How the EU can improve its role in Sahel

The European Union supports a number of security initiatives in the region, where rampant Islamist militants threaten stability and the population. But it could also play a true peace broking role – if it had a proper strategy.

Published On: May 11th, 2019
How the EU can improve its role in Sahel_62ccb0259bf60.png
How the EU can improve its role in Sahel_62ccb0259bf60.png

How the EU can improve its role in Sahel

The European Union supports a number of security initiatives in the region, where rampant Islamist militants threaten stability and the population. But it could also play a true peace broking role – if it had a proper strategy.

“The glass is half full, it’s complex and we have a lot to do, but I’m convinced we are on the right track.” French Defence Minister Florence Parly at the Munich Security conference on February 16th 2019, said that French presence in the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso) will improve the security situation in the region.

More than six years after French troops intervened in Mali to stop Islamist militants advancing on the capital Bamako through Opération Serval first and Opération Barkhane later, the northern region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have been suffering some of the deadliest attacks to record in the past year.

On April 3rd 2019, Islamic State Amaq Agency released its first video footage of an alleged attack against French forces in Mali on the border with Niger. At the Munich Security Conference Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso Mamadou Alpha Barry also lamented increasing instability in the region, stating that the money promised to the G5 Sahel force is yet to be disbursed. France, due to its colonial ties to the region, has kept about 4,500 troops and pushed for the creation of a force made up of soldiers from the G5 group to combat jihadist extremism. In addition to the lack of resources, the G5 Force impact has been reduced due to poor coordination amongst the five African countries.

In September 2017, Italy and Niger have also signed an agreement to develop bilateral cooperation on security matters: it was believed that the agreement would only deal with migrant influxes, but it appears Italian defence industry Leonardo will also benefit from the agreement, as revealed by a Freedom of Information Act in February 2019. This type of agreement does not need to be ratified and is not subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, easing government action on security operations in the Sahel. The Italian mission will be based in Niamey and had initially been blocked by France, in a biff with Rome over influence in the region.


Another aligned mission is the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), made up of about 10.000 troops and 2.000 police officers. Finally, Germany is also present with its Heron surveillance drones. As for US presence, Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, a future hub for armed drones and other aircraft, won’t be completed until mid-2019. Air Base 201, a compound of three large hangars in the middle of the desert, twice the size of Agadez itself, will eventually house the U.S. armed drone mission in Niger that currently operates out of Niamey. A report by the Guardian in 2018 states that foreign military presence has had negative impacts on freedom of speech and many opposition leaders have lamented the lack of Parliamentary oversight whenever foreign presence is authorised.


The evolution of the conflicts in the region is pointing towards more responsibilities to remote warfare tactics, and less to ground troops. The paradox is evident: power players in the region are interventionist still, but unwilling to bear the human cost. Very recent research conducted by the Oxford Research Group in Mali (and Kenya) in September 2018 adds to this complexity by explaining how the political vacuum in capitals leads to a disarrayed coordination of troops on the ground: in Mali “there were a few men scattered across the multiple international military initiatives in the country run by the EU, the UN and the French without a clear sense of how these activities – in aggregate – might lead to a sustainable improvement in the capacity of their Malian partners”. In addition HQ too often considers personnel on the ground as less relevant in the decision making process, as the political authority is within capitals, which leads to a strategic long-term gap. Some short-term tactics (such as preferring to train soldiers who belong to a specific ethnic group) may be quick and effective in the short term, but lead to further complications in the long term in a country marred by ethnic conflict.


The European Union is the ideal peace broker in the region, not least because of how the region is perceived by some member states. Andrew Lebovich argues that it is in the Sahel that some EU members believe they must fight a key battle for the future of the European project, viewing the stabilisation of the region – particularly through initiatives to hamper migration and suppress terrorist threats – as key to combating populist nationalism in their respective countries.


The EU has been heightening its resolutions for providing security in the region in response to a succession of destabilising events, from the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and subsequent terrorist occupation of the area to the migration crisis that swept Europe from 2015 onwards (although European concern about the region had been increasing since 2008, if not earlier). European leaders are also extremely proud that they saw the region as central much before other powers did and started deploying personnel very early on. 

The EU supports a number of security initiatives: it has already provided €100 million to establish the African led G5 Sahel Joint Force which aims to improve security in the region and fight terrorist and criminal groups. In July 2017, France, Germany and the European Union (soon joined by the World Bank, the African Development Bank, UNDP and Italy, Spain, the UK amongst others) launched the Sahel Alliance , an initiative aimed at addressing the volatile security environment in the region through development projects and sustainable peace. One of the guiding principles of the Alliance is domestic security, which focuses on cross-border threats such as terrorism, trafficking and organised crime. 

