Not since the devastating drought of the mid-1970s, has the Sahel region of the Sahara faced so many threats. That drought shook the political and economic structures of the region’s centuries-old social system, laying the grounds to the many of its current inter-linked threats. Some of these relate to the trafficking of hard drugs, uncontrolled migration and armed conflict. Others include the hard-won gains since independence in the building of credible nation states, even though these are now being endangered by pervasive nepotism and the rebirth of the region’s tribal system.
For many reasons, but chiefly the weaknesses of Sahel countries’ own security institutions, these states are insufficiently prepared either politically or militarily to successfully confront these dangers.
Europe’s historical ties and geographical proximity to this part of the African continent, coupled with the increasing connections between their populations, mean that Europe is not immune to the structural threats that affect the Sahel. The EU’s vested interests in the region’s stability cannot therefore be ignored.
Stretching eastwards across the Savannah, from the Atlantic coast to the shores of the Red Sea, the Sahel Sahara is a vast, sparsely populated and poorly administered region. Often untouched by national capitals’ priorities, the Sahel’s populations have excelled at trading and fishing. For centuries, trade caravans have criss-crossed the Sahara and trade has expanded under the protection of large tribal armies and small but determined clan squadrons.
Until his demise, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi took advantage of the Sahel populations’ combat skills to suppress internal opposition and to fight what he saw as recalcitrant neighbouring regimes or faraway foes. The first decade of the 21st century saw a deepening of the rift between most of the Sahel’s national leaderships and their populations, especially their youth. An invisible wall of arrogance, corruption, nepotism and neglect now separates young people from the urban elites. This explosive situation was in itself enough to endanger these countries’ national security.
The volatility of the Sahel region is exacerbated by its location as an uncontrolled passageway between the troubled Maghreb in the north and the piracy-afflicted Gulf of Benin in the south. Once again, the Sahel became a locus of diplomatic competition and sharp contradictions between regional powers. These were especially intense during Gaddafi’s rule, and now the unfinished political transition in Tunisia, the on-going turmoil in Egypt and Libya and the precarious security situation in the Central Africa Republic and Sudan are all adding to regional uncertainties and threats.
Most important of all, the two countries most capable of bringing their military capabilities to bear to combat the region’s threats are failing to pool their resources. The lack of political and military co-operation between Algeria and Morocco continues to undermine the fight against radical movements and traffickers. Extremists and their trafficking associates benefit hugely from the security vacuum that is the result of decades-old competition between these two neighbours. In the eyes of leaders of the Sahel and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the failure of the two most important regional states to co-operate invites and justifies a European security presence in the region.
“A strong European diplomatic and political commitment is needed if the pledges made in Brussels are to be delivered effectively”
Experts seem widely in agreement that the main existing security arrangement, the CEMOC Joint Staff Command Committee which is headquartered at Tamanrasset in Algeria was ineffective at the time of Mali’s fall to radical rebel movements. No CEMOC country, not even Algeria, its leading member, extended support to Mali during that country’s worst political crisis. From March 2012 to January 2013, this regional security framework composed of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger failed to make any significant contribution to expelling either Al-Qaeda or any other of the radical groups and drugs traffickers from Mali’s occupied northern territory.
The new authorities in Bamako, as well as the Malian population, obviously feel indebted to the EU for their liberation, and specifically to France. ECOWAS, a well-respected regional organisation played an important role in mobilising international political support to come to Mali’s aid. But ECOWAS hadn’t the military or financial resources to liberate Mali. In the end it was Europe, together with France’s Serval operation, that provided the logistic and financial support needed to deploy ECOWAS troops in Mali.
The twin deficiencies of the existing national security and military arrangements, as well as the regional security frameworks, still leave much to be desired. These shortcomings are no doubt the main reasons that direct military intervention by France and the EU was needed to fill the vacuum in Mali.
It was the collapse of the Malian army in March 2012 and the ensuing fall of the regime in Bamako that led France to launch Operation Serval in January 2013. Its main objective was to protect Mali from advancing rebel forces that had been infiltrated by radical groups and also by a number of local and foreign “agents provocateurs”.
A less-publicised objective was to deny a stronghold to extremists in a region historically and geographically close to western Europe where the recruitment of local volunteers with dual citizenships would have been fairly easy. Although carried out by a single EU member state on a bilateral basis, Operation Serval had the EU’s political support and was militarily strengthened by logistical contributions from Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK as well as by their U.S. ally.
In addition, the EU launched a stabilisation operation through a European Union Training Mission (EUTM) to Mali in February 2013. Its objective was to reconstitute a combat-ready Malian army by training four battalions, and providing expertise and technical help. The first successfully trained battalion, Waraba, – which means “lion” in the local language – has graduated and was dispatched to the field last June. Around 184 EU military trainers from 19 nationalities are present in Bamako and at the nearby Koulikoro military base. Interestingly enough, each EU member state was assigned a specific military task for their training mission: Germany was in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, Greece was responsible for intelligence, France for the army, Italy for tanks and air force guidance systems, Spain for special forces, and the UK for artillery. In addition, a European Advanced Liaison Task Force is tasked with providing advice and expertise to the Malian army’s General Staff up to 2018.
Following Mali’s presidential election last summer, a legitimate president and government are now in place. Europe was the main funder of the election process and its election observation delegation was led by senior Belgian political figure Louis Michel, a former EU development commissioner. Some $4.3bn were pledged last May for Mali’s reconstruction at an international donors conference in Brussels. Development and Mali’s national dialogue for reconciliation remain the two key pillars of the country’s security and stability. As well as resources, a strong European diplomatic and political commitment is needed if the pledges made in Brussels are to be delivered effectively. The EU’s involvement in Mali must be sustained for years to come if the country is not to fall back into civil war.
Photo credit: SOS Sahel UK