The European Union must apply a “tough love” approach to the Sahel, linking continued financial support for Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to the implementation of long-promised governance reforms to prevent a further destabilisation of the fragile region, a new Friends of Europe report says.
In “Crossing the Wilderness: Europe and the Sahel”, senior fellow Paul Taylor argues that jihadist terrorism and irregular migration – the two problems that France and the EU set out to combat – are symptoms and not the root causes of chronic instability in the vast semi-arid zone bigger than Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Sahara.
“It’s high time to switch from a counter-terrorism to a pro-governance strategy,” he says.
Largely unconditional international security and economic assistance has given political and military elites in Bamako, Niamey, N’Djamena and Ouagadou perverse incentives to sit back and delay cleaning up their act or sharing power.
Unless it holds governments to their own commitments to tackle predatory governance, improve the rule of law and end the neglect of peripheral regions and minority communities, the EU is doomed to pour more money into the sand for little tangible result, the report argues. That requires the political courage to withhold budget support if agreed targets are not met.
Since France intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to repel jihadist-backed rebels sweeping southwards towards the capital, radical groups linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic State have spread violence from central Mali into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger and pose a growing threat to coastal states from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Guinea.
“Military action to contain and degrade jihadist groups can only buy time for political, economic and social solutions. Where it is accompanied by human rights violations, corruption and impunity, it fuels the very grievances on which radical groups prosper,” Taylor writes.
EU foreign ministers recognised in the new Integrated Strategy for the Sahel adopted on April 19 that a decade of European engagement through development, security training and humanitarian programmes worth 1 billion euros a year had failed to reverse the spread of insecurity. Indeed, 2020 was the worst year since the conflict began for the number of casualties, violent incidents, displaced persons, schools closed and persons suffering food insecurity and needing emergency humanitarian assistance.
The jihadists have exploited festering disputes between ethnic communities, between pastoralists and farmers, exacerbated by the impact of climate change and rapid population growth, as well as widespread fear of national armed forces, to recruit unemployed young men, maintaining a brutal kind of Islamist order in areas from which the state has retreated.
The EU should support local and national dialogue, including with armed groups, to resolve inter-community conflicts, build local truces and implement a genuine decentralisation, and restore public services (schools, courts, health care, clean water and sanitation) rapidly in areas cleared of rebels. It should insist governments disband militias responsible for many civilian casualties.
The report advocates a time-bound handover of security responsibility from Operation Barkhane to the G5 Sahel’s cross-border Joint Force and retrained national defence and internal security forces, with France and the United States remaining in the background to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, training and air support.
It offers a series of recommendations to the EU, Sahel governments, the international community, France and the United States to ensure that their considerable investments in the region produce a better outcome for the people of the Sahel and for the security of Europe.
The Author, Paul Taylor, has been a senior fellow with Friends of Europe since 2017