Security & Development in the Sahel region: Challenges & Opportunities for the G5 Sahel Joint Force

April 2, 2018
Security & Development in the Sahel region: Challenges & Opportunities for the G5 Sahel Joint Force
Soraya Sidani
Soraya Sidani Non-Resident Fellow - International Security & Development

On 23 February 2018, the EU hosted the International High Level Conference on the Sahel in Brussels, to mobilize additional resources for the new joint military of the G5 Sahel countries – the G5 Sahel Joint force (FC-G5S) – with the aim of making it fully operational this year. €414 million were thus mobilized under the auspices of the United Nations, the African Union, the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad) and the EU. In addition, a Coordination Hub has been established in Brussels to gather together the bilateral contributions of the donors to the G5 Sahel Joint Force and match these with the List of Needs provided by the FC-G5S. One year after its launch, this military force remains in fact a work in progress due to the lack of financial resources. The Brussels conference provided therefore a unique opportunity for the Sahel countries to mobilize the needing funds for the FC-G5S and thereby to improve regional security.

Yet, important challenges remain. First, to be sustainable, the FC-G5S will have to secure funds on a long-term basis. Secondly, from an operational point of view the new force is facing coordination issues with other military forces on the ground. In addition, to be fully effective, the force needs to gain the trust of the local populations as well as the political support of other regional actors. Finally, if the military aspect is important in the short term, it has also to be coupled with development initiatives as part of a more comprehensive plan. The Sahel Alliance has thus a role to play in this stabilization process.

Creation and Composition of the FC-G5S Force

Officially launched on 2 July 2017 in Bamako, the G5 Sahel Cross-Border Joint Force (Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel- FC-G5S) is part of a larger organization: the regional G5 Sahel organization. The G5 Sahel organization was set up in 2014, with France’s support, as an inter-governmental partnership among Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, and which aims to promote economic cooperation and security in the Sahel region.

In 2017, the presidents of the G5 group decided to launch the FC-G5S in response to the persistence of the terrorism threat in the Sahel area and the challenges posed by transnational organized crime. Indeed, despite all the military operations conducted in the Sahel area in the past years, including the deployment of the UN peace operation in Mali, MINUSMA, and the French operation, Barkhane,[1] the five Sahel countries continue to face attacks on civilians in isolated villages, violence on military bases and personnel, and bombings of hotels and restaurants of capital cities.

Since 2014, eight different militant Islamist groups have been identified as responsible for over 1,100 casualties, including nearly 400 victims in 2017. The most active of these groups are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its associates (operating under the banner of Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin), as well as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Boko Haram.

In this context, the military force was created to reverse the instability in the region caused by militant groups. Endorsed subsequently by the African Union and recognized by France-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2359 of 21 June 2017, the mandate of the force includes combating terrorism, drug and human trafficking; contributing to the restoration of state authority and the return of displaced persons and refugees; facilitating humanitarian operations and the delivery of aid; and implementing the development strategies in G5 Sahel countries. As such, it is a counter-insurgency operation rather than a peace enforcement operation, similar, in many ways, to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) that has been fighting against Boko Haram since 2015.

According to many observers, France, the former colonial power and the most military active European country in this region, is behind that initiative. However, for political reasons, Paris refused to take the ownership of the force’s creation and attributes its existence to the presidents of its five members states. As a matter of fact, since its creation, France has undertaken all the diplomatic efforts to support it and to put it at the top of the international agenda.

Composition of the FC-G5S

The Force consists of 5,000 military troops from its five member states, including seven 550-soldier battalions, plus 100 police and gendarmes. These troops are covering three sectors: Western (Mali and Mauritania), Central (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger), and Eastern (Chad and Niger). The main areas of operation are the border areas between Mali and Mauritania; Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; and Chad and Niger. Each zone is equipped with its own tactical command post while a general command post has been established in Sévaré, Mali. The first commander is General Didier Dacko, the former Chief of Staff of the Malian Armed Forces.

