More than Just Military Action Needed in the Sahel
Most accounts of the situation in the Sahel emphasize the region’s pernicious security environment and the complex security threats it presents. In particular, the proliferation of terrorist groups and criminal networks involved in drug, human, and arms trafficking make the region a breeding ground for violence and unrest. Because of the transnational character of these threats, many actors have a strategic interest in stabilizing the region and preventing the spillover of security menaces. They are ready to put money and resources to achieve that purpose, usually by military means.
The Sahel region today is the theater of multiple — sometimes poorly coordinated — initiatives. France stands out as a key security player in the region through its Operation Barkhane, deployed in 2014 to succeed the 2012 Operation Serval in Mali and Operation Epervier in Chad (1986-2014). Much less visible is the presence of U.S. troops on the ground in the Sahel engaged in the fight against Al Qaeda and Boko Haram militants. Also present is MINUSMA, a 12,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force, authorized by the UN Security Council, albeit with no mandate to use force. In addition to these operations, the European Union advises and trains the Malian security forces through its military mission EUTM Mali. Other regional actors have also intervened to stabilize the Sahel region on an ad hoc basis. ECOWAS, for instance, deployed forces in Mali and in the Lake Chad region.
With the recent creation of the G5 Sahel, the military response to the challenges posed by the Sahel is further confirmed. G5 Sahel is composed of five Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso) and is intended to be a security partnership authorized to use force and engage in combat against insurgents and terrorist groups in the region. With a full potential of 5000 troops, the force is expected to enable the five Sahel states to take responsibility for their own security, while also paving the way for an eventual withdrawal of the French forces. The estimated budget for G5 Sahel is 423 million euros for the first year of operation, to be assembled through contributions of the five Sahel countries (10 million each) and pledges from France and the EU. The UN Security Council welcomed the creation of the G5 Sahel but has not made financial commitments, reportedly because of U.S. preference to provide individual assistance to the Sahel countries rather than through the UN’s multilateral frameworks. There is also interest from the Gulf region: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recently pledged 100 million dollars and 30 million dollars respectively for the G5 Sahel force.
Many of the threats presented by the Sahel do indeed require the deployment of well-trained and well-equipped forces capable of fighting counter-insurgency.
The multiplication of military operations in the Sahel suggests a preference of both international and local actors for military solutions to the Sahel’s problems as — one is tempted to think — an easy exit out of a complicated political and socioeconomic situation. Interestingly, by emphasizing the military solution, the international community seems to operate a division of labor that bespeaks a reliance on what African states are perceived to do best: developing and deploying coercive capabilities. For instance, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Chad’s army has a reputation of being one of the most potent and muscular forces in the region, giving it a significant role in regional security.
To be clear, this is not an argument against military efforts to stabilize the Sahel and respond to the extremely complex security threats that it faces. Many of the threats presented by the Sahel do indeed require the deployment of well-trained and well-equipped forces capable of fighting counter-insurgency. While it is certainly important to step up military efforts to stabilize the Sahel and mitigate risks, it is also equally important that the military approach does not dominate discussions about how to deal with the situation in the Sahel. The point is that for the root causes of instability in the Sahel to be addressed, more than just a military answer is needed, and other approaches must not be lost in the roar and loudness of military interventions.
There are high stakes involved in the stability and security of the Sahel region, and this requires a response that integrates both the deployment of hard power and human security efforts. The international community and the local actors thus have to emphasize development initiatives and implement them in ways likely to make them more genuine and sustainable.
This entails addressing the causes of fragility that pervades the Sahelian countries on many levels. It includes addressing socioeconomic fragility that favors rampant poverty, corruption and high unemployment levels. It also requires putting greater emphasis on the necessity of reinforcing the legitimacy of the states of the region in the eyes of their constituencies and stressing their accountability and responsibility for good governance. These efforts must be mindful of the region’s ecological fragility and vulnerability to climate change as is one of the most arid areas in the planet. These are enormous challenges, and there is no single recipe for addressing them — only that focusing on military action is not enough.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.