Does the world know what it wants in the Sahel?

Zoë Gorman | 21 February 2018

Since the crisis broke out in Mali in 2012, the Sahel region has become increasingly vulnerable. The G5 Sahel joint security force shows promise, but the international community and G5 states should evaluate their objectives and commitment to the force to meet the needs of local populations.

Weak governance, youth unemployment, porous borders and discontent over development initiatives make the Sahel ripe for an increase in illicit trafficking, armed banditry and the rise of organized jihadist groups. The picture of what the international community does not want could not be clearer. However, the vision for cooperation in the Sahel remains muddled. Heading into a donor summit for the G5 in Brussels on 23 February, international actors and donors are unsure how to match global needs with realities on the ground, what their expectations should be, how long to commit resources, how to communicate among themselves to prevent overlap, and what they really want for the Sahel in the years to come.

Advantages and challenges facing the G5

On the security front, the G5 inspires hope for stabilizing the region in ways that its predecessors were unable to:

  • The G5 walks a delicate balance between international involvement and local ownership.
  • It covers territory in the border regions, out of the practical reach of MINUSMA, where criminals slip across borders and where the French are hesitant to become embroiled in local disputes1
  • It fills a gap in the mandates of the existing forces by engaging more directly in counterterrorism in hard to access areas than MINUSMA and by combatting illegal trafficking in border zones outside the mandate of Operation Barkhane2.
  • It promotes collaboration and information sharing among states that are historic rivals.
  • It retains ad hoc relationships with other pre-existing security bodies of the African Union and regional power players. The G5 benefits from collaborative relationships, but shies away from strong affiliations with actors carrying reputational and structural baggage from previous failed initiatives.
  • The creation of the G5’s has inspired new programmes from international organizations and member states in reconnaissance, the prevention of violence and judicial proceedings.

However, local and international actors are beginning to recognize that none of this will be enough to make significant progress in the Sahel if the basic needs of the people go unaddressed. Since the initial Security Council discussions on UNSCR 2359 ‘welcoming’ the joint force, the Malian representative has emphasized humanitarian operations, development initiatives and state building as integral components of the mandate of the G5.

A two-track approach to regional security

The G5 must consider a two-track approach to tackling security and development in the region that prioritizes the needs of local populations . First, the security forces must forge positive relationships with local populations, by incorporating local perspectives on security needs. In the pilot Operation Hawbi in October (‘Black Cow), General Seyni Garba identified a need to establish trust with local populations through a long-term presence, rather than discrete operations. Local civilians were reluctant to denounce enemies for fear of backlash from armed groups for cooperating with the security forces. The G5 forces should establish a regular point of contact in each community to discuss the security needs of the local people and perform routine operations tailored to the needs of each community, such as escorting schoolchildren or the elderly at dangerous times of the day. The battalions require time to establish themselves in communities and are advised to not change posts frequently.

Second, a significant portion of funding for the G5 should be funnelled towards its development activities. This should be a separate arm from the security forces, and handle operations such as the Priority Investment Programme. This development arm would serve the needs and priorities of communities from the involved states, while bolstering already existing local structures (with some degree of state regulation and parallel state building). In the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) perception survey, participants from the northern regions indicated that the presence of MINUSMA brings development benefits, such as improved infrastructure, transportation, access to healthcare through military hospitals, job creation and opportunities. Unemployment and poverty were ranked as the country’s most critical issues, after insecurity related to the conflict in the North and before lack of safety between communities, banditry and crime. Development is irrefutably key to enable populations to recover from the crisis and to promote lasting stability – and excitement over the G5 could enliven a coordinated development response.

What to expect as the G5 takes form

Down the road, the G5 security architecture will likely include integration and capacity building initiatives to build up local police. Such capacity building platforms and local partnerships are needed to provide basic services, so that in the eyes of the local population there is a sense of ‘security’ to maintain. The G5 is also a step towards establishing regional autonomy and cohesion in confronting the complex issues facing the region. Because root causes linked to a lack of development and state illegitimacy feed cycles of instability, medium and long-term programming is essential to any regional strategy that endeavours to make a noteworthy impact, even in the short term.

1. The regional force represents an exit strategy for France, which is emphasizing autonomy and local ownership while providing regular counsel and fundraising power. General Lecointre, the Chef d’Etat-major des Armées, said in an interview that the region’s former colonial power hopes that the G5 will take over some of the responsibility for Barkhane’s Comités de Coordination Opérationelle (CCO), as a coordinating and institutionalising body for security programmes in the region.

2. The G5 engages more directly in counterterrorism than MINUSMA, which has counterterrorism operations within its mandate, but has been timid to implement such operations while international debate on counterterrorism as part of peacekeeping is ongoing and because MINUSMA lacks access to the remotest safe havens of armed groups. The G5 also combats illegal trafficking, outside the mandate of Barkhane, in areas where the French are hesitant to become embroiled in local disputes.

Photo credit main picture: Ēriks Kukutis, April 2016 via Flickr