Last month, the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel—Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel (FC-J5S)— announced its readiness to deploy operations. To date, the FC-J5S has conducted three military operations aimed at neutralizing terrorist groups, the first two of which were conducted with the support of French Barkhane counterterrorism forces. Yet, the operationalization of the FC-J5S raises questions about its role in a region marked by a “security traffic jam,” where multiple security forces are present, including those from France, the US, a UN peacekeeping mission, and an EU training mission. The militarized approach of the FC-J5S has yet to help the security situation in the Sahel, and the complexity of the crisis in the region suggests the response needs a more multi-pronged approach.
The force was established in 2014 by five states in the region: Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. Its first operation, Operation Hawbi, was conducted in November 2017 in the border zone between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and led to the arrest and detention of nine members of the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, who were suspected of being terrorists but were all later released for lack of evidence. The force’s second operation, Pagnali, was conducted in January 2018 in the border zone between Mali and Burkina Faso, with the objective of “destroying the supply chains of armed terrorist groups and to contain their movements.” As a result, small caliber munitions and equipment for manufacturing improvised explosive devices were found and destroyed. These two operations fall within the force’s mission of addressing transnational and organized crime and terrorism along shared borders, in particular through cooperation, cross-border joint military patrols, and counter-terrorism operations (a third operation is currently underway at the border of Mali and Niger). The region’s porous borders have indeed facilitated arms and drug smuggling as well as human trafficking.
The announcement of the FC-J5S’ readiness by the Nigerien Minister of Defense, Kalla Moutari, was made despite the fact that the force has not reached full capacity nor financing. While the force has budgeted for $423 million to operate in its first year, only 100 million of the 420 million euros pledged by the international community has been received so far, causing significant delays and deficiencies in training and equipment. The United States’ refusal once again to authorize the force to receive direct funding from the UN will make the force even more dependent on individual pledges and donations. With this reliance on unsustainable funding it is likely that the force will focus on its military component by optimizing high-impact military operations to neutralize armed groups. Indeed, the response to the instability in the Sahel region is increasingly dominated by a security focus—at the expense of development initiatives and cooperation with other political aims.
Yet this overly-securitized approach is insufficient as it fails to address other long-standing challenges. Issues of weak political, financial, and security governance; lack of access to basic social services; under-development; marginalization; and the impact of climate change on livelihoods have fueled the rapid growth and expansion of violent extremist groups across the region, who exploit them. The limited presence of the state in remote areas has created “voids,” such as in northern and central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, where extremist groups have established presence and in some cases parallel administrations by providing “protection” and basic services to the population. By demonstrating their entrenchment and “utility” to the population, these armed groups are undermining state authority, legitimacy, and relevance for disenfranchised citizens. If left unaddressed, these factors could further spread violence and instability.
Furthermore, the trust and support of local populations will be harder to regain if abuses and human rights violations are committed by national armed forces while conducting counter terrorism operations. Adding to existing grievances, abuses and arbitrary arrests by Malian and Burkina Faso forces have been widely reported by local populations and further affect the legitimacy of state forces. In late May, an incident involving Malian forces operating under the FC-J5S resulted in civilian casualties and raised questions regarding the justification provided by the Malian Ministry of Defense, which argued that these forces were under the command of the FC-J5S. This lack of accountability could affect the already fragile legitimacy of the force.
Existing multinational forces such as the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), launched by Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad in 2012 to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, have demonstrated the impact misconduct and abuse against civilians during counter-insurgency operations can have. Through a reverse effect, violations may discourage cooperation with the force and incite people seeking revenge or protection to join radical groups. With each national force of the FC-J5S set to operate within its own country, the G5 Sahel force will need to ensure that its own members do not constitute threats to local populations. The endorsement of a human rights compliance framework by the force earlier this year which emphasized “the protection of the rights of women, young people and children” is a welcome step in this regard.
However, it remains unclear exactly how the compliance framework will be put into practice in a context of constrained funding and limited ability to implement accountability measures. The FC-J5S’s civilian component—although limited—could facilitate the implementation of the framework through monitoring, while the force’s police component could play a role in strengthening the justice sector and accountability through its investigation unit. These two components should play an important role, especially as it is unlikely that the UN will be able to monitor implementation of the framework in areas where it does not have access (outside of Mali). Yet the limited resources and capacities dedicated to these two components—with the priority being on the military—could constrain their ability to act as such.
Beyond demonstrating the return of state presence, the FC-J5S must also be able to demonstrate the state’s utility. As the FC-J5S prepares to fully operationalize, it is crucial that its military efforts be complemented with initiatives that address the grievances of local populations and that its response fit within political and development perspectives. The Sahel region is already subject to several political and development initiatives, such as the Alliance for the Sahel, which the FC-J5S should seek to cooperate with.
Launched in July 2017 by France, Germany, the European Union, the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, and the African Development Bank, with further support from Italy, Spain, and the UK, the Alliance for the Sahel serves as a development platform for the coordination of donor assistance and rapid and effective financing of projects in the Sahel. The alliance has six priority areas: youth employment; rural development, agriculture, and food security; climate, notably energy access, green energy, and water; governance; support for return of basic services throughout the territory, including through decentralization; and security. These objectives will be pursued through more than five hundred different development projects spread throughout the region. The objective of this alliance is to recalibrate security and development and avoid approaches that prioritize one over the other. Yet, it is unclear how exactly these development projects will be carried out in remote areas where insecurity prevents state services from operating. With the FC-J5S’ slow operationalization, these concerns are even more relevant. Nevertheless, the force’s military operations should be coordinated with these development initiatives. For example, illicit economic activities managed by armed groups can constitute a source of revenue for local populations. By disrupting these activities without providing alternative sources of revenue for locals, national armed forces of the FC-J5S could be further alienated.
Additionally, political initiatives of the G5 Sahel’s Permanent Secretariat—supported by the technical assistance of the UN Office for West Africa—should also accompany the FC-J5S’s operations. They can include local mediation, peacebuilding, and outreach initiatives seeking to open lines of communication where possible. Local and intercommunal tensions are indeed a “breeding ground” for terrorist groups, who seek to exploit and thrive on these local conflicts, as demonstrated in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. Efforts should thus focus on de-escalating these tensions through political means before they transform into large-scale conflicts. Finally, reviving the Malian peace process, three years since its signature and ahead of the July presidential elections will also be crucial to address political, economic, and social grievances triggering radicalization and spreading throughout the region.
Instability in the Sahel region undeniably calls for a security response, however this response must not trump political and development responses. It must be accompanied and coordinated with initiatives that address the grievances of local populations. Not only will this reduce the appeal of extremist groups, but it will also contribute to building the resilience of states in the Sahel region, upon which the success of the FC-J5S highly depends.
Aïssata Athie works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.