The EU is itself a security player in the Sahel, with three Common Security and Defence Policy missions (EUCAP Sahel Niger, EUCAP Sahel Mali , EU training mission – EUTM in Mali). The Council extended the mandate of the EU mission EUCAP Sahel Mali until January 2021 and allocated it a budget of almost €67 million . In addition, the EU is planning to establish a fourth CSDP mission in the region in the coming years. It also provides more than €400 million in programmes to support stability and development in the region. One example: in Mali the EU launched in 2017 a stabilisation action in a small area, responsible for advising the Malian authorities in Mopti and Segou on governance-related issues, and supporting the planning and implementation by the Malian authorities of activities aimed at reinstating the civilian administration and basic services in the region. This team also intended to support an enhanced dialogue  between the Malian authorities and the local communities. 

However, in their drive to respond to political pressure from member states, which may be different and differently articulated, EU interventions in the region sometimes fail to adapt to conditions on the ground, potentially contributing to instability in the long run. These interventions also risk creating overly convoluted and flimsy bureaucracies. The G5 Sahel force risks becoming another security architecture , which further risks exacerbating the situation in the region: the EU should rather focus on a civilian rather than military component, in order to build trust with the local population and gather much needed data. The EU must also contend with member states’ competing interests and overlapping missions and contributions, from French Barkhane to the recent Italian deployment – coupled with a growing US remote presence.

In terms of local perceptions the EU is better suited to be a presence on the ground compared to other foreign forces: Niger’s government has recognised EUCAP Sahel Niger’s value and gradually adapted to the mission, also increasing its participation. This shift in attitude could be seen following the onset of the European migration crisis, which showed local governments that European interest in the region was heavily dependent on the emergency and which prompted demands from authoritarian regimes in the region: elites in partner countries such as Niger show that they have learned how to use European demands to their own advantage.

As for European remote warfare in the region and much needed regulation changes in Brussels, the new European Defence Fund (coupled with the European Peace Facility) represents an occasion to have a positive impact in the region. One example of this could be the acquisition and use of armed drones: since the EU Defence Fund will not be a competence of member states, such as Italy and France who are already or will deploy armed drones in the region, but an EU prerogative, Brussels should focus on regulating how such missions are conducted by obtaining an EU Common Policy on armed drones . In this way the EU could have a say on how such weapon is deployed, in order not to fall for the US trap of endless remote warfare.

Moreover, the EU’s integrated strategy for the Sahel centres on the idea that security, development, and governance are strongly intertwined. EU strategy presents several positive, innovative ideas for securing troubled areas, where a military approach is not deemed to be sufficient to securing the region. The European Council allowed for the establishment of a regional coordination cell (RCC) based within EUCAP Sahel Mali. This cell includes a network of internal security and defence experts, deployed in Mali but also in EU delegations in other G5 Sahel countries. The RCC command and control structure will move from Bamako to Nouakchott and its network of CSDP experts will be enlarged.

The RCC will support, through strategic advice, the G5 Sahel structures and countries and the objective of the cell’s activities will be to strengthen the G5 Sahel regional and national capacities, in particular to support the operationalisation of the G5 Sahel joint force military and police components. EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger will be able to conduct targeted activities of strategic advice and training in other G5 Sahel countries. The European Council envisages that in the medium to long term, the coordination hub’s function will be transferred from Brussels to the structures of the G5 Sahel.

The coordination hub is a mechanism which has operated under the responsibility of the EU military staff since November 2017 and which provides an overview of the needs of the military G5 joint force together with the potential offers of military support from EU member states and from other donors. In other words, it is a forum which allows matching offers to needs.

However, in order to avoid all issues mentioned above, the EU should make sure that it establishes clear processes that would not only be beneficial to its mission, but which could also aid other foreign and regional presences. Its new focus on security and defence and its renewed interest in the Sahel are good incentives to take up responsibility for all foreign forces operating in the region. In order to avoid duplicating efforts, creating larger and uncooperative architectures and being perceived merely as a self-interested foreign force by the local population, the EU must ensure cooperation not just amongst its different missions in the region, but also amongst all other security actors. In addition it should offer a clear and large civilian component to its missions and make sure that governance and development represent a much wider part of its agenda, starting from nudging towards a security sector reform in the areas in which it operates.

The EU should also have in mind a clear time frame, and different and complementary objectives throughout all phases, with a particular attention to the initial and final moments. This would avoid mistakes such as the creation of other divisive community fractures, as is the case with UK forces, and lack of lessons learned due to not clearly established reporting mechanisms both internally and to Brussels.

Finally, the EU should have a positive communication role, not just amongst the different institutional and military actors in the region, but also with the local communities and civil society actors. The EU can do so in a much more effective way compared to other actors given its connections to member states’ missions, its lack of colonial and neo-colonial reputation and its resources.

In sum, the Sahel is experiencing a hardening of the security situation due to criminal and terrorist threats and both resources and personnel are pouring in from certain European Member States, the UN and the US. This, far from creating stability, risks further exacerbating present tensions and is negatively perceived by local communities. EU missions and EU funds could be beneficial in avoiding mistakes due to poor management and coordination amongst local and foreign forces. The EU should understand its leverage and use it to the advantage of the two key words born in the crest of the G5 security alliance: security and development.

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