo-colonialist by local populations, as well as by some observers who fear an endless and useless war. Therefore, Paris is wondering whether to stay or leave the region. The N’Djamena meeting seems to have extended the French presence for a little while. France has been fighting jihadists groups for eight years. If it quits, one may fear the strengthening of these organisations. On the opposite, there is a risk of ending in a stalemate. Another actor in the Sahel is the EU, that conducts several civilian missions and funds many development projects. This article will thus describe the deterioration of Mali in 2011-2012 and the first EU reaction. It will then speak about the leading role of France with Operations Serval and Barkhane, and the civilian missions led by the EU. To conclude, we will focus on international actions backed by France and the EU, before analysing the results and the possible future for the Sahel.
The Malian crisis and the first EU reaction
In 2011, NATO interfered in the Libyan war and helped overthrowing Colonel Muammar Khadafi. This operation caused a massive arrival of weapons in Mali, brought by Malian mercenaries once hired by Khadafi. This flow of arms and men met the tense context of Northern Mali. Two jihadists organisations, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Ansar Dine, both affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), were then in a state of turmoil. At the same time, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA in French), a secessionist entity composed of Tuaregs, threatened the unity of Mali.
The EU had already noticed that the Sahel was more and more worrying. France was the first to alert on the situation with its 2008 White Paper that described the incapacity of Sahelian States to fight against rebellion, trafficking, illegal immigration or terrorism. Therefore, in March 2011, the EU adopted a Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel that was released by the European External Action Service in September 2011. This document targeted four key themes: governance, development, and conflict resolution; regional political level and challenges of coordination; security and the rule of law; fight against and prevention of violent extremism and radicalisation. If the EU recognised the need of a “regional, integrated and holistic strategy”, only three countries were concerned by this policy: Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. But as Bérangère Rouppert says, “the first success of this policy [was] to exist: it [was] the first time that the EU adopted a real “strategy” towards a region of the globe”.
Therefore, on 16 July 2012, the EU established its EUCAP Sahel Niger civilian mission “to support the capacity building of the Nigerien security actors to fight terrorism and organised crime”. But in Mali, the situation was worsening: hostages taking, assassinations, arms, drug and human trafficking, terrorist acts were proliferating. Moreover, on 22 March 2012, a military coup led in Bamako ousted the President Amadou Toumani Touré, judged too soft in his fight against northern Islamists. Indeed, in the meantime, MOJWA, Ansar Dine and AQIM declared independence of three northern regions, Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, and imposed Sharia.
In reaction, from July 2012, the EU decided to study the possibilities of action in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework. In October 2012, the European Council affirmed that the “situation pose[d] an immediate threat to the Sahel region as well as to West and North Africa and to Europe” and that the EU was committed to “examine support for the envisaged international military force in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2071 and speed up planning of a possible CSDP military operation to help reorganise and train the Malian defence forces”. The mentioned UN Resolution 2071 “call[ed] upon […] regional and international organizations […] to provide as soon as possible coordinated assistance, expertise, training, and capacity-building support to the Armed and Security Forces of Mali”.
Therefore, on 17 Janvier 2013, the Council of the European Union gave its approval to EUTM (European Training Mission) Mali and appointed French General François Lecointre at the head of the operation. The objective was to provide military advice and training to Malian Armed Forces in order to restore Mali territorial integrity and reduce the strength of terrorist groups. EUTM Mali also provided for training on “International Humanitarian Law, protection of civilians and human rights”. The first European soldiers were sent in Mali on 8 February 2013 and EUTM was officially launched ten days later by the Council of the European Union Decision 2013/87/CFSP. Its first mandate was envisaged for fifteen months, but several prolongations were decided, as we will see later on. As for the common costs, they were estimated to 12.3 million euros. Indeed, 22 EU countries participated in EUTM, excepting Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Cyprus, and Malta. All in all, about 500-550 Europeans worked in Mali, including 200-210 French people. EUTM had also to coordinate its actions with EUCAP Sahel Niger, international organisations such as the UN, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union, as well as with EU Member States, the US and Canada.
However, EUTM Mali was not meant to be involved in fighting, it was only destined to the training of Malian troops, nothing more. This lack of ambition was criticised by some who sought to take advantage of the Malian crisis to resort to EU battlegroups. Indeed, the EU was quite divided regarding military intervention in Mali.
