G5 Sahel Joint Force commander: ‘We must win the trust of civilians’
General Hanana Ould Sidi, commander of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, details the main lines of his strategy in an interview.
When Mauritania’s General Hanana Ould Sidi took command of the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel in September 2018, he found the force, which is backed by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, in bad shape. Its headquarters, located in the Malian city of Sévaré, was destroyed in an attack in June. The €423m ($484m) pledged by the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and France were slow to arrive. The new boss therefore began by making his units operational and persuading donors to release funds as soon as possible.
From 2013, Ould Sidi served as deputy to General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, then Mauritania’s armed forces chief of staff and now a presidential candidate. The two had trained together at the Académie Royale Militaire de Meknès in Morocco.
Today, Ould Sidi seems to want to apply to the G5 Sahel the strategy that has enabled his country to eradicate terrorism from its soil – Mauritania has not suffered an attack since 2011.
The country’s method is based on a short chain of command, strong discipline, a permanent military presence in sensitive areas, an effective intelligence system and a relationship of trust with the population.
The Africa Report: Why did the G5 Sahel force headquarters leave Sévaré for Bamako after the attack of 29 June 2018?
Hanana Ould Sidi: The decision to locate the headquarters in Sévaré did not take into account the nature of a joint-theatre command post and the security conditions it demands. Its isolated position in the middle of the theatre of operations, without adequate protective infrastructure, far from the operational bases of its tactical units, was contrary to the needs of a command post that combines the skills for conceiving, planning, coordinating and conducting operations.
Bamako seemed to us to be the most appropriate option. We conducted three operations in January and February 2019: SANPARGA in the “three borders” area (Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger); TAAMA on the border between Mali and Mauritania; and KINASSAR on the border between Niger and Chad.
Are there still any weaknesses in your operations?
Of course there are still some, mainly due to the slow pace of equipment installation and the difficulties of providing logistical support to the battalions. In addition, intelligence cooperation between the Joint Force and forces in the theatre of operations could be strengthened.
How can we avoid abuses against civilians who are accused by some soldiers of supporting terrorists?
Respect for human rights is at the forefront of my vision. Our instructions on this matter are very firm, and their violation will be sanctioned. Impunity is over! We have trained our leaders on how to respect these rights and how to implement a compliance framework. The arrested suspects are first taken into the care of the military police elements present in the battalions […] and then are handed over to the competent national legal authorities. We are closely monitoring these operations.
Respect for human rights is at the forefront of my vision. Impunity is over!
During one of them, in the “three borders” region, the general staff ensured that a suspect had been handed over safely to the gendarmerie. Civilians are a real concern in our confrontation with terrorists.
We should remain modest about our immediate effectiveness: our opponents flee from us, but they hide amongst the inhabitants. We cannot know if this herdsman or that farmer with his daba [hoe] are fighters who will take up arms as soon as we have lost sight of them. Our battalions must therefore ensure a permanent presence on the ground, and also provide protection and assistance to civilians in order to win their trust.
The G5 Sahel has a military component, the Joint Force, and an economic component dedicated to development. The latter was allocated a budget of €1.3bn in December in Nouakchott. Are they moving forward together?
The military component is ahead of the development component, which involves, amongst other things, restoring state authority, reestablishing basic public services (construction of schools and clinics) and creating jobs in underdeveloped areas.
In Nouakchott, 40 priority investment projects were identified for implementation between 2019 and 2021. They will be a real test of whether the roots of terrorism can finally be removed – because the Force alone will not be enough.
Behind the change in leadership
Heads of state decided on General Ould Sidi and his Chadian deputy, General Oumar Bikimo, to lead the G5 Sahel Joint Force on 1 July 2018 at an African Union summit in Nouakchott that was overshadowed by security issues. Two days earlier, on 29 June, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno and France’s President Emmanuel Macron had banged their fists on the table after the attack that destroyed the Force’s headquarters in Sevaré, Mali.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who had imposed the choice of this city as a base and General Didier Dacko as force commander, had to bow to his peers. General Hanana’s first decision was to move the headquarters to Bamako, where partners, donors and means of communication are more easily accessible.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.