The current Chairman of the G5 Sahel (currently Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou) ensures the control of the G5 Sahel Joint Force at the political level, while the Standing Committee on Defense ensures its strategic control. The FC-G5S conducted its first operation, named “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”), in November 2017, in the Liptako-Gourma, followed by operation “Pagnali” from 15-29 January 2018 in the border area between Burkina Faso and Mali.


The Current Challenges

Emerging as a focal point for transnational security efforts in the region, the force is still facing many challenges.

First, the FC-G5S has been struggling since its creation to find the financial support to finance its troops and operations. The Brussels conference opened in this regard a fresh window for opportunity for the FC-G5S to overcome those financial issues. With €414 million mobilized (including €100 million from Saudi Arabia and €30 million from the United Arab Emirates), the FC-G5S can start funding its operations. However, while the funds pledged at the Brussels conference will help cover the force’s budget for the coming year, it’s not sure whether it will be on a long-term basis. In fact, the refusal of the Americans and British to finance the force through a regular and enduring UN mechanism makes it difficult for the G5 countries to ensure the sustainability of the force. This puts the G5 countries in a precarious situation.

Secondly, from an operational point of view, the force has also to find its place in a crowded security region, as the Sahel – and Mali, specifically – may be the hub of a “security traffic jam”. Indeed, the FC-G5S is not the main force operating on the ground: it acts in an area where other regional forces such as the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)[2] is already on the ground, in additional to the military forces of France, the UN and US. As such, the success of the new force on the ground requires improved operational coordination between those different forces and a clarification of their respective roles. In this regard, France is already collaborating with the FC-G5 and providing combat support through Operation Barkhane. Besides, the UN Security Council has adopted Resolution 2391 (2017) providing specified operational and logistical support through MINUSMA to the FC-G5S. However, this Resolution states that the support provided should apply to G5 Sahel States’ defense and security forces only when operating on Malian territory in the framework of the joint force. In this situation, the coordination and cohesion between the two forces is limited to the Malian borders.

In addition, there seems to be an overlap in troops contributing to the different security forces: some of the G5 members are providing personnel to several of these forces (35% of MINUSMA contingents are from G5 States). Being already overstretched, those countries won’t be able to maintain this situation very long. In particular, Niger and Chad are supplying troops to MINUSMA, MNJTF and FC-G5S, putting those countries in a difficult situation in terms of commitments.

The third challenge for the FC-G5S is the difficulty to identify and fight one single enemy. In practice, the troops of the G5 countries are not fighting against one single common enemy but many armed groups that are connected, and often split up into different factions, making it difficult to identify a common target. And as the new force is starting to take shape, the armed extremists are becoming more sophisticated in their operations as shown in the recent attacks against the French embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso.  The use of proxies and militias to fight those designated as the enemy could also be risky since not all of the member’s countries consider these militias as their allies.  In this perspective, the FC-G5S needs the trust and support of the population to be fully effective. The force will have to take into account not only the economic interests of the local population but also their rights making sure to take active measures to minimize the risk of harm to civilians as well as to ensure accountability and transfer to justice of those apprehended during operations and suspected of terrorist.

Fourth, at the political level, the military force needs the support and the collaboration of other regional institutions, such as ECOWAS, and North African countries, in particular Algeria, which is supporting another initiative launched by the African Union (AU) in March 2013: the Nouakchott Process. This initiative has brought together 11 Maghreb, Sahel and West African countries to promote regional security and coordinate regional response to terrorism. In fact, Algeria has made its backing of the G5 conditional to its inclusion in the Nouakchott Process. Besides, Algeria is concerned with France’s role in the creation and support for FC-G5S, seen as an instrument to boost France’s influence in the region and to sidesteppe Algeria.

The G5 will also have to deal with another regional player: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Seeing the G5 as a competing body, ECOWAS supports the Nouakchott Process: considered more inclusive and sustainable than the G5.  The future success of the new force will thus depend to a large extent on the coordination with these regional players at the diplomatic level in order to reduce the tensions between them. In this regard, the recent organization of a security meeting on 16 March 2018 by Sahel countries without Algeria didn’t help enhance trust between Algeria and its Sahel neighbors.

