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Pursuing elusive stability in the Sahel

Despite an expanding cast of security actors responding to conflicts in Mali, insecurity is escalating and spreading across porous borders throughout the Sahel region. The attack on 23 March 2019, the deadliest in the region since 2013, by a Dozo hunting militia killing at least 160 Fulani villagers in central Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, indicates an increasingly volatile security environment with entrenched, intercommunal grievances. Clan groups in the Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger elide borders, and the historic Sahara-Sahel trade routes and majority Muslim populations further connect the region. But the Sahel nations also share many underlying destabilizing factors—both predating and resulting from the evolving crisis in Mali.

Sahel countries face natural hazards (e.g. droughts, desert locust outbreaks), food insecurity, extreme poverty (80 per cent live on less than €2 per day), a lack of educational opportunities (with 70 per cent illiteracy) and high unemployment among those under 25-years old—a demographic that makes up 65 per cent of these countries’ populations. These development concerns add to the region’s already precarious stability and, at times, compete with state-level security and economic issues. Struggling to meet their populations’ basic needs, Sahel states are further constrained by the divergent interests of different ethnic groups, high rates of transborder crime and terrorist activity, debt reaching 77 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP)[1] and an influx of 136 000 Malian refugees.

To confront these challenges, Sahel countries are seeking new ways to cooperate in the name of joint security and critical infrastructure—for example, through the creation in 2014 of the Group of Five (G5) Sahel joint security force and collective development framework. However, efforts to stabilize the region often rely on weak, corrupt or absent state institutions, whose derelictions incite a marketplace of alternative actors attempting to provide the missing links for populations, further delegitimizing central governments. Competing agendas among the G5 states and international stakeholders can slow or stagnate progress, and militarization often accrues unwanted byproducts. These refuel root causes of the conflict that prompted a breakdown in stability at the region’s epicentre in Mali.

Crisis at the heart of the Sahel: The case of Mali

In 2012 a mixture of northern rebels, jihadists and fighters returning from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi took over two thirds of Mali’s territory. At the same time, a military coup in the south of the country ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré, causing political chaos. An unprecedented national and international mobilization resulted in a democratic transition to the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2013 as well as joint military and security-sector reform operations, ceasefires and negotiations between the Malian Government and armed groups, and a peace agreement in 2015. However, the agreement’s successful implementation has fallen short—in part because it maintains a political status quo and does not adapt to evolving grievances and actors. Regular violence persists in the country’s north and has spread to the central region of Mopti.

Considered by many to be a poster child of democracy since 1991, Mali’s disintegration astonished the international community. Mali had been an important partner for the United States in the fight against terrorism after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, and for France in helping it secure strategic uranium interests in neighbouring Niger. These military relationships eclipsed any warning signs of a building crisis in Mali: four separate uprisings from the northern Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups,[2] the Malian Government’s reliance on ethnic-based proxy vigilante groups to counter the rebellions, the first hostage incidents in 2002 by the jihadist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (which became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from 2007) and the public revelation that Mali was an international drug-transiting hub—all might have foreshadowed instability. Yet for various reasons, such as inadequate means or lack of effective prioritization, existing security mechanisms—including the Economic Community of West African States’ Early Warning and Response Network, the African Union’s Continental Early Warning System and the Regional Command for Joint Counter Terrorism Operations—failed to respond decisively to early indicators of crisis.

The factors underlying the crisis in Mali—disunity along ethnic lines, economic discontentment, limited territorial control, and corruption and weak institutions—are common to many countries across the Sahel. Responses within existing local structures were poorly adapted to deal with the escalating chaos. This prompted foreign intervention and, ultimately, the creation of the G5 Sahel to re-establish endogenous control in offsetting a regional arc of instability.

Is the G5 Sahel Joint Security Force an answer to regional instability?

To respond to collective security concerns, the FC-G5S is expected to increase operations in border conflict zones throughout 2019. The FC-G5S and parallel development efforts mark a notable step for the Sahel states in overcoming historic rivalries in the name of collective security. The FC-G5S has brought together 5000 military personnel, police officers, gendarmes and border patrol agents from the five states to operate in the Liptako–Gourma transborder area, the Mali–Mauritania border area (especially the Wagadou Forest) and the Lake Chad Basin region. As national militaries find themselves stretched on these border fronts, the FC-G5S seeks to alleviate some of the strain on individual states to offset future crisis. Niger’s coup-prone army, for example, fends off insurgents on three fronts—the Mali–Niger border, the Salvador Pass between Libya and Niger, and the Lake Chad Basin—while attempting to cope with irregular migration passing through its centre in Agadez—all on an annual defence budget of less than 3 per cent of the country’s external debt.[3]

