The summit meeting held last month in N’Djamena, Chad, between the G5 Sahel states and partner nations was, for the participants, a chance to applaud many purported gains since the January 2020 Pau Summit as well as the challenges ahead. It was also the occasion to repeatedly applaud the efforts of the European Union as well as EU member states in the Sahel. This engagement has continued to grow since the EU first published its integrated Sahel Strategy in 2011, and now stretches across a wide array of domains, from security cooperation to justice and state assistance to development aid. Yet as the EU works on an update of its strategy, numerous questions about this engagement remain, as member states and the EU, seek to avoid the worsening “traffic jam” of international engagements in the region.
The evolution of the EU in the Sahel
The EU adopted its regional strategy early before the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and subsequent state collapse in Mali’s north, and it sought quickly to help rebuild state security force capacity in the region, launching what would eventually become three Common Security and Defense Program (CSDP) missions in the region: EUCAP-Sahel Niger in 2012 focused on police and internal security capacity building, the EU Training Mission (EUTM) for Mali’s military in 2013, and EUCAP-Sahel Mali in 2014. European Member State interest, meanwhile, grew as security worsened in Mali especially after 2015, and after the “migration crisis” and Valetta Conference in 2016, that drew further attention to the central Sahel and security threats and political disarray in Libya. The growing communal and jihadist violence in Burkina Faso also raised concern from European nations worried about a larger breakdown of governance in the region and more recently the potential spread of violence to coastal West African States.
Both institutionally and on the member state level, Europe has steadily increased its involvement in the Sahel, but not always with clear strategic vision or effective coordination. This increased effort stems from several factors, including individual member state interest (particularly with regards to migration as well as long-term development priorities in the region), a French push to generate support for its military efforts under Operation Barkhane and to more broadly “Europeanize” security and development cooperation in the region, the EU’s own vision of the Sahel as a kind of “laboratory” for its integrated policy, and the variations of the “security-development nexus” that have guided it in part.
This growing European presence and activity has also taken on several different forms; over the past several years a number of EU member states have opened new embassies throughout the region, while also writing their own Sahel strategies and naming special envoys (who meet regularly with each other and the EU’s own Special Envoy for the region). The EU also was a founding member of the Sahel Alliance in 2017, which seeks to coordinate international development spending in the region and whose membership now counts 13 members and projects of approximately EUR 17.1 billion. Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya currently presides over the Alliance, as well as EUTM as it plans its regional expansion, although Germany will take over command of the latter later this year.
Unclear results and an uncertain future
This influx of personnel, material, and intellectual production has had only a limited impact on the situation in the region. Although the Sahel Alliance was meant originally to not only coordinate development activity but to also bring in a new focus on governance, it has struggled with setbacks and coordination problems; the announcement of the more specifically governance-focused Plan for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S) at the G7 Summit in Biarritz in August 2019 and the official announcement of the Coalition for the Sahel at the Pau Summit in January 2020 demonstrated the continued frustration with the slow progress of improving governance and internal security in the Sahel, while also shining a harsh light on the ongoing weaknesses of regional security forces despite the CSDP programs and years of international training and assistance.
The worsening security situation throughout 2019 and into 2020, and in particular the threat from both the al-Qaida aligned Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM in Arabic) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the Liptako-Gourma have prompted the more recent European push on joint security cooperation as well as governance promotion, but with a number of potential pitfalls. Several European partners participate in Operation Barkhane, while Estonia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Italy have contributed or will soon contribute troops to the Mali-based Special Forces Task Force Takuba, with others possibly to follow, although it remains unclear for now what role these non-French forces will play in direct combat or training and accompaniment of Malian and other regional troops.
Yet for the talk and real work of coordination and reorganization of European contributions in the Sahel, these efforts remain at times unwieldy or ill-defined, with some like Takuba still existing on an ad-hoc basis. And despite a much greater effort to include governance in EU strategies and policy initiatives in the region, the first and last “pillars” of the Coalition for the Sahel – security and development – remain far more fleshed out than the second and third, which focus on internal security and the redeployment of the state. The P3S, which is supposed to encompass these two pillars, has for now only a small staff and a limited role, belying the emphasis of the EU and particularly Germany on these issues.
Writing after the N’Djamena summit, EU HR/VP Josep Borrell emphasized that good governance issues such as fighting corruption, and helping curb impunity and abuses against civilians would be “at the heart” of EU actions in the Sahel. But the EU is still debating what a focus on good governance means in concrete policy terms, and a number of difficult steps must be taken in an already-fragile context to ensure real reform that benefits the people of the Sahel. And in an environment where state trust is often low and security mismanagement have left some communities at the mercy of armed groups or forced them to protect themselves, pushing for the “return of the state” is not enough, and may make matters worse in some areas. The focus on governance must be more than words in policy documents and must be translated into real actions and policies in the region, if this massive and growing effort is to have anything resembling its intended impact of helping stabilize the Sahel.