The Stabilization Efforts in the Sahel and the Development Dimension  

The solution to the Sahel crises remains above all political. To be successful, the military initiative has to be coupled with development projects. In this perspective, although the Sahel G5 has become recently a major player in the field of security, it is not so restricted. The organization is indeed a “security and development instrument” according to the Permanent Secretary, which “originality lies in coupling of defense and development.”

The G5 has thus set a plan of actions in several areas: security, development of transportation, energy and water infrastructures, governance, economic resilience by assuring sustainable food security, human development and pastoralism.

Besides, as a part of France’s 3D Strategy[3] in the Sahel, another international initiative has emerged recently and plays a major role in this development dimension: the Sahel Alliance. Created on 13 July 2017, during the Franco-German Council of Ministers, by France, Germany and the European Union, along with the World Bank, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it aims at coordinating the initiatives and mobilizing donors. This international cooperation platform – the Alliance for the Sahel –is defined by one of its architect as “a mechanism for strengthening the coordination among partners and provide for assistance that is more rapid, more effective and better targeted.”  It focuses on five keys sectors: youth employment, rural development and food security; energy and fight against climate change; governance; decentralization and access to basic services and security.

The Alliance for the Sahel was launched officially at the Brussels conference on 23 February and welcomed three new donor states: Spain, Italy and the UK.  Six billion Euros of investments had been mobilized at the Conference and over 500 development projects are expected to be implemented in the G5 Sahel member countries in the next five years. The projects should be implemented quickly, particularly in the most vulnerable areas, as the objective of the Sahel Alliance is to have an immediate impact on populations, in line with the priorities established by the G5 Sahel countries. In this regard, the French President, who has been very active in the international mobilization for the Sahel Alliance, recently called for a “methodological revolution” in the management of French foreign aid assistance in order to reduce the delay between the approval and the implementation of the projects.  The goal of this initiative is to support the local populations and to prevent the risk of implantation of terrorism and, more broadly to contribute to stabilize the security situation in the region by coordinating and synchronizing development and security measures. To make it possible, the French Development Agency and the military staff worked together for six months to establish a common map of the geographical risked areas.

In conclusion, with the Brussels conference, the G5 are provided with the opportunity to finalize the construction of the FC-G5S force and giving it the chance to play its full role in the region. From a development perspective, the official launching of the Sahel Alliance is another great opportunity for the population of the region and the fight against poverty.  However, more needs to be done. In terms of funding, the G5 will continue to struggle to raise funds for the coming years beyond the Brussels Conference, as the issue of securing funding of the FC-G5S on the long term remains unsolved. The force requires also more political support from regional players.

In the end, if two components of France’s 3D Strategy in the Sahel, defense and development, are being implemented, the third one, diplomacy, is still a work in progress. Indeed, the challenge of collaboration and cohesion at the regional level with the Sahel neighbors, in particular with Algeria and Morocco, has to be addressed in order to support the military initiatives and to secure the efforts made by the G5 in the last months to fight terrorism. The absence of coordination will contribute otherwise to a greater division between the Sahel countries and its neighbors and all the efforts made will be vain.

[1] Operation Barkhane is a French counter-terrorism security effort. It began on August 1, 2014 and took over the precedent French mission in Mali, Operation Serval. The force is commanded by General Bruno Guibert and headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad. It is comprised of approximately 4,000 soldiers, in three major bases: Gao (Mali), Niamey (Niger), and N’Djamena (Chad).

[2] The MNJTF is constituted by countries of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), to fight security threats by the Boko Haram insurgency. The participating countries are Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin Republic.

[3] To tackle the challenges faced in the Sahel, the French Ambassador and Special Envoy for Sahel, Jean Marc Chataigner promotes an “integrated approach” combining in synergy three components of international action: diplomacy, defense and development (3D). In this approach, there is no hierarchy between the perused objectives, which have to be conducted at the same time to achieve peace in the Sahel. Jean-Marc Chataigner, “Sécurité et dévelopement au Sahel: enjeux et perspectives d’une approche intégrée pour le retour à une paix durable,” 8 January 2018, available atécurité-et-développement-au-sahel-enjeux-dune-pour-le-chataigner.