Understanding the Sahel Intervention Failures

Africa's view on Europa
Europe and the U.S. have been trying for years to improve the security situation in the Sahel. This has failed because they make too little attempt to understand local conditions, says Vladimir Antwi-Danso from Accra, Ghana

Vladimir Antwi-Danso is dean and academic director at the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Accra, which trains officers from Ghana and other African countries.
The Sahel has become synonymous with instability, and the governments of the five Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – struggle to control wide expanses of territory characterised by large, remote areas and historical routes connecting sub-Saharan Africa to the Maghreb. The problems of the Sahel have been exacerbated by the congregation of many terrorist groups in the area, making the area the most insecure in Africa. 

This has attracted much global attention and has drawn in the European Union, France and the US to roll out intervention programmes, aimed at ensuring security in the Sahel, which, unfortunately, have yielded little results. While the EU had focused on non-kinetic approaches in helping to bring development and good-governance, the US and particularly France had tried to combine kinectic and non-kinetic approaches primarily to halt violent extremism and/or terrorism as well as assist in governance and development agendas. 

The uptick in recent times, of terrorist activities in the Sahel and the succession of coups d’etat in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, not to mention the tension between the governments of Mali and France, if anything, are indicative of the failure of strategy in the Sahel.

Discord between policy and on-the-ground realities

It is clear that the efforts, in both the kinetic and non-kinetic realms, have tended to be most effective at bringing about short-term operational successes but generally not strategically successful in the long-term, in view of which a rethink of broader foreign engagement towards the Sahel is needed.

The engagement being suggested here would see a continued foreign assistance/intervention in both kinetic and non-kinetic counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel but also involve a greater understanding of the socio-historical and cultural specificities of the Sahel region. One basic problem usually dismissed and/or overlooked is the lack of policy coherence and the discord between policy and on-the- ground realities. This is the biggest of all the challenges of foreign interventions in the Sahel. For example, the EU and France have continually resorted to collaborating with non-democratic African regimes, whose buy-in for counterterrorism programming has often been either minimal or who have used such assistance from the EU or France for personal or regime-related purposes. When such Sahel governments have used counterterrorism assistance for personal purposes, they have often pushed their citizens toward—not away from—the very groups that such efforts have sought to combat. Simultaneously, groups associated with terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida and/or the Islamic State can point toward collusion between the United States, the EU or France and repressive governments to justify their existence and encourage citizen recruitment.

Anti-imperial narratives of African jihadi groups

Though the EU and France try assiduously to avoid them, sometimes counter-terrorism operations have led to civilian casualties, thus giving credence to the anti-imperial narratives of African jihadi groups associated with al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. And since the local armies are mostly involved they incur the hatred and wrath of the citizens, who may see the Islamist groups as comrades and saviors rather than enemies.

The standard EU/French solution to mitigate the presence of terrorist groups in the Sahel continent has been to empower African states to extend their writ into their states’ rural peripheries. This, unfortunately, exacerbates the center-periphery tensions. This approach often fails to see African jihadi actors and groups as simply local politicians and powerbrokers who have succeeded in leveraging discourses of jihad to articulate widespread citizen grievances against abusive, authoritarian African states. Meanwhile, the focus on insurgent groups’ connections to al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State can overlook local grievances and why these groups have achieved legitimacy in communities.

The non-kinetic approaches to improve political, economic, and social conditions have yielded little appeal, because of the disregard for local specificities – socio-cultural and historical. Ethno-centric approach to issues of democracy and good governance only help to lessen the appeal in ways that have, directly or indirectly, served to lessen the appeal of al-Qa’ida- and Islamic State-affiliated groups for African populations. Lamentably, therefore, the EU/France/US. involvement in the Sahel counterterrorism efforts, has arguably, exacerbated the problems that it seeks to address.

Counterterrorism problem set in the Sahel is often flawed

We may therefore, come to one indubitable conclusion; that the fundamental understanding of the counterterrorism problem set in Africa and particularly in the Sahel is often flawed. It must be noted that the centre of terrorism in Africa is in West Africa as the diagram below depicts and an improper misreading of the antennas would cause more insecurity situations in the hole of Africa.

Now, a word about the recent spate of coups d’tat in West Africa. Since 2012 Coups have occurred thrice in Mali and once each in Guinea and Burkina Faso. The world cried and called it a backsliding of Democracy in Africa. It should be noted, though that Mali was once touted as a new beacon of democracy in Africa. Unresolved historical grievances and the outfall of the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya were the catalysts to Mali’s coup in 2012. The French intervention that year helped in halting the take-over of the country by Tuareg militants. The stalemate created fertile grounds for various Jihadi groups to settle in various parts of the country.

The two other coups that followed in 2021 and 2022 with similar ones in Guinea and Burkina Faso had something in common. Unlike the traditional conspiratorial coops, these coups were systemic in nature. Clearly, there was state failure in all the three countries. The insecurity ramifications could be anybody’s guess had the various armies not intervened. In these instances, the only institution capable of bringing some modicum of stability has always been the military and they rose to the occasion, granting the circumstances.  The thorny issue now rests with the transitional processes. As usual, the regional body (ECOWAS) has suspended and sanctioned the respective countries. Per protocol, that is in order. The contention is in the transitional process which is contentious. While the regional body (ECOWAS) is stampeding the Malian government to quickly transit to civilian administration, the latter has drawn a 5-year timetable. The question arises; does the ballot stop the bullet? Does a quick return to civilian rule address the fundamental hiccups that led to the coup?

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