Paul Taylor / Jun 2021
Josep Borrell and Moctar Ouane, Bamako, Mali 23 April 2021. Photo: European Union 2021
PARIS - In the arid Sahel zone spanning an area larger than Europe from the Atlantic to the Sahara desert, the European Union is facing the biggest reality check to date of its self-proclaimed comprehensive approach to crisis management, conflict resolution and development policy. It’s not going well.
Despite having invested some 8.5 billion euros since 2014 in military and police training, budget support, institution building, development projects and humanitarian assistance, the situation continues to deteriorate by most metrics - number of civilians killed, armed incidents, persons displaced, schools closed and people requiring emergency food aid.
Political instability is chronic - there have been two military coups (in Mali and Chad) and one attempted putsch (in Niger) in the last two months alone. Corruption is rife - Mali’s defence ministry still doesn’t have digital personnel records or a computerised system to pay troops regularly. Nepotism and sleaze blight recruitment, pay and promotion.
The EU has used most of the instruments in its foreign policy toolkit - not always in the most joined-up or effective manner - in support of France’s military action in Mali since 2013 to prevent jihadist fighters from capturing a state or carving out a safe haven in West Africa.
The results have been disappointing, to use a Brussels euphemism, prompting EU foreign ministers in April to proclaim a new, more hard-headed strategy to stabilize the Sahel. From now on, governments were warned, financial support would be subject to “mutual accountability” and could be withheld if they did not meet benchmarks for fulfilling their own reform pledges.
By framing European efforts mainly as a fight against “terrorism”, and from 2015 increasingly also against illegal migration, Paris and Brussels failed to address the root causes of instability. These lie mostly in poverty, injustice, predatory governance and neglect of peripheral regions and minority communities, aggravated by the impact of climate change and rapid population growth.
Indeed, largely unconditional European financial and security assistance may have given Sahel leaders a perverse incentive to sit back and delay cleaning up their act. Why rush to make governance reforms that entail confronting powerful interests and sharing power if the French are keeping the “terrorists” at bay and the EU is keeping the budget afloat?
Malian authorities never fully implemented a 2015 Algiers peace agreement with Tuareg rebel movements that promised decentralisation, accountability for rights violations and security sector reform, while the insurgents were loath to lay down their arms.
Instead, jihadist groups spread their footprint into central Mali and across borders into Burkina Faso and Niger and beyond, exploiting historic inter-community conflicts between pastoralists, farmers and fishermen over access to land and water, and creating parallel local governance structures with their own Islamic schools, dispensaries and brutal form of justice.
The French and their European partners largely turned a blind eye to killings and human rights abuses by national armed forces and the growth of ethnic “self-defence” militias - encouraged or tolerated by the Malian and Burkinabe authorities - that have killed thousands of civilians.
The effectiveness of EU action is constrained by the Union’s complex structure. The Sahel comes under three different departments, the External Action Service for diplomacy and security training, the Directorate-General for International Partnerships for financial, development and institution building support, and DG ECHO for disaster relief. Each has its own decision making process and command chain. They spend lots of time coordinating but no one is ultimately in charge.
On the ground, the Union’s diplomatic missions are outgunned by the French presence and have little delegated authority to use the EU’s financial and policy levers to press for governance reforms, transparency and an end to impunity. Other member states, while not always happy with France’s counter-terrorism priority, usually defer to Paris as the former colonial power, and because while they are providing treasure, only the French are shedding blood.
Will this change now? There are signs that President Emmanuel Macron, seeking re-election next year, is tiring of a “forever war” that looks increasingly like France’s Afghanistan, and looking for an exit. Ideally, that would involve handing over most ground fighting to an EU-trained and funded joint force of the G5 Sahel countries, while continuing to provide air support, intelligence and training. But the African armies are not yet ready to shoulder the burden.
Macron’s obsession with preventing Mali from turning towards radical Islam narrows the scope for any government, civilian or military, to negotiate with rebels who might want a deal. The state that Europe is supporting lacks popular legitimacy.
Under its new policy, the EU ought now to withhold budget support, insist on key governance reforms and a transition to democratic, civilian rule and let the Malians decide whom to talk to. But despite the new strategy, it’s not clear if the Europeans are really ready to get tough.