The French intervention and the timid support of its allies
On 10 January 2013, while EUTM Mali mission was about to start, the jihadists based in the north decided to launch an offensive. 200 vehicles and 1 500 combatants moved towards the towns of Mopti and Ségou, which could have opened the way to the capital, Bamako, where 12 000 Europeans lived, including 6 000 French. The Malian President, Dioncounda Traoré, asked then the support of his French homologue François Hollande, who sent an intervention force located in the area: helicopters from Burkina Faso, aircrafts from Chad, and tanks from Ivory Coast stopped the raid by 12 January. In fact, this operation known as Operation Serval was planned for weeks by the French military staff. Intelligence had noticed that jihadists were impressively organising, meaning that a breakthrough towards the south was imminent.
At the end of January 2013, the French forces had liberated Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. A new phase began, with the French transferring the security of the territory to Malian forces. Moreover, the ECOWAS and the UN deployed two international missions: MISMA and MINUSMA. The African-led International Support Mission to Mali (MISMA in French), was authorised by the UN Security Council Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012 and became effective on 17 January 2013. MISMA gathered 6 000 African soldiers. It was replaced on 1 July 2013 by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA in French), created by the UN Security Council Resolution 2100 of 25April 2013. 15 775 personnel are currently deployed, including 1 180 civilians, 1 718 police officers, and 12 877 peacekeepers, most of them coming from Nigerien, Senegalese and Chadian MISMA forces.
Hence, it seemed that France was quite alone to ensure the survival of the Malian State. Its allies only helped it by providing logistical assistance. The US did not want to lead another military operation in a Muslim territory, neither they wanted France to do so. In fact, they were surprised by the speed of Operation Serval and found themselves confronted to a fait accompli, compelled to help the French. Washington provided thus intelligence, air transport, supplies, and drones. Some other non-EU countries also assisted France. Canada and the United Arab Emirates sent their C-17s aircrafts, and Algeria authorised the overflight of its territory. Regarding the EU, the United Kingdom was the first to deploy its C-17s aircrafts, followed by Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Spain with their C-130s Hercules, then by Germany and its C-160s Transall. The UK also lent a Sentinel surveillance aircraft, and the Netherlands its KC-10s refuelling tanker aircraft.
One may ask why EU Member States did not involve themselves deeper? Several reasons can explain their reluctance. Firstly, NATO intervention in Libya. Indeed, France and the UK had participated to the fall of Khadafi, alongside the US, causing the destabilisation of the area. Some EU countries had then criticised the Franco-British “closed session” and might have been unwilling regarding war in Mali. Secondly, the French operation was seen as “neo-colonialist”. France was perceived as protecting its own interests and there was no reason for the EU to pay for it. Thirdly, building the “European Defence” was not the priority for many EU States that preferred counting on NATO to ensure their security.
Therefore, critics emerged following the French intervention against the inability of the EU to project itself at military level. The French were obviously the first to deplore this situation. Both the National Assembly and the Senate released reports describing the lack of support from the Europeans. However, the European Parliament also reproached the Member States for demonstrating a lack of solidarity with France. The 16 January 2013 press communiqué stated: “MEPs saluted France’s military engagement in Mali and urged EU member states to show real solidarity with Paris in Tuesday’s urgent debate with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. They also deplored the lack of a European response to the crisis in the region.” This reality shows that the EU is not able to be a geopolitical power, for the simple reason that the foreign policies of 28 Member States (27 today) can’t be similar. Hence, France took the lead in the Sahel with the new Operation Barkhane.
The major role played by France in the Sahel
Once the Serval operation achieved on 31 July 2014, France gave the relay of Mali stabilisation to African partners and MINUSMA. However, since the jihadist threat did not only concerned Mali but all regional countries, the answer had to be wider. This regional approach aimed at backing partners’ armed forces in the Sahel-Saharan strip, strengthening international military means, and preventing reconstitution of terrorist zones in the area.
This is why France launched Operation Barkhane on 1 August 2014, which is still ongoing. Although this operation represents the military side of the French global approach (politics, security, development), Barkhane also contains a section for development. Its three objectives are: the fight against terrorist armed groups, the backing of partner militaries, and the action for populations. One of the main principles of Barkhane is to enable African partners to appropriate the fight against terrorism. Therefore, Barkhane cooperates with many other initiatives as part of a global strategy (EUTM Mali, MINUSMA but also the G5 Sahel Joint Force, see below).
