G5 Sahel Summit: What happens now?

Violence has reached the borders of Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal
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AFP/SEBASTIEN RIEUSSE  -   A Malian army soldier stands guard at the entrance to the G5 Sahel, a five-nation anti-terrorist force (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad)

On 15-16 February, the G5 Sahel summit took place in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. Also present at the meeting were France - which with Operation Barkhane is the European country with the largest military presence on the ground - several European Union countries - which has three training missions on the ground - and Middle Eastern and Maghreb countries such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. 

The summit was preceded by a number of challenges 

First, Barkhane's growing unpopularity in French society due to rising casualties has put the idea of beginning de-escalation on the table. Macron was expected to comment on this and the reaction of the G5 Sahel countries.

On the ground, the issues to be discussed would be whether the security situation had improved compared to last year, when France increased the number of troops on the ground with 600 extra troops in the face of the spread of violence. This has not been achieved. Violence has reached the borders of Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal - countries previously immune to the jihadist threat. Symptomatic of this concern is Senegal's attitude at the G5 Sahel summit and its concern about terrorism: "which is no longer seen as a distant phenomenon, but as an immediate danger".1

The increase in violence against civilians was another issue. 2020 had the sad honour of being the deadliest year for civilians "with 2,400 victims in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.2" Most of them by government troops, making 2020 the first year in which the trend reversed in terms of who killed the most civilians. Examples of this are the discovery in Inate Niger of 71 bodies in March and April 2020, 210 executions of civilians in Burkina Faso between November 2019 and June 2020 and the killing of 37 people in Binedama Mali on 5 June 2020 by military accompanied by self-defence militias. Judicial investigations into these atrocities have stalled and the military have not apologised. This only increases the local populations' distrust of the authorities, making it easier for terrorist groups to establish themselves. 

France announced that it would not withdraw its troops in the short term. It announced that the enemy to fight would be the groups associated with Al-Qaeda, the Support Group for Islam (JNIM) and Katiba Mancina. Macron also welcomed Chadian President Idriss Debay's decision to send 1,200 troops to the tri-border area (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger), proof in Paris' eyes of the G5 Sahel's commitment to defending its security.

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AFP/MICHELE CATTANI - French army soldiers search for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during Operation Barkhane in northern Burkina Faso

Paris also called on the G5 countries for greater political involvement, especially the return of law enforcement by the state and investment in areas where jihadist violence is present. Such a message can be interpreted as a call to order to coalition countries not to abuse their citizens, which worsens the likelihood of ending the jihadist threat. The message also referred to the support of the Sahel Alliance, which held its second assembly at the same time as that of the G5 Sahel. This alliance is aimed at the socio-economic development of the G5 countries. Accepting G5 Sahel Alliance assistance, along with better treatment of civilians by G5 Sahel troops, would reduce violence, which would facilitate French de-escalation. It would also demonstrate the ability of the countries in the region to manage their security themselves in an ethical manner, something that has not been achieved eight years after the onset of instability in the region.

Can both be achieved?

Politically, the structural weaknesses and abuses described above in the G5 countries are compounded by the fact that some of these countries are undergoing political changes that complicate their chances of contributing to the fight against terrorism. Mali is in the midst of its political transition from the coup it experienced in August. As of today, this transition is still ongoing, as seen with the dissolution of the transitional military junta in January. However, doubts remain as to how it will end. These doubts complicate the delicate future of Mali, the source of the current situation and the country most affected by jihadist terrorism and government violence.

Chad and Niger also face political problems. In Chad, incumbent President Idriss Deby's decision to run for a sixth presidential election has sparked protests. Niger saw a presidential run-off election this month, which was won by pro-government candidate Mohamed Bazoum. The opposition spoke of electoral fraud and protests in major cities were suppressed.3 

Such political events cast doubt on the viability of the countries in the region to deliver on Macron's announcement of greater political involvement in improving the living conditions of their citizens. Most likely, these leaders will use force to silence any sign of opposition to their mandate, making it easier for terrorist groups to establish themselves. 

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REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN - File photo, French President Emmanuel Macron participates in a working session with leaders of the G5 Sahel countries of West Africa at the G5 Sahel Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

It also remains to be seen how French de-escalation will play out in the medium to long term. It is not possible to predict whether the military situation will improve over the course of the year, which could halt the withdrawal or result in a build-up of troops, as was the case at the Pau summit in 2020. There is talk of the possibility of starting by withdrawing the 600 troops that were sent in 2020, a gesture that - if made - would "send a political signal, but without changing the situation"4. If this were to be done in the end, it would leave 4,500 troops on the ground, who will continue to be prey to death, increasing popular fatigue against the mission, something that could cost Macron the presidency5

Ultimately, there is no military alternative that can to this day make up for the French military effort. The Takuba Task Force, made up of seven European countries, although a sign of the response to Paris' demand for a greater European presence in the Sahel, cannot be seen as a substitute for Barkhane. Its competencies are limited to assisting Malian forces. Moreover, it could be argued to what extent Takuba is representative of European interest in the Sahel, as contributions from other countries have been made in dribs and drabs, with most of the personnel and command resting in Paris. EU missions on the ground are not an alternative either, as they are limited to training the military and police of the countries in the area, not to combat like Barkhane. Added to this is the weakness of the G5 Sahel forces, whose capabilities are still in doubt.

In conclusion, the backdrop to this month's G5 Sahel summit was the beginning of the end of the French presence in the region, the improvement of security on the ground, and allegations of abuses against civilians by government forces. During the summit, Macron announced that he would not see a troop drawdown in the short term and called on coalition countries to become more involved in improving the welfare of their citizens. Both aims are difficult to achieve, as Chad, Niger and Mali are mired in political processes with the potential to destabilise them, and the military have not apologised for atrocities committed, nor have judicial investigations made any progress. As for the French withdrawal, there is no military force that can replace Barkhane. Takuba and EU missions are limited by the slowness of European contributions in the case of Takuba and their non-intervention in combat actions in the case of the EU. This is compounded by the weakness of the G5 Sahel troops, whose capacity to manage their own security remains in doubt.

References:
  1. BAKARY, Sambe, “Terrorisme: Le front Est, le Shift de N´Djamena et la <<novuelle doctrine>> Macky Sall, Timbuktu Institute, 24 febrero de 2021, disponible en Terrorisme : Le front Est, le Shift de N’djamena et la « nouvelle doctrine » Macky Sall (Par Dr. Bakary Sambe) (timbuktu-institute.org)
  2.  TRAORÉ, Drissa, “Plus de civils ou suspects non armés ont été tués au Sahel en 2020 par des forces de sécurité que par des groups extremistes”, Le Monde, 14 de febrero de 2021, disponible en « Plus de civils ou suspects non armés ont été tués au Sahel en 2020 par des forces de sécurité que par des groupes extrémistes » (lemonde.fr)
  3. Sobre ambos países véanse los siguientes enlaces: Níger: el oficialista Mohamed Bazoum se hace con la presidencia en la segunda vuelta (france24.com), Idriss Déby anuncia su nueva candidatura a la Presidencia de Chad entre protestas para pedir su salida del poder (europapress.es) y Mueren dos personas en el marco de las protestas opositoras contra los resultados electorales en Níger (europapress.es)
  4.  VINCENT, Elise, “G5 Sahel : l`avenir de l`opération <<Barkhane>> au menu du sommet de N`Djamena”, Le Monde, 15 de febrero de 2021, disponible en: G5 Sahel : l’avenir de l’opération « Barkhane » au menu du sommet de N’Djamena (lemonde.fr)
  5.  Francia celebrará presidenciales el año que viene.