5 minute read

Why the Sahel matters? 

From the 2018 State of the Union Speech of Mr Juncker, to the more recent Angela Merkel’s address to the European Parliament of November 2018, the growing centrality of Africa in the future of the European Union’s security and stability has adamantly emerged. In the context of this greater and renewed EU focus, the Sahel represents a litmus test for the new approach to Africa of the European Union. The region is the “transmission belt” between the Mediterranean basin and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and it plays a central role in geographical terms and beyond. It is probably the area in Africa where the security–migration–development nexus – in which geopolitics, principles and “lines on a map”, are not enough to understand the reality on the ground – is at its most tangible. 

Stretching from Senegal to Chad, including Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, this region has reached the top of many EU member states’ agendas and is widely seen as a source of high instability for the Maghreb and by extension for Europe. The Sahel has been suffering from a multidimensional crisis, such as poor governance, corruption, structural weaknesses and underdevelopment, while challenges such as droughts and famine affect all levels of society and can lead to strikes, revolts and violence. One must also add criminality, illicit trafficking and the rise of Jihadism. 

This being said, the EU has been intensifying its efforts in the region for 4 fundamental reasons: (1) in response to the security destabilization caused by the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, followed by the subsequent jihadist occupation and the proliferation of terrorist groups close both to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; (2) the migration crisis that swept from 2015 onwards destabilizing the European political scenario and exposing the Sahel as the main transit region for migration flows;(3) the EU economic interests in the region as the Sahel is the EU’s top ore and mineral provider with around 24% of its imports coming from Mauritania and France having Niger’s uranium as a crucial supplier for its nuclear reactors; (4) the realisation by EU institutions, backed by some member states, that the Sahel was the place to intervene in order to address the migration crisis and enhance the European security in the Mediterranean, applying the newly developed concept of the “externalisation of the EU borders”. 

In addition, 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 curb migration and counter terrorist threats – as key to heading off populist nationalism at home. 

This political stand coupled with the security necessities to intervene and the geographical proximity to the EU southern neighbourhood, for which some would define the Sahel as “Europe’s backyard”, made up of this region, the place where EU is experimenting on its foreign policy and its integrated approach bridging security and development. 

The EU footprint in the Sahel 

As part of its work in western and central Sahel, the EU provides emergency aid to millions of people threatened by food insecurity; capacity building operations to the Malian and Nigerien security forces, under the auspices of the CSDP and the Alliance for the Sahel with three main missions (EUCAP Niger, EUCAP Mali and EUTM Mali); direct budgetary support and other security and development assistance through Niger and other countries; and increasing political and financial support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force, formed in 2014 by the governments of Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger to tackle terrorism and organised crime in the region. 

The numbers of the EU involvement in the region are impressive: between 2014 and 2020, the EU and its member states will spend a projected €8 billion on development assistance in the Sahel and the Chad Basin, along with billions more on security, capacity building, and other programmes. Respectively 29.7 and 26.3 million euros were invested in capacity building in Mali and Niger for the year 2017-2018 (almost doubling the year 2016-2017), while 41.6 million euros were allocated from the EU Emergency Trust Fund to create mobile intervention groups across G5 countries.  

With regards to non-security related support, data do not fail to impress either, with 1.3 billion euros received by the Sahel as the biggest recipient of the EU Trust Fund for Africa (almost 40% of the entire budget for Africa) with Niger and Mali biggest recipients in the region, while the EU Humanitarian funding in the Sahel has only hit a total of 234 million euros in 2017. 

However, the EU had its eye on the Sahel even before the crises of 2012 and 2015. The 2011 EU Sahel Strategy laid out a vision of security explicitly linked to development. The EU’s 2015 Sahel Regional Action Plan maintains this approach, reiterating the importance of the four original pillars of EU activity in the region: preventing and countering radicalisation; improving economic and social conditions for young people; managing migration, mobility, and border issues; and fighting illicit trafficking and organised crime. The plan frames this activity around the nexus between security, development, and governance. Meanwhile, the EU attempts to coordinate the various regional and international actors that have launched security and development programmes in the Sahel in recent years. 

Ever since it elaborated an initial Sahel strategy, the EU has made the region a top priority. Not only because of the recent series of crises there but also as a result of EU’s prevailing view of the region as a kind of laboratory for its foreign policy, aid, and capacity building programmes. Indeed, some EU officials describe the array of programmes in the Sahel as test cases for an integrated approach to security and development, as well as for new forms of capacity building within CSDP missions. 

In this, the EU faces several challenges – and not just in managing its own programmes. The EU must also contend with member states’ competing interests and overlapping missions and contributions, which range from the trans-Sahelian, French-led Operation Barkhane, the UN MINUSMA Mission to the recent deployment of Italian soldiers to Niger to fight human smuggling. 

A laboratory in the making 

The European Union’s efforts in the Sahel are not only remarkable but unprecedented. Yet while its efforts to stabilise the Sahel have had some limited successes, the EU’s attempts to integrate security and development initiatives there may prove costly, unsustainable, and incomplete in the long term. 

The EU involvement suffers from a variety of problems and limitations 

Although the EU has shown some encouraging flexibility in integrating its security, governance, and development goals, many of its programmes in the Sahel remain largely ineffective due to security constraints, an increasingly unstable security environment, flawed administrative structures, and poor coordination. A further harmonisation of its approach is much needed, notably by relying more on regional organisations – such as the African Union and Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) – and by involving countries like Libya and Algeria. 

The second element of concern is the mismatching between the EU programmes in the Sahel and the Unions broader strategic vision. The EU has so far failed in identifying how to best contribute to the long-term regional stability allowing short-term thinking and conflicting political priorities of is member states to dictate its work. In their drive to respond to political pressure from member states, EU interventions in the region sometimes fail to adapt to conditions on the ground, exacerbating local tensions and potentially contributing to instability in the long run. 

For instance, the internal divisions among EU member states with regards to the migration issue have contributed in making it more difficult to exert pressure on governments in Niger, Mali, and other Sahelian countries, which realise that Europeans need their cooperation to tackle migration and counter-terrorism challenges. Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has been particularly adept at using discourses on terrorism and migration to cement his position as an essential partner and a similar language has been used by Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, therefore contributing in weakening EU’s position and diplomatic bargain power. 

Finally, the EU’s integrated strategy for the Sahel is centred on the idea that security, development and governance are inherently intertwined, but the recently worsening security situation – the UN recorded a 200% increase in attack in the region in 2018 – made clear that a failure of governance is at the core of the regional violent instability. Therefore, the EU should move its focus to addressing governance challenges as they are crucial to peace and security. 

In conclusion, “The Sahel is a dam. If it bursts, Europe will be submerged” Mali’s President once said. If he is right, the European Union will need to do better in order to address the tremendous challenges agitating this part of the world, while preserving its own security and stability.