Regarding the fight against terrorism, Barkhane mainly operates in the tri-border region (between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger), where the risk is the highest. The operation also focuses on terrorist groups’ leaders: since October 2019, three of them were killed and one captured. Concerning the partnership with regional militaries, Barkhane brings an operational training to the G5 Sahel Joint Force: in 2020, 5 100 Malian, Nigerien, and Chadian soldiers were trained throughout a combat partnership. As for assistance to populations, Barkhane leads several projects to improve life conditions and make the operation more acceptable: access to water, energy, care, or education constitute some examples. It also trains the Malian Armed Forces to conduct such projects. In 2020, the operation undertook 76 civil-military projects and 350 medical cares for Malian, Nigerien and Chadian populations.
Currently, Barkhane includes 5 100 French soldiers, 3 drones, 7 fighter aircrafts, 20 helicopters, 5 to 8 tactical and strategic transport aircrafts, 220 light armoured vehicles, 280 heavy armoured vehicles, and 400 logistics vehicles. Since 2018, the UK has deployed three CH-47 heavy-lift helicopters, and Spain two transport aircrafts located in Senegal and Gabon. The US also bring their contribution in supplies (40% of them in 2019), strategic transport and intelligence.
However, European support to Barkhane has always been very low. Could the new Takuba Task Force reverse the trend? Announced at the Pau summit that gathered France and the G5 Sahel on 13 January 2020, this unit should reach its full operational capability in March 2021. Placed under the control of Barkhane and composed of special forces, Takuba is supposed to complete Barkhane by training Malian Armed Forces and fighting terrorism, especially in the dangerous Liptako region. The advantages of Takuba are its particular capacities: reactivity, lightness, and speed.
For the time being, ten EU countries are part of it: France, Estonia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, only half of them are committed to deploy troops. France and Estonia have already 100 and 40 men on the ground while 150 Swedish, 100 Italians and 30-60 Czechs should arrive soon. The other countries only accepted to send a few liaison officers. Indeed, many EU Member States still refuse to interfere offensively in the Sahel, for the reasons previously said. But these States are also frightened of a French stalemate in the region. Takuba then could count on non-EU countries, such as Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, that already showed their interest. In any case, French President Emmanuel Macron will have to pursue its diplomatic action to reach the goal of 2 000 men in Takuba.
If France is the leading military power in the Sahel, Paris is also committed to act for development and climate change. During the One Planet Summit held on 11 January 2021, Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed the need of the Green Great Wall. This project was first launched in 2007 to build an 8 000 km green wall from Senegal to Ethiopia that could contribute to better climate and economy in the 11 concerned countries. However, in 2020, only 4% of the building were achieved. The One Planet Summit has thus revived the project by finding new investments: all in all, 14,3 billion dollars (11,8 billion euros) have been promised for 2021-2025 by several international actors: the World Bank (WB), the European Commission, and the European Investment Bank are the main multilateral doners.
The Green Great Wall shows that the EU is more willing to take part in development projects rather than military interventions, ensured by France. However, the EU also conducts civilian missions in Mali and Niger, as seen previously, to train external and internal security forces.
The EU actions in the Sahel
EUTM Mali has been extended on 18 May 2020 for four more years. The mission still aims to train Malian Armed Forces (MaAF) in order to restore Malian territorial integrity, to fight against terrorist groups, and to provide military assistance to the G5 Sahel. EUTM Mali is still a civilian mission, so it does not take part in combat. The mission has two objectives: “Contribute to improving the operational capacity of the MaAF under the control of Mali’s legitimate civilian authorities; Support the G5 Sahel through making the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the national armed forces in the G5 Sahel countries operational.”
EUTM Mali is led by Spanish General Fernando Luiz Gracia Herreiz, based in Bamako, and composed of 1077 people, including 700 soldiers. The total budget for 2020-2024 reaches 133,7 million euros funded by 25 countries: 22 EU Member States and three third States (Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro). The five EU countries that do not contribute to the mission are Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Malta and Poland.
EUCAP Sahel Mali
In the Framework of its Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, the EU launched a new mission called EUCAP Sahel Mali. Approved by the Council of the European Union on 15 April 2014, it started on 15 January 2015. This civilian mission is aimed at providing “experts in strategic advice and training to the Malian Police, Gendarmerie and National Guard and the relevant ministries in order to support reform in the security sector”. EUCAP Sahel Mali has three lines of operation – strategic advice, training, coordination, and cooperation with other international missions (MINUSMA, EUTM Mali) and civil society – and owns a regional coordination cell to cooperate with the G5 Sahel.
