The Sahel stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It encompasses a dozen of countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.
The region has been grappling with enormous security challenges. Since 2013, violence linked to armed groups, including terrorist organisations, has forced more than 2.9 million people to flee their homes. Approximately 14 million people are facing food insecurity and nearly 31.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
A dozen of security and development strategies, and several civilian and military operations, have been implemented by states and intergovernmental organisations to combat insecurity.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force, a task force launched by Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania in 2017, remains one of the most popular initiatives in the fight against insecurity in the Sahel. Its creation raised hopes in the fight against violent extremism and organised crime in the region.
The creation of the force reflected a trans-regional governance effort of security issues in the Sahel. It presented a new opportunity for security.
However, the real military value of the force in combating these threats remains to be determined. There have been some small tactical victories, such as Mauritania mobilising its army to secure its borders. But, for the most part, the task force itself has been ineffective.
The security situation in the Sahel is such that it is difficult for any national army or military coalition, no matter how sophisticated they are, to be decisive against terrorism.
Cooperation between Sahelian countries has long been difficult due to inter-state tensions and the fragile relations of distrust that comes with this. For example, Mauritania often accuses Mali of not being harsh with terrorist groups.
A number of factors have stood in the way of the G5 Sahel Joint Force’s efforts to make the region more secure. The first is that it is has been built from pre-existing national armies. The structural and operational challenges it has been facing are primarily those of the states and national armies that have established the task force.
It has also been severely constrained when it comes to financing, which means it doesn’t have the material wherewithal to do a decent job. Other difficulties it faces are the fact that the region is vast, much too big an area for the envisaged 5 000 strong task force.
In my view, not even continued multi-faceted support from several international actors, including the French force Barkhane, MINUSMA in Mali and the European Union, will ensure success.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force faces daunting challenges. The political will displayed by the member countries appears to be out of step with the actual capabilities of their armies.
Lack of financial resources remains one of the main obstacles to force’s capacity to operate fully. Four of the task force members (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger) are among the 10 ten poorest countries in the world.
Stable funding has not been secured under United Nations under Chapter VII which allows for support in efforts to achieve piece and stop acts of aggression.
Nor has the shortfall been met by contributions from member countries of the task force or through national defence budgets. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have increased their national defence budgets. But corruption has meant that military effectiveness has not kept pace with financial investment. The money that has been mobilised as part of the defence budget or granted via capacity-building programmes has been wasted due to poor governance.
Finally, the G5 Sahel Joint Force relies heavily on voluntary contributions from international actors. But these commitment fluctuate according to geopolitical circumstances and interests.
The result of these failings is that the Sahelian armies have not been able to protect their populations. This, in turn, has lead to an increase in terrorist attacks, community self-defence militias and intercommunal massacres. The Dozo militias in central Mali and the Mossi Kolgweogo community militias in Burkina Faso carried out numerous attacks against Fulani villages in revenge for crime committed by Fulani militias and terrorist groups.
For their part, terrorist organisations have taken advantage of the vulnerability of national armies to foster their influence and their capacity to cause harm.
These groups are well armed with weapons snatched from armed forces or obtained through illicit trafficking of weapons stolen from military garrisons.
Small wins, big challenges
Since its creation in 2017, G5 Sahel Joint Force has conducted numerous operations against terrorist organisations. Most recently, the concentration of its military activities, and those of the Barkhane in the Liptako-Gourma, the tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, loosened the stranglehold of terrorist groups.
And for its part Mauritania has mobilised its army for the surveillance of its borders, which have now been secured.
But these are small wins set against the backdrop of the challenge.
Countering violent extremism in the Sahel requires sufficient, well trained and well equipped troops in an area of nearly 4 million sq kms – the combined area of the five countries involved in the task force.
However, as in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the military personnel are still limited. Considering, for example, a ratio of 20 to 25 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants, the regions of Gao, Kidal, Mopti, and Timbuktu in Mali would need to mobilise a total number of soldiers between 90,000 and 112,500. This is three times more than the soldiers of the Malian army, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, and the French operation Barkhane combined – 33,000 soldiers.
At its peak the G5 Sahel Joint Force is expected to have 5,000 troops. This will not be enough.
Resources are so thinly stretched that deploying them from one country to another itself creates vulnerabilities. Chad has a much larger and stronger military force. It has been engaged in several military operations both domestic and abroad. But to deploy men to one theatre of operation, the Chadian army is forced to clear another. In August half of the troops deployed as part of the task force were withdrawn for strategic reasons, according to Ndjamena.
France recently announced that it will draw down its troops in the Sahel and will end Operation Barkhane in 2022. The implementation of these decisions will be a turning point in the fight against terrorism in the region. The question is whether Takuba, a recently established European task force focusing on training, will lead to a regional ownership of counter-insurgency initiatives in the Sahel.
Admittedly, it is very early to make projections. Since Takuba represents another military force in the region, it confirms the priority given to the state-centric approach to security. This approach has succeeded in protecting Sahelian states like Mali and Burkina Faso from collapse, but it has not translated into security for the populations.