The EU and the Sahel’s shifting sands
9 Nov 2017|

The deaths of US servicemen in Niger and the UN Security Council’s consideration of the regional G5 force have given prominence to the Sahel states—Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Solutions to their deep structural and governance problems are elusive and the general prospects for the region are grim. The strategic implications of the Sahel situation for Europe are momentous.

At the Security Council on 30 October, the EU special representative for the Sahel warned that ‘the security of the Sahel was critical for the entire globe’. The French foreign minister agreed that ‘terrorist groups in the Sahel represented a global threat, which was financed by drug trafficking and human trafficking’. The Italian representative noted that ‘the security threats of terrorism and illegal trafficking had a devastating impact on an already fragile political situation and were a threat to the entire world’.

The US seems to see the Sahel as a European problem. While supportive of the G5 initiative, the US opposed European efforts to bring it under the auspices of the UN and no UN funds were committed. The Security Council resolution just urged the G5 to work cooperatively with the MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali and the French forces on Operation Barkhane.

Current funding pledges for the 5,000-strong force fall well short of the estimated US$400 million required in the first year of operations alone. The bulk of the funds so far committed have come from the EU. The US will also provide US$60 million directly to support the new force.

Sahel is derived from the Arabic for coastal, a figurative reference to the ‘shore’ of the Sahara Desert that runs through these states. The Sahel states cover 5 million square kilometres. The northern portions comprise vast tracts of desert that are largely ungoverned and sparsely populated. Since the early 2000s, extremists, drug smugglers and people traffickers have increasingly taken advantage of this situation to move around freely.

These states are among the poorest and least developed globally. Of the 188 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso were placed at 187, 186 and 185, respectively, with Mali finishing at 175 and Mauritania at 155. Transparency International’s 2016 report highlights corrupt governance in all the Sahel states, but especially in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.

The Sahel states’ prospects for economic development and social reform will be adversely affected by population growth. Their combined population is projected to grow from the current 78.5 million to 117 million in 2030 and 198 million by 2050. It is anticipated that climate change will have a highly variable and unpredictable impact on the region, creating yet another obstacle to development.

Apart from sharing contiguity with the Sahara, a French colonial past and some common security challenges, the Sahel states are dissimilar and confront different domestic and external challenges.

Religious diversity is highest in Chad (52% Muslim and 44% Christian) and Burkina Faso (62% Muslim and 30% Christian). Muslims predominate in Mauritania (100%), Mali (95%) and Niger (80%). French and Arabic are commonly spoken across the region, although significant ethnic minorities speak dialects or native African languages. Each state borders with a different collection of more or less unstable neighbours that bring their own distinctive security and law enforcement issues.

These five states sit in the middle of a volatile region. All African countries north of an imaginary line drawn from the Gulf of Guinea to the Gulf of Aden are at ‘high warning’, ‘alert’ or ‘high alert’ on the 2017 Fragile States Index. By 2030, just 12 years away, the population of states above that line will grow from 680 million to 938 million. In that period, the total population of the current EU countries is expected to increase by just 4.3 million.

The disparity between the European and US views of the strategic significance of the Sahel derives from their contrasting short-term national interests. The mounting numbers of sub-Saharan African immigrants arriving through western and central Mediterranean routes to Europe primarily transition through the Sahel states. This accounts for the European agitation and consternation over the Sahel and Europe’s strong support for the G5.

The US remains overwhelmingly focused on violent extremist organisations (VEOs). Africa Command (AFRICOM) provides relatively limited material and planning support to the Sahel states. AFRICOM concentrates on the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya), West Africa/Lake Chad and Somalia and on opposing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, ISIS–West Africa, and al-Shabaab.

The US’s African priorities are clear. AFRICOM regards the ‘instability in Libya and North Africa’ as ‘the most significant, near-term threat to US and allies’ interests on the continent’. The 2017 Posture Statement states that ‘VEOs not only constitute the most direct security threat to the US emanating from Africa but are also the most dangerous threat to stability in East, North, and West Africa’.

However, population pressures, poor governance, poverty and food insecurity are not short-term problems. The G5 initiative, and French and US military operations, might temporarily curtail illegal immigrant flows to Europe, interrupt drug smugglers and human traffickers, and supress extremist activity. But those are tactical not strategic responses. Competition for resources might well see regional conflicts intensify, and the root causes of sectarian extremism and violence will persist. It’s hard to imagine mass illegal immigration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe doing anything other than growing.

The EU has to assume that Sahel-related problems will get worse. The EU must prepare for this eventuality given the fissiparous effect the migration issue already has among member states. How ‘fragile’ the EU might prove to be in the future with a doubling, tripling or quadrupling of the African migration numbers can only be guessed.

That is a global problem.