On 15 January 2021, EUCAP Sahel Mali has been extended for two years with three priorities: strengthening the good governance, respect of Human rights, fighting against illegitimate violence and impunity; facilitating the redeployment of internal security forces in the territory and backing the return of the State and basic services in the country; backing the authorities and internal security forces in securing 2022 elections. Led by French official Hervé Flahaut, EUCAP Sahel Mali has a budget of 84.47 million euros for the period 2021-2023, financed by 16 EU countries and 3 third countries. It is composed of 180 people, including 48 locals.
EUCAP Sahel Niger
As for EUCAP Sahel Mali, EUCAP Sahel Niger seeks to improve Niger’s internal security sector to fight extremism, organised crime, and trafficking. The mission provides assistance and training in interoperability and strategic advice, technical competencies, border management and irregular migration, justice, human rights and gender, coordination and regional approach, and work with the civil society. Since its launch in 2012, EUCAL Sahel Niger has trained more than 19 000 members of the Niger Internal Security Forces. Led since 2018 by Frank Van der Mueren, a senior Belgian Police Officer, the mission is based in Niamey, the capital, with a permanent branch located in Agadez since 2016. Around 120 Europeans from 16 EU Member States work for EUCAP Sahel Niger that has been extended until September 2022.
Besides these civilian CSDP missions ensured by the UE, Brussels also supports several international actions.
Multilateral actions backed by France and the EU
The G5 Sahel
The G5 Sahel was created on 16 February 2014 in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. This organisation wanted to be an institutional framework of coordination and regional cooperation for fight against terrorism, governance, and development. Therefore, the G5 Sahel collaborates with other partners, such as the UN, the EU, the African Union (AU), the WB, the International Monetary Fund, and the ECOWAS to receive international assistance and reach its objectives.
The G5 Sahel supreme body is the Conference of Heads of State. It usually meets once a year and sets the course and the strategic orientations. Its subordinate is the Council of Ministers, that takes the decisions. Then comes the Permanent Secretariat, which is directly under the Council’s authority and in charge of implementing its decisions. There are also 5 Coordination National Committees, one for each State, composed of experts in every field, and a Security and Defence Committee, which gathers the chiefs of staff and security experts.
One of the main sectors of the G5 Sahel is the military. To improve the fight against terrorism, ensure security, and assert the Member States’ authority, a Joint Force was set up in February 2017. Placed under the control of the African Union Peace and Security Council, its role is to lead military operations in a 50 kilometres zone on each side of the G5 Sahel Member States’ common borders. Its goals are to fight terrorism, drug and human trafficking, restore the State authority, facilitate humanitarian operations, and contribute to implementation of development actions.
This Joint Force is composed of 5 000 soldiers, policemen and gendarmes, split into seven battalions of 650 men, each of them including 550 soldiers and 100 policemen and gendarmes. These units are divided all over the Sahel in three time zones: West (Mauritania, Mali), Centre (Mali, Burkina-Faso, Niger), and East (Niger, Chad).
Regarding the funding, the Joint Force received in 2017 a first aid from the EU of 253,6 million euros. In 2020, Brussels announced a new envelope of 194 million euros for the G5 Sahel, 112 million aimed at strengthening security, human rights, humanitarian law, and State authority, 82 million intended to improve development, life conditions, and social cohesion. All in all, between 2014 and 2020, the EU provided 4,7 billion euros to the Sahel, 3,6 billion for development, and 1,12 billion for humanitarian aid.
As part of EU and international assistance for the G5 Sahel, two main entities were created to coordinate the aid: the Sahel Alliance and the Coalition for the Sahel.
The Sahel Alliance
In order to respond to security and development challenges in the Sahel, France, Germany and the EU decided to set up the Sahel Alliance in July 2017. They were joined by the WB, the African Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme, then by other EU Member States such as Italy, Spain, the UK, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, and one third State, Norway. The G5 Sahel is the beneficiary of this international programme.
The alliance targets six priority fields: education and youth employment; agriculture, rural development and food security; energy and climate; governance; decentralization and basic services; internal security. The Alliance method is to define and measure objectives by all partners as well as mixing the financing of projects between NGO’s, local authorities, and private sector to get more effectiveness.
Since its launch in 2017, the Alliance Sahel has carried out numerous projects: “550,000 people have had access to electricity, 1.6 million people have benefited from sanitation services and 5.5 million have been provided with drinking water. In terms of food security and health, the Alliance has enabled 2.9 million people to benefit from food assistance, 3.4 million children to be vaccinated and 660,000 women of childbearing age to benefit from a family planning method. In terms of training and professional integration, 515,000 producers and breeders were supported, 420,000 young people received vocational training, 2,400 judges, lawyers and clerks were trained, and 1,250 civil society organisations were supported”. Moreover, the number of projects has doubled, and the funding has grown impressively fast, from 7.6 to 16.9 billion euros in three years. In 2020, the Alliance stated that 800 projects will be led by 2022 for an overall budget of 11.6 billion euros.
