3 May 2021
After much wait and debate, on 19 April, the Council of the European Union has approved a set of conclusions to establish its new Sahel strategy. One of the main theatres of European external action and often touted as Europe’s new southern border, actors had to contend with a range of issues, starting from the rebellion in Mali in 2012-2013 (Gaasholt, 2013), followed by wider destabilisation of the region. Indeed, jihadist violence, inter-communal clashes, and popular discontent with their respective governments have left Sahelians with little respite from violence. The EU’s new strategy objective is to address these multiple challenges. This builds on its previous iterations: in 2011, the EU had already developed a Sahel Strategy to frame its interaction with the countries of the G5 Sahel, the loose coalition of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The EU had already re-established new lines given the developments in the Sahel, notably increasing levels of violence, in its 2015 Regional Action Plan. The new strategy is an opportunity for the EU to engage the region with a clear direction and actionable objectives. Here we will unpack some of the contexts of the new strategy and look closer at the text to establish what it means, and what it could entail.
In this context, the main dynamic during the debate on the final text at the Council, opposed Member States that were unhappy with the security-centred nature of the text. However, the compromise that came out of the debate still puts a big premium on the idea of stability, ordering that priority over others such as development or even the return of the state. The pillars remain very much the same, those being: (i) the fight against terrorism, (ii) strengthening the capabilities of national defence and security forces and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, (iii) deployment of the State, administrations and basic services in a context of stabilisation, (iv) development actions. The insistence on governance taking a central role in these pillars has been especially loud from Civil Society Organisations (International Crisis Group, 2021).
These pillars are tackled by allocating significant development funds to projects in the region, and by establishing training missions in Mali to train the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMa) to take over, ensuring security for themselves. EUCAP Sahel Niger and Mali, for their part, are meant to build their civilian capacity, from the judiciary to the police forces. The brunt of military cooperation with Sahelian armies is borne by France, with its 5100 strong Barkhane operations given a strong anti-terrorist mandate. Barkhane is supposed to act as a support to the G5 Joint Force in its operations. The N’djamena summit on 15 February 2021 announced a 1200 strong Chadian reinforcement, on top of encouraging the already positive development of cooperation between Sahelian armed forces (Élysée, 2021).
The EU’s role as an actor is mostly limited to allocating funds and its EUCAP civilian capacity-building efforts. Many issues plague these civilian efforts. For instance, the lack of a centralised HR system, causing a lack of follow-up and dishonest recidivism to enjoy the benefits of the EUCAP programmes (Lopez Lucia, 2019). The same problems plague the EUTM mission. Meanwhile, despite this significant investment from the EU, insecurity has skyrocketed in the past years, stemming from intercommunal killings, jihadist violence to the armed forces themselves, exacting high human casualties. The last point could indicate that current training and cooperation efforts with Sahelian armies are not effective enough at conveying respect of human rights and gender issues sensitivities.
However, when it came down to drafting up the strategy, policymakers in Brussels have been sensitive to these kinds of well-founded criticisms, which is reflected in the 2021 strategy. For instance, §5 of the Council Conclusions, highlights the risk of degradation of the social contract, which in turn challenges the state. Later in §8, the conclusions clearly state the need to engage with the Sahelian partners politically, with governance at the heart of them, making use of the instruments already in place such as the Coalition Sahel or the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S). Building on these instruments, §23 attempts to tackle the increasingly complex environment that Europeans have been acting in, with overlapping initiatives, by highlighting that “The Coalition for the Sahel and its pillars provide the preferred framework for the EU’s action, without prejudice to the EU’s internal decision-making processes” (Council of the European Union, 2021). Seeing Brussels converge on one initiative to model its engagement after is encouraging, as Member States may have been put off from engaging in the Sahel for lack of a singular structure, which risks seeing overlapping initiatives and thus diluted results. The increasing buy-in to the Takuba task force acts as a similar signal toward European convergence. Its announced Full Operational Capability, early this April, is a confirmation of the desire and enaction of a concerted European military force in the Sahel (Lagneau, 2021).
Another notable addition to the Conclusions is the insistence on stronger accountability systems towards G5 Sahel armies. Extra-judicial killings have only been fuelling distrust towards the state, leaving the space open for groups such as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Islamic State West Africa Province or even Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, from the Liptako Gourma to the Lake Chad region to capitalise on these grievances. In §16, the strategy mentions “mutual accountability [which] is based on close and continuous political dialogue, allowing progress to be made in jointly agreed priority areas, in a climate of trust.”, following this up in §17 to insist that Sahelian states hold the brunt of the responsibility of stabilising their territory. Therefore, the initial idea of accountability here is of African ownership. In §30, the strategy directly addresses human rights violations enacted by armed forces. Coming down strongly on these kinds of abuses is key in restoring trust in the state, especially when, for many in Mali, armed forces are the sole representatives of the state they encounter. §27 tackles security sector reform and insists on strengthening control and internal accountability mechanisms (Council of the European Union, 2021). This last point comes in response to some of the well-founded criticisms mentioned above, however, it remains to see how this will translate on the ground. A possible avenue could be that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) could be a third party that the Europeans could rely on to possibly develop such systems of accountability. The recent divergence between France and the MINUSMA regarding the Bounti incident, where a French airstrike is alleged to have killed 19 civilians (France 24, 2021), could prove to complicate this type of cooperation. Instead, the EU is focusing on the fight against impunity, the main culprit in its understanding being the weak judicial system, and will thus engage deeper to address the failings of the judiciary.
Nonetheless, cooperation with MINUSMA is still a key part of the strategy, §39 makes this very clear. The strategy states that the EU will strengthen the multilateral system, of which the United Nations is the heart. Moreover, it will engage in technical cooperation, and it will work towards the operationalisation of the technical agreement between the EU, the UN, and the G5 Sahel countries, to provide operational and logistical support to the Joint Force as provided by the UNSC resolution 2391(Council of the European Union, 2021). Nevertheless, despite these many important aspects being directly addressed by the strategy, it leaves out one unaddressed yet impactful aspect. The question of migration flows is muted in the text of the conclusions (Goxho, 2021), and this omittance highlights the lack of direction for the EU in one of its most criticised fields of external action.
European militaries engaged in the Sahel are faced with implementing the direction set out by Brussels, yet they also have to contend with the latest developments in the Sahel. The coup in August 2020 in Mali and the transitional period that follows needs to be closely monitored, and the death of Chad’s Idriss Déby at the hand of rebels poses a great risk for the stability of the region, leaving the question open around the future of this staunch military ally for the Europeans. The status of Chad’s new battalion, announced at the N’djamena summit in February, deployed in reinforcement in the Three Borders region, remains unknown, however, the increased support by the African state may waver in the face of domestic issues and a surge of violence (Vincent & Le Cam, 2021). France, as displayed by Macron’s presence at Déby’s funeral and his following intervention, is betting on stability in Chad as a foundation for its action elsewhere in the Sahel (Reuters, April 2021).
To sum up, the new strategy does indeed set out to answer some of its most glaring issues, especially regarding accountability measures. It reiterates its call for multilateral cooperation while anchoring its action firmly in the idea of African ownership. It also tries to clarify which framework it has chosen for its action in the Sahel after a multitude of initiatives had been developed since the beginning of the crisis in the Sahel. Clarifying the coalition for the Sahel as the preferred one will help policymakers in Brussels see clearer. There is still much work to do on the ground to implement the new strategy, and while there is still space to critique the strategy, the EU had signalled its readiness to maintain its engagement in the Sahel.
Written by Louis RIDON, Trainee Manager & Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre
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