"In the Sahel, it is clear that the military victories achieved so far will have lasting effects only if the state’s sovereign functions are restored and basic state services are delivered once more."
On Monday and Tuesday, N’Djamena hosted the summit of the heads of state of the five Sahel countries and the summit of the Coalition for the Sahel (which reviewed the commitments made at the Pau Summit in January 2020). I was invited to participate, as was European Council President Charles Michel. Once again, COVID-19 restrictions meant that we had to take part by videoconference.
Together, the G5 Sahel countries – Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – cover a larger area than the European Union. However, they are home to just 84 million people, five times fewer than the EU. Be that as it may, their population has almost doubled in 20 years and is very young: in 2019, the under-15s accounted for 47 % of people living in those countries, compared with 15 % in the EU. The region is also very poor: according to the World Bank, its average GDP per inhabitant was USD 777 in 2019, 45 times lower than the EU average.
In recent years, demographic growth has outstripped economic growth in the Sahel. As a result, the G5 Sahel countries, which are among the world’s poorest, are faced with the challenge of offering a future to the millions of young people who, each year, join a labour market that is struggling to absorb them.
In these vast countries, low population density, limited state resources and governance issues make it difficult for people to access basic public services like security, justice, healthcare, education and water. Instability in the region has been aggravated by a number of factors: the crisis in Libya, ancestral land-use conflicts between farmers and livestock breeders that have been exacerbated by climate change, poverty, and inequalities that have deepened as a result of population growth.
Developments in the Sahel are of particular concern to Europeans because the huge political, social and economic challenges facing the region could spill over into the rest of Africa and reach Europe. These chronic problems have sparked frustrations, fuelling the rise of Islamist terrorist groups that could threaten Europe and contributing to a range of criminal activities that also affect us, including drug and human trafficking.
This is what led the European Union and several of its Member States – France in particular – to take action on various fronts (political, humanitarian, security and developmental) in the region several years ago. Since 2014, the EU and its Member States have mobilised more than EUR 8.5 billion in the Sahel. Over 5 000 French military personnel are involved in Operation Barkhane, and almost 15 000 peacekeepers have been deployed in the region by MINUSMA (to which 19 EU Member States are contributing).
The EU’s three Common Security and Defence Policy missions have deployed more than 900 Europeans in the Sahel, at an average annual cost of EUR 100 million. The Takuba task force, which was created in Pau last year, is made up of members of the special forces from several European countries and currently has over 250 European military personnel on the ground.
The EU also supported the creation, in 2017, of a G5 Sahel Joint Force to enable the Sahel countries to increasingly handle the regional security situation themselves, in a coordinated manner. The Joint Force now has 5 000 personnel. The EU has provided EUR 266 million to kit out the Joint Force with vehicles and communication equipment and develop tools to ensure that its operations respect human rights and comply with international humanitarian law.
Despite this unprecedented effort, it must be recognised that the results achieved to date have been limited. While there have been some military achievements, with headway being made against the terrorist groups JNIM (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2020, the region remains insecure. More than 4 500 people were killed in the Sahel in 2020, making it the deadliest year on record.
Moreover, the humanitarian situation deteriorated further last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that in the Central Sahel, forced displacement, food insecurity or reduced access to basic services currently affect more than 13 million people. Even before the pandemic began, 3 300 schools had been forced to close because of security issues. At present, 13 million children – 55 % of the children living in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso – are no longer in school.
These alarming statistics make it clear that military victories will have lasting effects only if public services are (re-)established in the areas liberated from terrorists. Today, the only way to disarm the ticking time bomb threatening the region is to get these millions of children back into school. Likewise, the only way to deal a lasting blow to terrorists and all those bent on undermining stability is to make significant, rapid progress in terms of providing access to other essential services. We and the G5 Sahel urgently need to determine how we will jointly implement this new approach, and we must monitor the results closely.
Good governance and the rule of law will now be at the heart of our endeavours in the Sahel. We are in the region not to tell people how to live, but to get results and support government efforts, including in very sensitive areas, such as the fight against corruption and impunity. If terrorism is to be stamped out once and for all, it is essential to send strong signals to local people: justice and other state services must be more accessible and more effective than the alternatives offered to them – or rather, forced on them – by the terrorists.
When people think of the state, they should not just think of the army and the police. They need to see the state as a provider of basic public goods, a defender of human rights and a protector. Military advances are undermined by impunity, which is why alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law must be addressed systematically, diligently and in full. In that connection, the creation of a Casualty and Incident Tracking and Analysis Cell (CITAC) is a welcome development. The report by Niger’s National Commission on Human Rights on disappearances in the Tillabéry region and the Malian authorities’ cooperation with the independent international commission of inquiry provided for in the Algiers agreement are further steps in the right direction.
In the coming months, we will prioritise drawing up national action plans to implement this new approach, paying special attention to the situation in Mali, as the stability of the entire Sahel region is largely dependent on the stability of that country. However, after a promising start, the transition to civilian rule initiated in September following the August 2020 coup d’état seems to have ground to a halt.
Over the next few months, we will also reopen the debate on bringing the G5 Joint Force under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to ensure that it has more sustainable funding. Furthermore, we will enhance coordination with the G5 Sahel on such matters as strengthening the security and defence capabilities of the Sahel states and offering greater support with restoring the state’s sovereign functions in these countries; Pillars 2 and 3 of the Coalition for the Sahel’s activities focus on these areas and are spearheaded by the EU and its Member States.
I hope that we will see progress in all these fields at the next summit of the Coalition for the Sahel, which will take place in Brussels before the summer. In the Sahel, like everywhere else, the war cannot be won unless the peace is won too. Now more than ever, the onus is on us to come up with the goods.