The G5 Sahel mandate aims to fill an important gap among national forces by engaging more directly in counterterrorism operations in hard-to-access areas and border zones that are outside the mandate of the peacekeeping United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Increasing border security stands out as the greatest potential asset of the FC-G5S, according to one G5 Secretariat official.[4] But interventions in border conflicts can have unforeseen consequences, fuelling root causes of conflict by increasing unemployment and displacement. Crackdowns on arms flows from Libya and the closing of the border between Chad and Nigeria have disrupted seasonal employment patterns for Chadian migrants and decreased the lucrative value of the cattle trade. The local populations bear the burden of state of emergency restrictive measures in the Lake Chad Basin—such as the prohibition on trade in vegetables and fish, believed to be taxed by Boko Haram insurgents. Forced resettlements in the region have left tens of thousands of people without livelihoods, and as 80 per cent of the population depends on subsistence farming, Boko Haram remains one of the last local employers. A ban on motorbikes in the Mopti region of Central Mali, aimed at curtailing militia activity, has impeded farmers from accessing remote lands and contributed to food insecurity.

The mandate of the FC-G5S reflects international priorities in countering terrorism, illicit trafficking and migration. These objectives can diverge at state and local levels and detract from longer term initiatives to: (a) strengthen governmental institutions; and (b) close gaps between populations and the state via grassroots initiatives.

Collective security: Challenges over competing interests

The G5 has been slow to gain traction amid directional challenges and internal rivalries. This is despite continued pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. In addition to regional frictions and leadership adjustments,[5] pledged funds are not arriving on schedule[6] and the G5 states are struggling to coordinate with international stakeholders, MINUSMA and the French Operation Barkhane, as well as among themselves. The stronger rivalling military powers of Mauritania and Chad criticize the limited resources pooled in the joint efforts and resulting casualties. Joint military efforts tend to bolster the more poorly trained armies of Burkina Faso and Mali, which still struggle to address human rights violations among their ranks.

Hopefully, the G5 will serve as a credible counterpart to external initiatives for regional security and development. International stakeholders across four continents have pledged support. But competing visions and interests from external partners also hinder stabilization efforts from taking a decisive direction and dilute progress. The USA rebuffed repeated calls to grant the FC-G5S access to UN Security Council funding to back the use of force. Saudi Arabia stepped onto the scene with a pledge of €100 million, but funds have been slow to materialize and are being channelled indirectly through France.[7] Morocco—a country with numerous economic investments, religious outreach efforts and humanitarian aid projects in the Sahel—provides military training and border security support to the FC-G5S but is alleged to maintain ties to drug traffickers.[8] Morocco’s rival, the military powerhouse Algeria, has shown itself willing to export security threats to Mali to secure its own territory and safeguard its oil and gas exploitation sites. Rather than support to the G5, which it views as advancing the French agenda, Algeria has made last-ditch attempts to revive its own inchoate Joint Operational Staff Committee (Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint, CEMOC), a force that it has failed to mobilize since 2010, in part due to Algeria’s reluctance to give its Sahelian neighbours a reciprocal right of pursuit past its borders. France and its European allies,[9] the actors most vocal in calling for global financing of the joint force, continue to push counterterror and migration-focused initiatives, with a tendency to avoid some of the related political, developmental and ecological issues.

Mauritanian researcher Mohamed Mouemel El Boukhary gets to the heart of security complexities in the region: ‘We are in the presence of phenomena that necessitate surmounting the constraints linked to globalization and its paradoxes in order to find a good balance between national security and collective security, between security in its classical definition (military) and global security with all its pluridisplinary dimensions (political, economic, ecological, military).’

Most actors recognize a critical need for parallel development solutions to support the security agenda, strengthen regional resilience and offset future shockwaves. But development ventures are scattered among bilateral donors: the French-spearheaded Sahel Alliance, UN initiatives and the G5’s own Priority Investment Plan (PIP). The PIP tackles broad development and infrastructure ambitions such as a trans-Sahelian railway, unlikely to garner support from an international community that gives preference to resilience programmes to tackle the root causes of violent extremism.

How will elections in 2019 shape regional security?

In 2019 23 African countries will hold elections—including 4 of the 5 Sahel countries (see table 1). These elections and surrounding debates will have important consequences for the G5 states’ political unity and resilience capacities, as well as for the broader stability of the region.

The global community is willing to exert significant pressure in the name of moving democracy forward. However, elections can be beset by similar issues to those other stabilization efforts face, rendering the results (a) meaningless because of weak democratic electoral structures; (b) delayed because of competing political interests; or (c) adopted, but with unintended consequences such as civil unrest.

