Through 2019 into early 2020, the G5 Sahel Group (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) has suffered painful losses caused by the activities of regional terrorist organizations. In January, the United Nations’ envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, told the Security Council that since 2016, attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone (Al Jazeera, February 2). Aside from civilians, local armed forces (trained by France and the United States) continue to suffer major losses. Nearly 300 Nigerien, more than 180 Malian, 30 Burkinabe and 20 Chadian soldiers have been killed (Africa News, January 14; France24, March 20). Having suffered the heaviest military losses since 1983 as a result of’ a ‘Tigre’ and ‘Cougar’ helicopters collision in Mali in November 2019, France—the region`s most influential external player—has decided to increase its ongoing fight against terrorism in the region (Lefigaro.fr, November 26, 2019). According to French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, stability and eradication of the terrorist threat in the Sahel is instrumental not only for local governments and France, but to the EU as a whole, because regional instability breeds terrorism and illegal migration (Opex360.com, March 28).
The Pau Summit: ‘Coalition for the Sahel’ and Further Steps
On January 13, the G5 Sahel member countries’ heads of state and the French President assembled in Pau, France. The meeting resulted in a new framework entitled ‘Coalition for the Sahel’ that identified complex measures aimed at confronting regional terrorism. First, targeting Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the main regional threat (to be enacted under the umbrella of the ongoing Operation Barkhane). Second, strengthening the military capabilities of regional players via military and practical training, which is to include—aside from France—other regional players such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Third, strengthening the rule of law via reforms in penal and judicial systems. Importantly, this is to be done through the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S), promoted by France and Germany—an initiative concerned with the training and deployment of staff in civil administration, internal security, and justice. Fourth, the main role in the stabilization process is to be played by the Sahel Alliance (German-French initiative) and the G5 Sahel’s Priority Investment Programme (PIP) (Diplomatie.gouv.fr, January 13).
Following the meeting, between January and February 2020, France pledged to ramp up its current military presence (4,500 troops) in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger with another 850 soldiers as a means to “increase the pressure against the ISIS-GS” via taking a direct part in anti-terrorist operations and “accompany them [governmental forces] in combat” (Al Jazeera, February 2). Furthermore, the AU has announced the temporary deployment of a 3,000-strong force in the Sahel. According to Smail Chergui, head of the AU’s Peace and Security Commission, this contingent is expected to work closely with the G5 Sahel armed forces and ECOWAS (Al Jazeera, February 27).
Arguably, the most decisive step was made on March 27 with the establishment of the Takuba (sabre in Tuareg) multi-national task force, consisting of European Special Operation Forces (SOF) coming from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. This task force is expected to confront terrorists in the Liptako-Gourma region (the Lake Chad basin) zone of activities of ISGS and the Group for the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). According to statements, Takuba will become a part of the “Coalition for the Sahel” (the first pillar of the Pau Agreement) and is to be placed under operation Barkhane’s command. Importantly, this mission is to harmonize its actions with the G5 Sahel partners, the UN mission (MINUSMA) and EU missions (EUTM Mali, EUCAP Mali and EUCAP Niger). According to the statement, Task Force Takuba is planning to have an initial operational capability by the summer of 2020, and expected to become operational by early 2021 (Defense.gouv.fr, March 27).
The bigger question is: will these actions suffice for the task of breaking the back of regional terrorist organizations, given the depth and complexity of the problem and growing uncertainties both within the G5 Sahel group and France itself?
Conclusion: Mission (Im)possible?
One of the main obstacles that could hinder the above-mentioned initiatives is growing aloofness among the G5 Sahel members themselves. Shockingly, Chadian President Idriss Deby declared that Chad’s army will no longer participate in military operations beyond its borders—a statement that he made during a visit to the Lake Chad zone, where Boko Haram is highly active (Africa News, April 11). This decision was influenced by the loss of 152 Chadian soldiers over several weeks. Commenting on this decision, Deby stated that “Chad has felt alone in the fight against Boko Haram” (Newsverge.com, April 13). The main problem with Chad`s decision—whose security forces are the most powerful and respected in the region—is that it is likely to affect the resolve and determination of other G5 members. Meanwhile, Nigerien armed forces have also suffered losses as a result of the attack near Sanam, resulting in President Issoufou Mahamadou`s decision to fire Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ahmed Mohamed (Africa News, January 14). This suggests that the situation within the Nigerien armed forces is growing more tense. On top of that, another serious issue is seemingly taking shape in France. As noted by Dominique Moisi, a founding member of the French Institute for International Relations, “the shadow of a doubt has emerged amongst the French elite about the sense of purpose of the operation in the Sahel region, given its lack of effectiveness” (DW, January 13).
Renewed efforts in 2020 are expected to bring about some positive results in counter-terrorist operations in the Sahel region. If the new measures are not successful, the resolve of local powers will be damaged, resulting in a fragmentation of efforts. Similarly, the lack of progress will increase doubts and further breed negative sentiment in France, to the exhilaration of third parties, such as Russia, whose cooperation with African countries is premised on the main pillar of a ‘security export.’