The political and economic instability of the Sahel is as clear as day following a second coup in Mali in May 2021 (just nine months after the previous one), coups in Burkina Faso and Chad, and the increased presence of Russian-backed Wagner mercenaries in Mali.
Furthermore, the UN reports that 2.1 million people are internally displaced in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The Sahel region is still recovering from a 2018 food crisis that left between 7 and 13 million malnourished. 5 000 or more conflict-related fatalities have been reported in these three countries for three years straight, with nearly 2 500 instances of political violence in 2021 alone.
Yet developments in the Sahel have taken a backseat while the West’s attention has been focused on Ukraine. Europeans have been sidelined from the great power politics (with contemporary characteristics) playing out in eastern Europe, in part due to internal divisions, but they have also been completely unable to provide any meaningful contribution to stabilising the Sahel. This is illustrated by the flailing French-led Operation Barkhane, Denmark’s expulsion from Task Force Takuba (supporting Barkhane), and largely symbolic EU-wide sanctions on some members of Mali’s junta.
A broken EU record
International organisations, the EU and EU Member States have failed to implement the integrated approach required to address the root causes of regional instability and sustain peace in the Sahel. Weak politico-military checks and balances produce ever frequent coups and economic aid winds up funding patronage networks and corrupt heavy-handed regimes.
The multiple military missions active in the Sahel – the UN’s MINUSMA, French Operations Serval (2013-2015) and Barkhane (2014-Present), Task Force Takuba (since 2020), and a trio of EU CSDP missions (EUCAP Sahel Mali, EUTM Mali, and EUCAP Sahel Niger) – are focused on securitisation, border management, and counter-terrorism. This approach was initiated by France in 2013 – before the 2015 terrorist attacks across Europe and in Bamako, and before the significant migratory pressures of 2015. From 2015 onwards, they seized the moment to ‘Europeanise’ and intensify this approach under the (misled) assumption that more hard security was needed to enact real change.
However, more often than not, these activities deprive local economies of essential income and spoil the fine political balance that allows authorities to maintain the little influence with local leaders that they have. Since 2018, when the EU’s Court of Auditors delivered a damning report on the operational ineffectiveness of the EU’s CSDP missions in the Sahel, the situation has only deteriorated further. Despite early optimism that regionalising the EU’s approach through the G5 Sahel, a platform aiming to increase security and development coordination, this French-led initiative put a definitive end to any significant role for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and African Union (AU) in the Sahel.
The Sahel does not suffer from a lack of structures meant to improve its governance but, rather, the mushrooming of duplicative and inefficient platforms, initiatives, and organisations – many imposed by external actors (such as France) as a condition for economic aid and development assistance. And yet, the 2022 EU-AU Summit’s draft statement calls for more structured European-African security cooperation and ‘African solutions to African problems’. In repeating these mantras as if a broken record, the EU is not only doubling down on an approach that has thus far clearly not worked for the Sahel but fails to take any responsibility for making matters worse.
Back to the old drawing board
The draft summit statement unfortunately echoes the latest publicly available draft Strategic Compass, meant to provide a roadmap for greater EU cooperation in security and defence. But a paradigm shift is required if the EU wants to demonstrate the added value of its Sahel engagement. The EU must re-balance its securitising rhetoric and actions, balancing military assistance and operations, security sector reform and border management with a more development- and human security-centric approach. This would at once give the EU a new opportunity to ‘earn its chops’ as a relevant security provider, prove that Member States are serious about burden-sharing in matters of security and peace, and reduce (national) political exposure to failure.
France must give up its exclusive politico-military channels and monopoly of intelligence activities in the Sahel. Instead, it should keep up good habits on display during its rotating Presidency of the Council to truly follow through on its ambitions for greater EU strategic autonomy.
The EU Political and Security Committee should then ask the European External Action Service to go back to the old drawing board and come up with a new Political Framework for an EU Crisis Approach to the Sahel more aligned with its own humanitarian-development-peace nexus. This must focus on seeking and sustaining dialogue with non-state (and sometimes radicalised) actors, who are often viewed as legitimate authorities in local communities, as well as supporting the Sahel with jobs and natural resource management, and proactively engaging local authorities in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration plans.
Simplifying governance is also key. This means taking a regional perspective and encouraging positive spillover effects by empowering ECOWAS, which the AU hopes can be part and parcel of its peace and security architecture. The EU should channel development and humanitarian aid, as well as technical assistance through ECOWAS’ structures and offer seconded EU personnel to boost its administrative capacity. The EU should also consider integrating its few (positive) tangible outcomes, such as the Regional Advisory and Coordination Cell for the Sahel, within ECOWAS structures, rather than continue to support a delegitimised G5 Sahel.
By contributing to better governance (diplomacy) and addressing the root causes of instability (development), the EU may better understand how to re-calibrate its military engagement (defence). As a complete transfer of ownership and total military retreat is not feasible in the short-term – despite EU insistence on ‘African solutions to African problems’, European efforts must be tightly coordinated with the AU, UN, and United States.
The upside is significant: a new EU approach might prove the added value of the EU’s model to civil society in the Sahel and simultaneously address the root causes of the deteriorating security situation. Lest the region become the playground of illiberal great powers that are only too happy to open and close the tap of instability when it serves their strategic interests.