Few regions in the world face the daunting security challenge of the five Sahel countries. The five countries, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, are located in the Sahel where they are victims of their own geography. Militant groups and cross-national criminal organizations have thrived by taking advantage of the large stretches of porous desert borders that are geopolitically interconnected.
In 2015, the idea for a military force was first floated around. However, 5,000 soldiers from seven battalions of the Sahel countries is highly ambitious for nations which rate among the world’s poorest and have no capabilities of establishing such a force themselves. Fortunately, since the election of Emmanuel Macron as the President of France, the entire political weight of Paris and its allies in the European Union have breathed new life into the idea.
France currently has 4,000 troops in the region originally sent to combat Al Qaeda linked groups that overran northern Mali in 2012. Since all five Sahel nations are previous French colonies, the soldiers have remained there to ensure the stability of the region. The French forces were quickly successful in forcing out the Islamist militants that took control of northern Mali, but the security situation has barely improved, with frequent attacks on French forces, as well as the 12,000 strong MINUSMA United Nations force.
Renewed attention on the region began after an ambush claimed the lives of three American troops in Niger, who are helping train Nigerien forces, as well as building a $50 million U.S. drone base near Agadez. Among the various groups spread across the Sahel area includes the fleeing Boko Haram forces that were mostly pushed out of Nigeria over the last two years, as well as the Tuareg rebels of Northern Mali that were mercenaries for the Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi during the 2011 Libyan revolution.
The instability in Northern Mali, which is symptomatic of the rest of the region’s issues, was the lack of engagement of the marginalized minority groups with the rest of the nation and it’s slow – but growing – economic development. The Tuareg leaders created the security vacuum that allowed Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) to take over northern Mali when they lost faith in the central government’s ability to govern them as equals within the entire population. With the mediation of many actors like France, the Tuareg leaders have signed a peace accord in 2015, which as of now, is being hesitantly implemented, and surviving on a single thread of trust between the two sides that have made limited attempts to implement their share of the agreement.
Europe, on the other hand, is very committed to empowering the G5 Sahel group: it creates an eventual long-term exit strategy for the French forces stationed there, and it can police the long borders of the Sahel which could stop the mass migration across the Mediterranean towards Europe. Countries such as Italy, Germany and the Netherlands stand by France in its efforts and have hosted two summits over the last two months, with more planned for the next two months. The hope is that enough donors could be found to create a $500 million reserve that would fund the force for its first year.
Other actors involved include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have pledged $100 million and $30 million, respectively. The UAE has also pledged to build a “War School” in Mauritania that is expected to open this month. The two Gulf countries view this as a logical investment to increase their influence in West Africa, as well as for their long-term strategies of being included as security stakeholders in the wider region. In addition, Saudi Arabia would like the new Sahel force to complement its own Islamic Military Coalition, which already includes all five Sahel states as members of the coalition.
In response to the massive impetus for the creation of such an unprecedented military force in the region, a group, which calls itself the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, has said that it is now taking up the fight against the G5 force. With the intense “operational urgency to regain control of the region”, said by a French diplomatic source, the miniature details of the force and its objective are magnified with importance. Efforts to increase security in the region are futile without ensuring sustainable development.
Preventing radicalization and stabilizing the region requires that economic group and employment be an essential objective for the stakeholders involved, especially with such a significantly growing young population in the region. Equally important is that the deployed forces earn the trust of locals in the areas that they are given their mandates. If the rights of the local populations are not rigorously respected, it risks alienating the people that they are there to serve. As a result, the alienation hands over a great and difficult to overcome weapon to the militants, a steady supply of young radicalized individuals that they have been successful in promising revenge and accountability towards.
The daunting task increases in difficulty considering that, as with most security challenges, it must also include political dimensions. The fledgling peace process in northern Mali must be upheld, and that redundancy is avoided with the already plentiful of security forces from the UN, France, and the U.S. Even more so, a force that has become successful in achieving its mandate in the border areas must be diplomatically careful to build bridges and establish networks with neighbouring countries and regional organizations such as the militarily powerful Algeria, and the diplomatic heavyweight, Economic Cooperation Organization of West African States (ECOWAS).
These efforts must include ensuring that rifts do not form between neighbours and proliferate into future conflicts. Solving a conflict by setting up another would be a wasted opportunity for the people of the region, and all those involved. The regional network must also spread and include open lines of communication with global stakeholders such as the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations.
The ambition behind the force is well-intentioned, and the benefits of establishing the rule of law in the sporadically inhabited desert areas are vast from security, political, social and economic perspectives. However, this is an instance when a badly implemented plan, which could be hijacked by political manipulation, interference, and partisanship, could severely backfire and create further generations of militants that would make the new security challenge overwhelming for all five Sahel states.
All security stakeholders should be steadfast in their commitment towards the end goal by having a holistic and multidisciplinary approach. Legal resources must be made available for the inhabitants of the region, and the forces involved should be made extremely aware of the principles of human rights and the operational aspects of respecting, and protecting them. Abusive governance has to be reined in, and all militaries involved should immediately open internal investigations into alleged abuses that are impartially checked by the mandates of the independent and respective National Human Rights Institutions of each Sahel country, as well as international organizations, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.
An illusion of democratic peace in the region cannot be allowed to overshadow the accomplishments of the force. All things, which can help empower the institutions and democracies of the nations involved and in the region at large, can only improve the force’s ability to achieve its goals. Anything but the most democratic of mechanisms will add to its likelihood to fail. This is a defining moment for the region.