In recent years, the evolution of instability scenarios in Mali and the ongoing regionalization of the jihadist-armed groups’ threat gave impulse to activating security cooperation dynamics among Sahelian states. In February 2014, the governments of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – which are characterized by comparable levels of development, the presence of similar elements of structural fragility and a significant geographical, geopolitical and cultural coherence – announced the constitution of the G5 Sahel. It was a regional network meant to respond to the decisional limitations of regional and sub-regional organizations (the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS; the African Union, AU; and the Comité d'Etat-Major Opérationnel Conjoint, CEMOC) aimed at coordinating national security policies, from the military dimension to intelligence, and promoting the development of the poorest and most marginalized areas. Notably, the operational logic, based on the security-development nexus, was organized into four key pillars: defense, governance, infrastructures and resilience.
In Nouakchott, the G5 Sahel was therefore officially established as an international organization, through definition of a legal framework and an institutional structure. The Heads of States Conference was called upon to define the political-strategic orientations of the organization; the Council of Ministers was designated to actualize the Heads of States’ orientations; the Permanent Secretariat was appointed to implement the Council’s decisions. The actual Head of Permanent Secretariat is Maman Sambo Sidikou, a Nigerien diplomat.
In November 2014, during a summit of the organization, the member states of the G5 Sahel affirmed the will to act jointly in the struggle against jihadist armed groups through conclusion of partnership agreements with regional and international actors. In that context, the weight of Paris in the Sahelian geopolitical balances and the historical political-diplomatic and military ties with the francophone states in the region laid the foundations for the strengthening of a strategic partnership between the G5 Sahel and the French forces deployed in the area.
The French government played an important role in harmonizing the political initiatives of the G5 Sahel, with the aim of ‘Africanizing’ the processes of regional stabilization, lightening its own military engagement and scaling down the cost of its external operations. The Barkhane operation, which was launched in August 2014 as the outcome of a general reorganization of France’s military presence in sub-Saharan Africa – taking over from Serval operation in Mali and Épervier operation in Chad – has represented the linchpin of regional security cooperation dynamics towards the long-lasting jihadist threat in the Sahel. With specific regard to the military dimension, the structural relations between Barkhane contingents and national armies in the Sahel have developed through support for planning joint border operations, the recognition of strategic objectives, the supply of materiel and logistic assistance.
The will of G5 Sahel member states to deepen regional integration regarding international security cooperation, and the struggle against violent extremism, led to the creation of a military Joint Force (JF-G5S). Announced in November 2015 but formally established only in July 2017, the G5 Sahel Joint Force is made up of military contingents provided by member states: 5,000 soldiers, organized into seven battalions and deployed in three geographical areas (the border region between Mali and Mauritania; the Liptako-Gourma region, along the border between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; the Lake Chad basin area, between Niger and Chad), under a regional unified command. The aim of the joint force is to enhance the efficacy of regional counterterrorism missions, the fight against trans-border criminal activities and human trafficking networks.
Logistic hurdles, mismanagements and budget constraints slowed down the mobilization processes of the joint force, whose estimated cost is around 400 million euros, and de facto restricted its operational capacities. On 29 June 2018, a terrorist attack on the headquarters of the force, in Sevaré, claimed by the jihadist group Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), linked to al-Qaeda, proved the vulnerability of the regional contingents, lacking adequate structures, training and equipment. Among the main political consequences of the attack, the military hierarchies were replaced, and the Mauritanian General Hanenna Ould Sidi was appointed as the new head of the joint force, under French pressure. Moreover, the political authorities of the G5 Sahel member states decided to transfer the JF-G5S headquarters to the Malian capital, Bamako: that decision triggered violent protests from local civil society. The activities of the JF-G5S started again in January 2019, after a six-month break. In July, the joint force command was transferred to General Oumarou Namata Gazama, former Chief of Staff of the Nigerien army, fighting against Boko Haram in the eastern region of Diffa.
The aim of boosting the activities of the joint force is strictly related to the severe degradation of security in Liptako-Gourma, or the ‘three frontiers’ region, where the activism of jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State (IS) is associated with community conflict and ethnic-based violence. In such a scenario, the support of international partners appears unavoidable to ensure effectiveness for regional initiatives to confront security threats, as well as to implement development cooperation projects, which are an essential pillar of G5 Sahel functioning. Financial assistance from international donors remains greatly needed, given the ambitiousness of the development projects within the Priority Investment Plan (PIP) and the need for training, equipment and material supplies to the joint military force. In this view, the aid provided by the European Union is partly addressed to the development of Sahelian areas (8 billion euros between 2014 and 2020) and partly specifically earmarked to support the multinational force: the allocation of 138 million euros was announced in July 2019, increasing the amount of resources previously allocated (100 million euros for non-lethal military equipment). At the same time, the institution of the Sahel Alliance, promoted in 2017 by France and Germany to coordinate the development assistance initiatives, goes in that direction. During the G7 summit in Biarritz, in the presence of the ad interim president of the organization, the Burkinabe Head of State Roch Christian Kaboré, international donors renewed their engagement for the security and development of the Sahel, in the framework of a renovated and strengthened partnership including the coastal states of West Africa, directly affected by the regionalization of the jihadist threat.
Despite many problematic cruxes, starting from the mediatic identification of the G5 Sahel only with its military pillar and the risk of overlapping several political initiatives supported by different competitive stakeholders – such as Algeria and Morocco – in the Sahelian political and security environment, regional cooperation gives the counterterrorism policies in the Sahel a stronger legitimacy, based on the leading role of African actors.
Looking at the twofold structure of the G5 Sahel, a greater integration between military initiatives and development activities would make it possible to enhance the efficacy of its activities, eventually ensuring the improvement of governance and regional stability in the long run. The restoration of trust relationships between military actors and local communities, in the context of widespread conflicts and abuses, could be essential to disconnect the civil population from the jihadist groups. Finally, the political dimension of the organization should be reinforced, engaging G5 Sahel institutions in inclusive bargaining processes.
 From the decision on the draft Strategic Concept of Operations (CONOPs) of the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel: “The G5 Sahel Joint Force will be deployed to implement the following mandate: 1) combat terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking in order to create a secure environment by eradicating the actions of the Terrorist Armed Groups and other organized criminal groups, with a view to restoring security and peace in accordance with international law; 2) Contributing as necessary to the restoration of state authority and the return of displaced persons and refugees; 3) Facilitate humanitarian operations and the delivery of aid to the affected populations to the maximum extent possible; 4) Contribute to the implementation of development actions in the space of the G5 Sahel”.