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The Sahel: Time for the EU to show tough love

Paul Taylor
By Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is a senior fellow at the think-tank Friends of Europe.

Posted on Tuesday, 18 May 2021 10:05, updated on Sunday, 23 May 2021 16:22

French President Emmanuel Macron greets President of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani next to Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum after a meeting with African leaders of the Sahel countries as part of the funerals of Chad President Idriss Deby in N'Djamena, Chad, 22 April 2021. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

For too long now, the European Union (EU) has been pouring financial, humanitarian and security assistance into the Sahel without holding the governments of fragile states in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to their commitments to reform their governance.

Despite ploughing €8.5bn ($10.3bn) into the world’s poorest region since 2014, the security situation continues to deteriorate. More than two million people are displaced within their own countries and a record 14.4 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.5 million suffering severe food insecurity, according to UN agencies.

A fight against terrorism

France, the former colonial power, intervened militarily in 2013 at the request of the Malian authorities to repel jihadist-led rebels who were advancing across central Mali towards the capital, Bamako. Amid fears that the state could collapse, Paris pressed its European partners to join the effort to prevent the Sahel from becoming a safe haven for jihadist fighters.

The EU established missions to train Malian soldiers, now extended to all five G5 Sahel states, and to build the capacity of Malian and Nigerien police and internal security forces. It stepped up direct budget assistance, development projects and humanitarian aid. Some European countries provided military and logistical support to the French and to a United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Mali.

But by framing European efforts mainly as a fight against “terrorism”, and from 2015 increasingly also against illegal migration, Paris and Brussels failed to address the root causes of instability in the region. These lie mostly in poverty, injustice, predatory governance and neglect of peripheral regions and minority communities, compounded by the impact of climate change and rapid population growth.

The Sahel leaders’ broken promises

Indeed, largely unconditional European financial and security assistance may have given Sahel leaders a perverse incentive to sit back and delay cleaning up their acts. Why rush to make governance reforms that entail confronting powerful interests and sharing power if the French are keeping the “terrorists” at bay and the EU is keeping the budget afloat?

After international mediation spearheaded by Algeria led to a peace agreement between the Malian government and two coalitions of mostly Tuareg rebels in 2015, former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta dragged his feet over implementing promised decentralisation and security reforms, while the insurgents were loath to lay down their arms.

Ramtane Lamamra, the former Algerian foreign minister who brokered the accord, says Keïta never took ownership of the deal or explained it to his own people.

Instead, jihadist groups spread their footprint into central Mali and across borders into Burkina Faso and Niger, exploiting long-standing inter-community conflicts between pastoralists, farmers and fishermen over access to land and water resources, and creating parallel local governance structures with their own Islamic schools, dispensaries and brutal form of justice.

The French and their European partners largely turned a blind eye to killings and human rights abuses by national armed forces and the growth of ethnic ‘self-defence’ militias – encouraged or tolerated by the Malian and Burkinabe authorities – that have killed thousands of civilians.

Despite EU efforts to promote modernisation and transparency, the Malian defence ministry, for example, still has no digital inventory, personnel database or system for paying soldiers’ wages. This leaves a wide-open door for corruption and nepotism.

The EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, now acknowledges a problem: “We may have signed too many blank cheques in the Sahel.”

Mutual accountability

A new EU Integrated Strategy for the Sahel adopted last month stresses the principle of “mutual accountability”, suggesting Brussels will now be willing to withhold budget-support payments if agreed benchmarks are not met.

Leaders of the G5 Sahel countries promised a “civilian surge” in an N’Djamena summit communiqué in February to return state administration and basic public services swiftly to areas cleared of rebels, uphold the rule of law and speed up the implementation of the Algiers peace agreement. They also pledged to make security forces respect human rights and international humanitarian law.

The EU should agree on benchmarks with Sahel governments for implementing these goals and use its financial leverage to ensure they are achieved. It should also target its assistance better to support local and national dialogue and reconciliation efforts, as well as education, health and agriculture projects in partnership with local communities and civil society.

Bottom line

France should plan to wind down its Operation Barkhane peacekeeping mission over three to five years, while continuing to provide intelligence, training and air support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force and retrained national armed forces. Only such a “tough love” policy can prevent the Sahel from turning into Europe’s Afghanistan.  

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