In the span of a year, the G5 Sahel would have suffered deep tremors. Between the double coup d’État in Mali, the assassination of Marshal Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, the Solhan massacre in Burkina Faso, and the announced end of Operation Barkhane – in the first quarter of 2022 – the institutional life of the countries of the Sahelo-Saharan organization has accelerated, under the repeated assaults of terrorist armed groups (TAGs), whose vigor continues to grow. In view of these pressing circumstances, the special session of July 9 seemed inevitable. It was, therefore, at the initiative of Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno of Chad, who held the rotating presidency, that the heads of State of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Mali met by videoconference to assess, as a matter of urgency, the security situation in the region.
Barkhane’s (Impossible) End
With a contingent of 5,100 soldiers, the French foreign military operation dubbed Barkhane is the largest one in the last ten years. Following operation Serval, launched in January of 2013 to repel the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad’s armed offensive and restore Mali’s territorial integrity, Barkhane was concluded under a Franco-Malian defense agreement signed on July 16, 2014, in Bamako, placing itself at the same time within the framework of a partnership with the G5 Sahel countries. This operation was part of France’s Sahelian strategy aimed at giving partner states in the region the capacity to ensure their own security in front of the TAGs.
However, on June 10, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced the end of “the Barkhane military operation as an external operation” and the establishment of “an international alliance associating the states of the region.” The French Minister of the Armed Forces was soon to specify in the wake that “France remains militarily engaged in the Sahel, significantly” but “will evolve its presence.”
Invited to the fifth extraordinary session of the G5 Sahel summit, Emmanuel Macron presented the outline of this “adaptation of the French military apparatus to the Sahel” to his partners. It provided for a three-stage disengagement, the details of which would be determined after consultation with the European partners in particular, but the terms of which have not been communicated. In the final communiqué of the summit, his African peers “took note” of a decision that could already be seen at the summits in Pau (January 2020) and Ndjamena (February 2021), and “welcomed the willingness expressed by France to continue its efforts in this area,” knowing “to be able to count on the quality of this strategic partnership developed jointly since 2013.”
The deteriorating social climate surrounding the presence of French forces in northern Mali and the persistent accusations of collusion with the TAGs are not enough to explain the decision to end Operation Barkhane. Let alone the second coup d’État in Mali in May 2021 or even the unconstitutional succession in Chad because, as far as the term is concerned, France does not plan to leave the Sahel. Moreover, the new formula provides, not for a dry withdrawal, but for a reduction of the workforce and their redeployment in the various multinational mechanisms, in particular, European (Takuba) and UN.
The French presence in this geographical area is a strategic necessity for the security of the country, a target of an international terrorist. And the Sahel is both a laboratory and a projection base for these TAGs who want to crack down in Europe. What is more, the possibility of recourse to Russia by the Malian authorities is seen by France as a prospect that could create, in the Sahelian space, a new field of confrontation, from which it would be incredible to see the Europeans escape.
While one can foresee certain haste coupled with unilateralism in decision-making on the part of the French executive – neither the Security Council nor the various capitals concerned seem to have been consulted or informed beforehand – it is clear that the pre-election sequence was the decisive trigger. France’s commitment to the Sahel is increasingly unpopular, and its effectiveness is strongly questioned if one considers the multiplication of terrorist attacks on French soil on the one hand, and the human costs (55 French soldiers killed since 2013) and financial costs (€100,000 per military personnel per year) on the other hand.
Resurgence of Terrorist Activism
The planned reduction of the French workforce is likely to cause a flutter that could embolden the TAGs. The concern, therefore, lies in the ability of the local forces to effectively take over and prevent the already volatile situation from deteriorating further. Especially since G5 Sahel leaders are concerned about the resurgence of terrorist activism, which is increasingly targeting civilian populations. Thus, in 2021, more than 500 civilians have already been killed (30 in Oudalan and more than 160 in Solhan, Burkina Faso, more than 300 in the Tillaberi and Tahoua regions of Niger).
In addition, the heads of State of the G5 Sahel underlined the urgency of implementing Security Council Resolution 2570 calling for the withdrawal of mercenaries from Libyan territory. They called for “concerted international action for the urgent resolution of this issue involving the disarmament of mercenary groups” and “expressly called on the United Nations and Libya to communicate on the plan for the orderly withdrawal of foreign militias from Libya and to contribute to securing the borders of the G5 Sahel during the withdrawal phase.”
Questioning the Health and Economic Situation
Taking up the essence of their concerns expressed in February 2021, the heads of State of the G5 Sahel reiterated the call made to international partners through the Declaration of April 27, 2020, for a pure and simple cancellation of their debts. The Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous consequences health, economic, social, and fiscal consequences. It gives rise to real fears as to the capacity of states of the region to service their debts at the same time as security expenditure, in a context of a global recession that could reach 8% for some of the member states. The leaders of the G5 Sahel recalled the challenges they face (terrorism, insecurity, poverty, climate change), to which is added the health crisis, which poses the risk of an accelerated disintegration of the social fabric and a lasting destabilization of the entire region.
Added to this bleak picture are concerns about the availability of the vaccine, but above all about “considering development issues as a priority within the framework of the stabilization of the region.” Indeed, we tend to lose sight of the fact that the G5 Sahel is a framework for regional coordination and cooperation in the field of security and development policy.
In the end, two important issues emerged from this extraordinary summit, which the G5 Sahel does not seem to have much control over: on the one hand, the withdrawal of French forces and the resizing of the security apparatus, and on the other hand, the difficulties in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2750 on the implementation of the ceasefire agreement of October 23, 2020, in Libya, and the threat posed to security in the region by the presence of foreign mercenaries – nearly 30,000 over-armed fighters. This does not augur well for an improved security climate in the future.