One month ahead of a crucial summit between Europe and Africa set for Feb. 17-18 in Brussels, several key Washington-based diplomats are warning that the security crisis in Africa’s impoverished Sahel region could soon spin out of control without urgent outside intervention.
The five Sahel countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger—are home to a combined 83 million people, 36 million of whom are already facing acute food insecurity.
“As we sit here today, the rise of violent extremism, and the worsening of the humanitarian situation in the Sahel threatens the future of the entire African continent,” warned Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s envoy to the United States. “This is as high-stakes as it gets.”
Lambrinidis, a former Greek foreign minister, was one of six officials to participate in the Third Annual Sahel Summit. The Jan. 13 webinar was co-hosted by EU mission in Washington and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and moderated by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the think tank’s Africa program.
“The Sahel region of Africa is, and will continue to be, a top priority for the European Union and its member states,” said Lambrinidis, noting that total EU aid to the five Sahel countries has amounted to close to €5 billion, and €8.5 billion if including aid provided by the 27 EU member states. This assistance is largely in the areas of health, education, nutrition, sanitation, governance, rule of law, economic resilience, civil society, gender equality and climate action.
The EU has already mobilized more than 1,000 men and women to train military and police forces in the Sahel. On Dec. 13, Brussels also imposed sanctions against the Russian-based Wagner Group, a shadowy private military contractor that’s accused of carrying out “hybrid warfare” and “committing serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings” in Mali and elsewhere.
In short, said Lambrinidis, the new EU strategy “emphasizes the importance of both short-term stabilization and long-term prospects for sustainable social, environmental and economic development beyond military involvement.”
Sahel countries are among the poorest on Earth
That aid is sorely needed.
In the latest United Nations Human Development Index of 189 countries, four of the five Sahel nations were among the world’s 10 poorest in terms of life expectancy, years of schooling and annual per-capita income: Burkina Faso (182nd), Mali (184th), Chad (187th) and Niger (189th). Only Mauritania—the least-populated of the five, with 3.7 million inhabitants—ranked slightly better at 157th place.
“Obviously, the level of insecurity in the Sahel is alarming and worrisome,” said Dizolele, a Congolese political analyst and lecturer in African studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. “Simply put, the international effort to fight the Islamic insurgency has not met expectations of the Sahelian people. Their current approach to addressing insecurity, which is military-centered, has not restored calm to the region. The jihadist insurgency continues to gain ground, communal violence is on the rise, and good governance remains elusive.
Lamenting the erosion of public confidence, Dizolele warned that “from Burkina Faso to Mali to Niger to Chad, the region has experienced a turbulent decade shaped by constitutional and military coups. States are struggling to honor and uphold the social contract, and the Sahel also grapples with the pressures of climate change.”
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, deaths from violent attacks in the Sahel last year were up 20% from 2020.
No EU member state has more at stake in the Sahel than France, given that all five countries are former French colonies. In January 2013, France—at the express request of Mali—intervened, with UN approval, to prevent terrorist groups from capturing the country’s capital city, Bamako.
France: ‘Africa will be our top priority’
On Jan. 1, France began its six-month rotating presidency of the EU; Philippe Etienne, France’s ambassador in Washington, vowed that Africa will be a top priority.
He said that the Feb. 17-18 summit in Brussels will be the only one of its kind during the first half of 2022 to include both EU and non-EU heads of state.
“It will be an opportunity to launch a new European-African alliance focusing on three areas: shared prosperity, orderly movement between our two continents, and stepped-up continental security,” said Etienne, a former French envoy to Germany and Romania. “The summit will allow us to reaffirm the EU’s and African Union’s respective roles as leading partners.”
Yet France must first deal with the growing crisis in Mali, where Prime Minister Choguel Maiga recently announced he would postpone elections for five years. That led both the EU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to slap sanctions against Mali.
“Despite, of course, the fact that the government is so firm in saying that they want this long transition because probably they want to stay in power for a long time, the pressure will be so strong that at one point they will have to come to a compromise,” said Emanuela Del Re, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, speaking to Voice of America the day after the CSIS panel in which she participated.
Etienne, conceding that “we are witnessing a surge in terrorism at the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso,” said he understands why some question the EU’s efforts in the Sahel.
“Young recruits who join these terrorist organizations are doing this not necessarily because they want to engage in jihad, but because they have no other prospects,” the ambassador said, urging patience. “Stabilizing the Sahel will take time; there’s a long way to go.”
The view from Washington
Yet not all is gloom and doom, insists Michael Gonzales, US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. A former deputy chief of mission at US embassies in Malawi and Nepal, Gonzales took up his current post last October.
“While we often focus on the security issues in the Sahel, insecurity and instability often result from the absence of a state presence. They’re symptoms of long-standing grievances, underdevelopment and increased resource competition, all of which is antagonized by the injection of external funds, weapons and extremist ideologies,” he said.
“We have to admit that, despite a decade of robust international investments, the region continues to trend in the wrong direction,” Gonzales added. “Armed groups continue to expand their presence as well as their capabilities and their violence. Countering this violence is critical, but the US and the Sahel’s international partners recognize the limitations of an overwhelmingly security-focused approach.”
Stressing that the region’s governments themselves must take the lead in improving security, he said that “in Mali, that means making crucial political reforms and quickly holding free and fair elections to return to democratic governance. Unfortunately, ECOWAS’s imposition of new sanctions just this week highlights growing international skepticism over the transition authority’s commitments and longer-term intentions.”
Yet elsewhere across the Sahel, there’s definite cause for some optimism.
In Chad, we’re cautiously optimistic about the progress towards an inclusive national dialogue next month, and we continue to push for a peaceful and timely transition,” said Gonzales. “Last year’s democratic transition in Niger was a powerful example for the region, and President [Mohamed] Bazoum is focused on an ambitious agenda of social development and equity. In Burkina Faso, allegations of human rights abuses by security forces have fallen drastically in the past year, demonstrating an improvement of the engagement and the respect for protection of civilians. And in Mauritania, new legislation makes it easier for civil-society organizations to register and operate.”
Even so, while Washington recognizes that it needs to coordinate more actively and persistently with the five Sahel nations, he said, “we must be honest with ourselves. We can’t do everything.”