The Coalition for the Sahel
This Coalition was announced on 13 January 2020 during the Pau summit. It was officially born on 28 April 2020, after the UE, the G5 Sahel, the AU, and the UN declared once again their commitment for security, stability, and development in the Sahel.
The Coalition for the Sahel is based on 4 main pillars: fight against terrorism, strengthening of the capabilities of the G5 Sahel States’ Armed Forces, support for the return of the State and the administrations in the territory (also called P3S for “Partnership for stability and security”), and development assistance. The Coalition is willing to bring a wider answer to the Sahel problematics by englobing military, P3S, and development dimensions together. In a way, it acts as a bridge between the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Alliance Sahel actions by supporting them.
The Coalition for the Sahel’s leading structure is the Secretariat, mainly composed of French officials and militaries but with an ongoing internationalisation. Its current Secretary General is Christophe Bigot, former French ambassador in Senegal. The Secretariat’s mission is to “run the coordination between the partners, provide coherence within and between each of the four pillars and to monitor the results”.
The Coalition for the Sahel has enabled a Malian battalion to enter Kidal, a symbolic city of the north. Thanks to its action, Chad also accepted to boost the G5 Joint Force by sending more troops in the tri- border area. Lastly, a joined staff was set up in Niamey, capital of Niger, to improve interoperability and effectiveness of Barkhane, the G5 Joint Force, and Nigerien, Burkinabe, and Malian forces in the tri-border region.
However, after height years of French and European presence in the Sahel, has the situation improved?
What results for France and the EU and what future for the Sahel?
Despite the plurality of international missions and the French military presence, it seems that the results have trouble to emerge.
Yes, the surge of 600 soldiers decided by Emmanuel Macron at Pau Summit in January 2020 has led to tactical victories against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which recognised ISIS. However, it seems than many of its losses also came from its rivalry with the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin), born in 2017 from the fusion of the main jihadist groups in the area and affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Even if these organisations have been unable to establish a califate, they remain very harmful.
Indeed, according to Niagalé Bagayoko, president of the African Security Sector Network, the French army, the G5 forces, and the EU missions use out-of-date methods that just do not fit with the reality on the ground. There is also an opaque management of the security sector in Saheli countries: several dubious practices are used to get more money, which is then out of control.
Moreover, even though the regional armed forces have been trained to be operational, they were not trained for human rights. 2020 has been the deadliest year for civilians. According to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project website, 2 400 of them were killed that year: “There has been more civilians or unarmed suspects killed by security forces in the Sahel in 2020 than by extremism groups”, Drissa Traoré said, a human rights activist. Event for French troops, 2020 has been the second worst year, with 9 dead, behind 2019 and its 17 casualties. Since the start of Operation Serval in January 2013, France has lost 51 soldiers in the region.
Furthermore, the G5 Sahel faces two major difficulties. Firstly, its Joint Force has trouble to establish a single command, and its means are too weak to have a real impact on the ground. Secondly, it is overwhelmed by the numerous frameworks of action that imply complex administrations and budgets to set up.
Finally, the actions for development are not always well conducted. They are often too localised to have enough consequences for populations. But they are especially dependent on security. When jihadists are chased from a zone, projects are sometimes to slow to start, as are the deployment of the State services, enabling the jihadists to come back and threaten the good implementation of these projects. In other cases, security forces are not sufficient enough to deal with militias and jihadists, as in Ménaka region, which prevents development personnel to act freely. Moreover, some populations are not always pleased to welcome the French army nor the State services and prefer to collaborate with militias or jihadists.
This last problematic seems to be the cornerstone of the Sahel issues, what one may call “governance”. The challenge is to ensure the authority of Saheli States but so far, few reforms have been conducted to do so. And the Western partners seems quite negligent. “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.” The Sahel Coalition suffers from the same ill: “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.”
Even if the Western partners are often reluctant to press Sahelian governments for fear of making them less cooperative, they are not a substitute for Sahelian elites though. However, according to International Crisis Group, France and the EU now have to focus on 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”.
The French and Saheli forces should thus update their strategy to fit with this new approach. However, one question remains: how long will France stay in the Sahel? As said above, many observers fear a stalemate and call for a withdrawal. And when France leaves, will the G5 Sahel able to ensure security on its own?