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the G5 states have experienced 20 military coups that have disrupted election cycles. Coups interrupted all four of Burkina Faso’s constitutional regimes, and the country has never known a transition of power through a democratic election. The constitutional referendum, originally expected in March, would give Burkinan citizens an opportunity to impose significant checks on the governing authority: limiting the president to two terms, establishing a procedure for impeachment through the constitutional court and legally guaranteeing the right to civil protest. Yet the vote has been postponed with limited clarity on when it might take place—a pattern in the region.

Mali has already twice postponed its legislative elections, and Chad’s current parliamentary elections, now scheduled for May, were meant to take place in 2015. The administration of President Idriss Déby in Chad is experiencing growing civil unrest among youth populations, who denounce impunity by members of society linked to the ruling elite. Recent French airstrikes against Chadian rebels further revealed the fragility of Déby’s political monopoly and could weaken Chad’s military standing within the G5. Mauritania’s President Ould Abdel Aziz declared he will step down in 2019. However, his party, the Union for the Republic (Union pour la République, UPR), won an absolute majority in the national assembly and regional councils in 2018 and maintains a firm control of the opposition. The UPR’s ethnic Bidhan elite have repeatedly blocked the party registration of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist movement (known as IRA-Mauritania), arrested the movement’s leader and imposed voting registration measures barring an estimated 15 000 enslaved members of the Haratin ethnic group from the polls.[10] In Niger, while no elections will take place this year, the country is already preparing for presidential and parliamentary assembly elections in 2021. President Mahamadou Issoufou is due to step down after his second five-year term amid factious opposition within his own party as to who will claim his seat; an army with a record of political intervention waits on standby.

Maintaining a delicate stability in Mali’s neighbouring states may require significant long-term responses to the root causes of fragility that underpin the region.[11] The coming year will reveal whether efforts to democratize and stabilize the Sahel will progress or become ensnared in archetypal traps. On the one hand, elections could allow more diverse and representative local leadership—a notable trend for post-conflict African countries over the past 25 years.[12] On the other, campaigns by their very nature intensify political debates, which can bring grievances to the fore, tribalize conflict and foment antagonisms—especially if election results are not considered transparent and fair. Dialogue platforms between populations and the state on political and security matters[13] can help engage people productively in politics and smooth transitions of power during turbulent times.

SIPRI’s Sahel West Africa Programme, in conjunction with partnering institutions in the region, is conducting eight qualitative studies assessing fragility and resilience factors, as well as the effects of the crisis in Mali on its neighbours. Find out more about the programme, along with research findings on SIPRI’s webpages.

[1] In 2019 Mauritania reported the highest debt levels of all the G5 states (77.3%), while Burkina Faso’s were the lowest (24.4%).

[2] Tuareg and Arab uprisings took place in Mali in 1963, 1991, 2006 and 2012.

[3] Over the past decade, Niger has raised its military spending from a previously steady 1.0% to 2.7% of GDP. However, numbers of military personnel remain small, at c. 11 000.

[4] Sall, A., Coordinator for the regional cell on the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism in the Sahel (CELLRAD) at the G5 Secretariat in Nouakchott (at the time of the interview), interview with the author, 21 Dec. 2018.

[5] The Malian General Didier Dacko stepped down after a car-bomb attack carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) killed 6 and destroyed the Sévaré location in April. In a strategic manoeuvre to engage the two leading military powers of the G5, Mauritanian General Hanena Ould Sidi and Chadian Deputy Oumar Bikimo now lead the force.

[6] The United Arab Emirates, which had pledged €30 million to the FC-G5S, made a first contribution of €10 million to the G5 fiduciary fund in March 2019 after pressure from the French Government. A lot of reservations have been raised surrounding the fund, so the contribution marks a notable step in actualizing and streamlining pledges to the force. 

[7] In a visit to SIPRI in May 2018, Prince Turki al Faisal al Saud stated Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Sahel comes primarily from a counterterrorism perspective, while its rival Iran focuses on Nigeria.

[8] Morocco is the largest global producer of cannabis and a transit location for the cocaine trade.

[9] The individual countries of Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union, have all pledged support for the FC-G5S and Sahel Alliance.

[10] In 2018, the USA, citing continued slavery, cancelled preferential trade relations with Mauritania, a move that is projected to exacerbate the country’s debt and further destabilize the ruling order.

[11] As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa famously recorded in his novel The Leopard, ‘If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change’. [‘Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.’]

[12] Tripp, A.M., Women and Power in Post-conflict Africa (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, Nov. 2015)

[13] SIPRI’s research in Mali found dialogue mechanisms between security sectors and populations the most frequently called-for response for engaging civil society in the peacebuilding process.


This article was originally published by SIPRI