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How not to lose in the Sahel

28 January 2021 Louisa Waugh How not to lose in the Sahel

Last week, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France will be “adjusting” its military strategy in the Sahel. The deaths of five French soldiers in Mali in the last four weeks has shocked his government, and begun to rattle French public opinion about its long-term military intervention in the region.

A member of France’s National Assembly Defence Commission, also finally admitted an awkward truth, telling journalists last week that “we cannot say that the situation [in the Sahel] has improved in the last eight years…. The human and financial cost is out of all proportion to what can be drawn from it. The Sahel peoples must be given back the means to decide for themselves.”

While Macron’s announcement does not signal a short-term exit strategy – France has now been heavily involved in Mali for more than a decade - it could create space for a new conversation about the role of foreign interventions in the Sahel. One that is desperately needed.

France’s intention to adjust its strategy provokes two important questions: does this indicate a shift in French, and more broadly EU, thinking about Mali and the Sahel? And secondly, how can Sahelian peoples be supported to have the means to decide their own futures, especially their security?

The answer to the first question is probably no. Macron caveated his announcement by stating that the new European Takuba force operating in Mali is “a sign of growing awareness of Sahelian issues that are crucial for all of Europe”.

I recently visited the EU delegation in Mali’s sprawling capital, Bamako. An adviser to the delegation told me, “If we leave Mali to collapse, that will destabilise the whole region - and that in turn will have knock-on effects in Europe”.

The question of stabilisation is a mantra for international military actors across Mali, including the UN mission, MINUSMA. But what does it mean to the people most affected by these relentless military interventions?

“The stabilisation we see in our country is stabilisation of the military status quo” a Malian researcher and President of a national women's rights NGO tells me. “Militarisation can’t be the entire response to our crisis, because it has not succeeded.” She believes frank dialogue between communities and military actors in Mali - especially French troops and UN peacekeepers - is lacking, and urgent. “Their approach is fragmented. They need to ask us why we don’t trust them, and what we want from them” she says.

Bruno Charbonneau, a Professor at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Canada, has long spoken out about the weaknesses of military strategies in the Sahel, especially the France-led focus on counter-terrorism. “The narrow military focus reflects Western stabilization priorities” he argues. “This emphasis means that international military actors, and regional governments, don’t have to address more complex questions about the drivers of the crises. A key consequence is that it sustains the impunity of local and governmental actors."

The objective of Sahelian peoples deciding their own futures clearly demands a regional approach. Saferworld has been conducting interviews with communities in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso about changes they want to see to local and national-level security policies.

Recommendations from each country highlight several clear demands: increased local ownership and management of dialogue processes, transparent security force accountability, with clear sanctions, and meaningful consultations with donors and policymakers, so communities can feed directly into military and broader security policies. These would represent a step towards inclusive dialogue on social justice and other reforms to tackle underlying issues.

Communities insist consultations are valuable only if they’re taken seriously by donors and fed upwards into their policies (such as the EU’s new Sahel Strategy) instead of being civil society box-ticking exercises. They also make direct links between addressing citizen-state trust and corruption at all levels. These have both been severely neglected because interventions have been driven by military priorities.

EUCAP Sahel Mali, a civilian EU mission working with Mali’s national security forces, is supporting the government’s push for local authorities to return to central Mali, from where many have fled. The mission has just renewed its mandate, with more emphasis on anti-corruption. They recognise that local-level governance will stand a chance only if anti-corruption drives are baked into the programme, allowing communities and authorities to begin re-establishing trust.

In Mali, many communities support dialogue between armed groups and the government. Several successful recent local peace initiatives in central Mali show these can work, especially if they utilise existing peacebuilding structures. These include networks of local mediators who understand historic grievances and social hierarchies that can fuel cultural and political violence and create space where armed groups prosper. Initiatives like these warrant wider national and international support. France must not assume the role of saboteur.

Instead, Macron, and other European leaders, need the courage to adjust their priorities, recognise and invest in the potential of existing structures, and give them space to work. This could begin to shift entrenched violent conflicts: as opposed to the stubborn pursuit of a fragmented military strategy that has been a terrible failure, especially for people in the Sahel.

Photo: Daily life in Bamako, Mali. The roadside sign reads 'Inclusive national dialogue - I have my word to say'. Hamdia Traoré/Saferworld