The African Union can do better for the Sahel

The situation in the Sahel continues to preoccupy Africa. Despite the arrival of COVID-19, terrorist attacks have not abated in the region.

2019, in particular, saw a significant resurgence of attacks and violence in the region, especially in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where the United Nations (UN) officially recorded more than 4 000 deaths.

It was this observation, and the lacklustre African support for the Sahel countries, that led Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, to tell African heads of state and government at the 33rd AU Summit in February 2020 that ‘the continent has not shown solidarity to its brothers and sisters in the Sahel’.

It was also at this meeting, after Mahamat’s speech, that African leaders asked the AU Commission to develop a framework on the possible deployment of a ‘force composed of the Joint- Multinational Task Force (JMTF) and 3 000 troops for six (6) months, in order to further degrade terrorist groups in the Sahel’.

Months later and after several meetings and discussions, what has become of this decision and what can it really add to the already complex reality of the Sahel?

The first meetings on the subject at the level of the Peace and Security Council did not garner the support of all its members

Uncertainty over financing and troop contributions

Since February 2020 several meetings have been held involving the AU Commission and its Peace and Security Department, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the G5 Sahel Secretariat, in order to finalise the details of the deployment initially planned for June 2020.

However, the first meetings on the subject at the level of the AU Peace and Security Council did not garner the support of all its members, as they apparently disagreed on the modalities of implementing such a decision. The questions that arose related in particular to financing and troop contributions, which would affect the composition of the force.

In this sense, questions have been raised about the usefulness of the African Standby Force (ASF) and why it has never been mobilised, especially when it has supposedly been fully operational since 2016. Yet Africa continues to set up ad hoc military missions to respond to the very situations for which the ASF was designed.

To date there has been no clear answer to these questions, particularly the thorny issue of funding. The AU force is meant to be deployed for six months precisely because there is no certainty over its sustainable funding.

At the same time, the AU Peace Fund, currently endowed with around US$150 million, has been touted to prioritise the financing of less costly peace activities such as mediation and preventive diplomacy. Although the initial plan was for the fund to finance 25% of African-led peace operations, its current levels and unpredictable contributions mean it is not a viable financing option for any peace support operation at this point. 

Operational questions also remain unanswered, notably with regard to the command of the force and its potential integration into existing systems.

It is precisely this problematic overcrowding of the security space that the AU-proposed force will not resolve

Questions over timing and parallel initiatives

In addition, there is a much more general issue that has not been discussed publically, concerning the timing and necessity of deploying yet another force to the Sahel despite the challenges associated with existing deployments. In other words, what real contribution can this force make to the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, and is it the best step the AU can take to address the volatile situation?

There have been a plethora of military actors in the Sahel for several years, and various initiatives aimed at bringing peace and stability to the region. It is precisely this problematic overcrowding of the security space that the AU-proposed force will not resolve. Given the complexity of the threat in the Sahel, the AU’s deployment could certainly contribute in some ways, but is that the best solution to the increasingly murky situation? 

There are essentially two types of forces present in the Sahel at the moment, namely multilateral and individual ones, although some states operate at both levels.

The multilateral forces include the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and the G5 Sahel force. Then there is the French Operation Barkhane, which numbers approximately 5 100 soldiers, as well as United States (US), German, Belgian, British and Italian soldiers, both within MINUSMA and in the framework of bilateral agreements with countries of the Sahel (where some of these countries also have military bases).

In January 2020 French President Emmanuel Macron summoned regional heads of state to discuss the situation in the Sahel and the deployment of French forces in the region. The summons followed a surge of criticism regarding the ineffectiveness of French operations, particularly given the observed increase in attacks in the region.

The meeting in Pau, France between Macron and leaders of the Sahel resulted in the reaffirmation of their cooperation, the announcement of renewed support from France and an additional 200 French soldiers in the Sahel. Another operation, Takouba, would support Barkhane and other ongoing military operations.

The multiplication of ad hoc reactions is a waste of resources that the continent cannot afford

The coordination role of the AU

In a nutshell, if the AU wants to get fully involved and be genuinely useful in the Sahel, it should work to clean up the Sahelian quagmire by bringing order to the myriad initiatives, else the current deployment might help the situation only marginally, if at all.

Those close to decision-making circles on the ground believe that this should entail careful reflection and a clear plan that would require, among others, the support of the countries of the Sahel, key extra-regional actors and the regional bodies concerned.

In addition, the possible deployment of 3 000 AU troops reinforces the logic of a military solution, which has hitherto revealed its limitations. It is, therefore, elsewhere that the AU should orient and situate its contribution towards finding solutions to the Sahel’s problems.

Finally, the AU must also make use of the peace and security architecture that it has worked hard to put in place, notably the ASF when it comes to mobilising soldiers and carrying out non-combat activities. The multiplication of ad hoc reactions makes efforts to set up long-term mechanisms obsolete and is a waste of resources that the continent cannot afford.

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