Options for reviving security cooperation in the Sahel

Funding shortfalls, changing strategic alliances, and Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel call for a new approach.

The Sahel is experiencing increasing political and security upheavals. A series of unconstitutional changes in government have occurred in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, with persistent insecurity and violent extremism spreading to West Africa’s coastal states.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force was set up in 2017 to fight terrorism and the trafficking of drugs and people in the region. Its objective was to foster regional cooperation and address security threats in its member countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

On 16 November, the United Nations (UN) Security Council will discuss the joint force, which faces various problems, including the perennial need for more finance and capacity. It is also struggling to maintain its independence from external influence and remain operationally effective without the participation of Mali.

After some G5 Sahel countries opposed Mali holding the organisation’s presidency, the country’s transitional government withdrew from the G5 Sahel on 16 May. This was precipitated by an escalation of political tensions between the French and Malian authorities after France criticised Mali’s decision to cooperate with Russian paramilitaries. That led to the departure of France’s Barkhane and Takuba forces from Mali.

Meanwhile, Niger has begun to reinforce its national guard with a mobile component in response to threats from extremist groups along its border with Mali. And the government in Burkina Faso, which took power in a 30 September coup d’état, is planning to arm civilians within the framework of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland initiative.

To be effective and protect civilians, a substantial improvement in the G5 Sahel force’s capacity is needed

The UN Security Council discussion comes two months after the defence ministers and chiefs of staff of the G5 Sahel countries met on 21 and 22 September in Niger’s capital, Niamey. They discussed a new strategy for the joint force after Mali’s withdrawal and agreed to revise its operational plan.

Given Mali’s withdrawal, they also decided to abolish the three geographic areas of operation (known as fuseaux), which prevented the force from intervening effectively across borders. The Joint Theatre Command Post will also be moved from N’Djaména in Chad to nearer the operational area. The meeting also resolved that the G5 would support its member countries' bilateral and multilateral military operations.

These decisions would transform the joint force into an anti-terrorist intervention that could conduct operations in the various countries making up the G5. Currently, its scope is limited to cross-border military missions.

The challenge, however, is to formalise these decisions and resolve the thorny question of the joint force’s long-term financing, which has always been a major obstacle to its proper functioning. To be effective on the ground and guarantee civilians’ protection, a substantial improvement in capacity is needed.

In this regard, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, like all other African peace and security initiatives, needs the support of external partners. But it must be careful to preserve its independence and remain free from these partners’ influence.

Bilateral security initiatives are being formed to compensate for the joint force’s ineffectiveness

The other central question is how to sustain the joint force without Mali, a pivotal country at the epicentre of the region’s insecurity. Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel has disrupted the geographical integrity of the force in the region.

UN Security Council members should reflect on how best to relaunch this security cooperation in light of the various challenges. Already, bilateral security initiatives are being formed to compensate for the joint force’s ineffectiveness.

At a meeting in Ouagadougou in August, Burkina Faso and Niger’s defence ministers reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to strengthen military cooperation. An agreement was signed to encourage joint activities in the border strip between the two countries, where the Taanli 3 military operation took place in April. The two ministers appealed to Mali to join their partnership in the tri-border Liptako-Gourma Region. Mali is yet to respond.

Former Burkinabe transitional president Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba visited Mali and Niger on 3 and 11 September. He had hoped to create a new military response based on pooling resources, exchanging intelligence, and joint operations to fight jihadists in the common border between the three countries.

The September military coup in Burkina Faso has not changed these ongoing dynamics. On 2 November, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the country’s new transitional leader, traveled to Bamako to consolidate the relationship with Mali and improve the operational cooperation between the Burkinabe and Malian armies. He is expected to do the same with Niger.

Military cooperation between Sahel countries must be built without the interference of external partners

The imperative for these countries is to stem the rise and spread of the terror threat, illicit activities and tensions between communities in the tri-border area. The Burkinabe, Nigerien and Malian authorities recognise the value of pooling their military resources to prevent this central space from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists and traffickers.

Recent developments suggest that a military reconfiguration is taking place in the region. It may follow the format of the multinational force the Liptako-Gourma Authority proposed in 2017, comprising Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. That project never materialised as it was absorbed by the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which was launched soon after. If Mali were to rejoin the G5 Sahel, the force’s revised operational concept could direct the bulk of its personnel to the Liptako-Gourma area.

It is also vital that military cooperation between countries in the Central Sahel is built without the interference of external partners, whose scope should be limited to the support requested by the countries concerned.

Lasting solutions will require better financing of military operations. Equally important is coordination between these operations and governance and development interventions to deal with the root causes of the violent extremism that is destabilising the Sahel.

Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, Sahel Programme, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, Sahel Basin and Lake Chad

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This article is published with the support of the Danish and Irish governments and the BOSCH Foundation. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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