The EU in Sahel: current challenges and perspectives of strategic readjustment

As recently stated by the Council of the EU (May 13, Council conclusions on the Sahel), the Sahel region will continue to attract considerable attention from the EU. Indeed, the EU is expected to carry on its efforts through a double-headed strategy based on security and development. However, if it has perhaps contributed to some achievements, EU action remains too limited. The EU’s long-term objective of regional stabilisation needs a more comprehensive strategy with a greater emphasis on development and political dimension, including good governance and rule of law.

Sahel – as its Arabic etymology implies – represents the border between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is an immense territory that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea (2/3 of the EU’s surface area), sparsely populated (around 100 million inhabitants) and confronted with terrible climatic conditions (weak and unpredictable pluviometry, desertification). In the Western part of the region (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) instability and tensions have been continuous for more than a decade.

As illustrated by 2019 Fragile States Index, Sahel countries are particularly unstable. Factors of instability are numerous, most of them internal by nature. Indeed, socio-economic situations in these countries are characterized by extreme poverty, high unemployment, demographic boom and widespread illiteracy. Also, in these countries cohabit several ethnic populations due to their transnational establishments. This situation has often led to severe ethnic tensions like in Mali between Tuareg and Bambara. Finally, another important internal issue is the incapacity of central governments to ensure full governance on their territories. Incapacity or refusal to establish local networks of governance, weak material and financial capacities as well as high levels of corruption are generic explanations of this failure. These internal weaknesses make Sahel countries highly vulnerable and subject to influence from external factors of instability. An already visible factor affecting Sahel is the impact of climate change on this region which will produce major droughts and famines in the years to come, intensified by high population growth. Another external factor is the instability coming from neighbouring regions. Algerian and Libyan civil wars or the destabilisation of Cameroon and Nigeria have generated proliferation of terrorist groups in Sahel. Finally, the region is also an international crossing point for migration and criminal traffic flows. Consequently , Sahel is considered a highly strategic region and is as such monitored by foreign actors.

Among these foreign actors, Europeans currently play the greatest role. Since the 2010s, their position has become even more assertive. EU Sahel strategy (2011) is centred around two different aspects – security and development – which are directly connected as securitisation is understood as the necessary prerequisite for development. On the security level, a great effort is provided by France which led a successful military action in Mali (2013-2014). This military commitment has evolved into a more regional and transnational one with Opération Barkhane, which favours regional cooperation. The declared objective is to delegate securitisation tasks to regional actors in the near-future, which implies joint operations on the field. Because of internal divisions within the EU regarding the common military deployment in the region, its engagement in the security sector is very limited. Meanwhile, on the development level, the EU has provided 8 billion euros from 2014 to 2020 to Sahel countries through its development instruments in cooperation with regional organisations such as Sahel Alliance. The EU also contributes humanitarian aid which helps to tackle the most urgent humanitarian crisis. Despite these numerous commitments, European actions have not brought results to the height of initial expectations. Indeed, the Sahel region is currently neither stabilized nor developing. An updated strategic approach in the Sahel is necessary as the current European engagement appears entangled.

European action in the region focuses mainly on short-term securitization (limitation of migration flows and fight against terrorist groups). However, doubts remain about the possibility to secure entirely and definitely such a region. Hence, greater ambitions from the EU regarding development, good governance and the rule of law are more than necessary. Initiatives based around local actors and communities must be implemented more often as it improves local governance and territorial control. Some examples are: better access to basic public services or building of an impartial judicial system with progress on human rights, which would improve the peace-building process. Another effort must be done in transparency and accountability from authorities, especially to tackle the endemic phenomenon of corruption (affecting both locals and EU funds usage). Such enhancements will decrease attraction of migration and terrorist activities among local communities. France, as a host country of the largest African diaspora in the world (including especially Sahelian communities), has a significant role to play in shaping European initiatives regarding these fields. Finally, a self-critical reflection on regional partnerships must be completed. As an example, a strong partnership with Chad – the most repressive regime in the region – is questionable. Deeper partnerships with ‘regional models’ such as Senegal – a democratic and key neighbour of the Sahel – should be explored more intensively as these countries can provide their own experience of long-term stabilisation. More generally, despite very serious structural weaknesses, almost all Sahel states remain freer than an average African country (Freedom House). For instance, before the civil war, Mali had been considered a free country for 20 years.

It is now time for a comprehensive update of EU Sahel strategy as the situation has evolved considerably in the region since 2011. Europeans have to adapt themselves to the current objective: long-term stabilisation through an efficient peace-building process. It supposes a long-term strategy centred around bottom-up development actions (which can be complemented by military missions initially), greater financial efforts (better controlled to avoid misappropriation of funds) correlated with the nation-building processes (good governance, democracy, rule of law). The Sahel is the footbridge between the Mediterranean basin and Sub-Saharan Africa. Stability in this region would improve considerably EU-Africa relations. In these times of geopolitical and economic rivalry with China or Russia, the EU must reaffirm its role and its position in this part of the world and prevent other great powers from taking control of the region.


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