West Africa: Options for reviving security cooperation in the Sahel

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Funding shortfalls, shifting strategic alliances and Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel call for a new approach.

The Sahel is experiencing growing political and security upheavals. A series of unconstitutional changes of government have taken place in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, with continued insecurity and violent extremism spreading to West African coastal states.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force was created in 2017 to fight terrorism and drug and human trafficking in the region. Its objective was to foster regional cooperation and address security threats in its member countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

On November 16, the United Nations (UN) Security Council will discuss the joint force, which faces various challenges, including the continued need for more funding and capacity. It also struggles to maintain its independence from outside influences and remain operationally effective without Mali’s involvement.

After some G5 Sahel countries opposed Mali’s presidency of the organization, the country’s transitional government took of of the G5 Sahel on May 16. This was precipitated by an escalation of political tensions between French and Malian authorities after France criticized Mali’s decision to cooperate with Russian paramilitaries. This led to the Departure French Barkhane and Takuba forces from Mali.

Meanwhile, Niger has begun to reinforce its national guard with a mobile component in response to threats from extremist groups along its border with Mali. And the government of Burkina Faso, which took power in a September 30 coup, plans to arm civilians as part of the initiative of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland.

To be effective and protect civilians, a substantial improvement in the capabilities of the G5 Sahel force is necessary

The discussion at the UN Security Council comes two months after the defense ministers and chiefs of staff of the G5 Sahel countries meet on September 21 and 22 in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. They discussed a new strategy for the joint force after the withdrawal from Mali and agreed to revise its operational plan.

Given Mali’s withdrawal, they also decided to remove the three geographical areas of operation (called zones), which prevented the force from intervening effectively across borders. The joint theater command post will also be moved from N’Djamena to Chad to be closer to the operational zone. The meeting also decided that the G5 would support bilateral and multilateral military operations of its member countries.

These decisions would transform the joint force into an anti-terrorist intervention that could carry out operations in the various countries that make up the G5. Currently, its scope is limited to cross-border military missions.

The challenge, however, is to formalize these decisions and resolve the thorny question the long-term financing of the joint force, which has always been a major obstacle to its proper functioning. To be effective on the ground and to guarantee the protection of civilians, a substantial improvement in capacities is necessary.

In this regard, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, like all other African peace and security initiatives, needs the support of external partners. But it must take care to preserve its independence and remain sheltered from the influence of these partners.

Bilateral security initiatives are put in place to compensate for the ineffectiveness of the joint force

The other central question is how to sustain the joint force without Mali, a pivotal country at the epicenter of insecurity in the region. Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel disrupted the force’s geographic integrity in the region.

The members of the UN Security Council should consider how best to revive this security cooperation in light of the various challenges. Already, bilateral security initiatives are forming to offset the joint force inefficiency.

To Meet in Ouagadougou in August, the defense ministers of Burkina Faso and Niger reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to strengthening military cooperation. An agreement was signed to encourage joint activities in the border strip between the two countries, where the Taanli 3 army operation took place in April. The two ministers called on Mali to join their partnership in the Liptako-Gourma tri-border region. Mali has not yet responded.

The former Burkinabé transitional president, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, visited Mali and Niger on September 3 and 11. He had hoped to create a new military response based on the pooling of resources, the exchange of intelligence and joint operations to fight the jihadists on the common border between the three countries.

The September military coup in Burkina Faso did not change these ongoing dynamics. On November 2, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the country’s new transitional leader, traveled to Bamako to consolidate relations with Mali and improve operational cooperation between the Burkinabé and Malian armies. It should do the same with Niger.

Military cooperation between the countries of the Sahel must be built without interference from external partners

The imperative for these countries is to stem the rise and spread of the terrorist threat, illicit activities and tensions between communities in the three-border area. The authorities of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali recognize the interest of pooling their military resources to prevent this central space from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists and traffickers.

Recent developments suggest that a military reconfiguration is underway in the region. It could follow the format of the multinational force proposed by the Liptako-Gourma Authority in 2017, comprising Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This project never materialized as it was absorbed into the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which was launched soon after. Should Mali join the G5 Sahel, the force’s revised operational concept could direct most of its personnel to the Liptako-Gourma area.

It is also vital that military cooperation between the countries of the central Sahel be built without the interference of external partners, the scope of which must be limited to the support requested by the countries concerned.

Lasting solutions will require better funding of military operations. Coordination between these operations and governance and development interventions is equally important to address the root causes of violent extremism destabilizing the Sahel.

Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, Sahel Programme, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, Sahel Basin and Lake Chad

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