13 December 2017

West Africa: Sahel Force Could Tackle Jihadists 'Without Antagonizing Communities'

interview

A new African military force in the Sahel region could be operational in the next few months after donors pledged millions at a conference in France. Paul Melly from Chatham House talked to DW about the G5 Sahel force.

The heads of state of the G5 countries - Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger - met with European delegates to discuss the financing and organization of the new Sahel force at a conference near Paris on Wednesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the meeting, announced new pledges for the Sahel force, one from Saudi Arabia of 85 million euros ($100 million) and another of 25.5 million euros from the United Arab Emirates.

Nearly five years after France intervened to fight Islamist extremists in northern Mali, the jihadist threat has spread to neighboring countries in the volatile Sahel, the sprawling, largely barren zone south of the Sahara desert.

DW spoke to Paul Melly, Associate Fellow with the Africa Program at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London.

DW: What did you make of the meeting?

Paul Melly: The importance of the meeting was to turn the early start made in establishing and operating the G5 force into a proper organizational structure. It wasn't just about raising money, though obviously that helped, but it was about getting in place the basic administrative arrangements. Who will the military force be formally responsible to? Which agency will oversee it? Which organization will receive the money that's supposed to pay for it? All those kinds of practical arrangements. And quite a lot of that finalized today or meetings were set up for the next several weeks to put further details in place.

France says it needs 400 million euros for this ambitious project. But they haven't actually got the amount of money they needed even if the United States and the European Union have pledged 60 million euros each and Saudia Arabia today 85 million euros.

I think today probably what they got down was most of the financing needed for most of the first year so that getting the force fully operational and launching major operations in the next few months will be possible. I've seen an estimate that they need 250 million euros for the first year's operations. So I guess that would take them through mid- or late 2018. So it sounds as if the money [already pledged] would allow them to start. France is also providing quite a bit of equipment.

What is the front line, the fighting, going to look like? France has a 4,000-strong force, the Barkhane, in the Sahel already. The United Nations has about 12,000 peacekeepers operating in Mali as part of the MINUSMA mission.

The French force is scattered across the Sahara and the Sahel. Its main job, up to now, has been to tackle the jihadist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), [as well as other groups], operating mostly in the very north of the Sahel or the Sahara. It is doing that quite often with very high-tech military means, backed up by US surveillance.

MINUSMA is not specifically engaged in actively fighting terrorist groups; its purpose is to make the internal Malian peace agreement, the Algiers Agreement of 2015, function properly and get properly implemented. It's trying to support the decentralized authorities, provide security for basic public services and help consolidate political stability.

The third role, which will fall to the G5 force, is to tackle what are quite often locally rooted jihadist groups, particularly in the border areas: for example, the Mauritanian-Mali border is extremely insecure and dangerous and an area where jihadists are active; in Central Mali around Mokti, you have the FLM [Facina Liberation Front] group; and along the border with Burkina Faso, there are another groups, who may have as few as 100 fighters. These groups and trafficking gangs stage a lot of very violent attacks. There are sometimes daily attacks on police posts, small army garrisons, and occasionally government officials. It makes it very difficult to sustain normal everyday life for the administration in these areas.

This is where the G5 force will be helpful because it will have the authority to move across borders. So instead of people attacking in one country and then slipping over the border to take refuge in the country next door, obviously all the Sahel countries are involved in the force. And because [the Sahel force] is mostly local troops, the hope is it can tackle local groups without antagonizing local communities. It's difficult for international forces to be seen to get involved in very localized security, it can cause friction and resentment.

On Monday, the African Union announced that about 6,000 former fighters who have been fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are returning to Africa. Will the G5 force be prepared?

The presumption is that a large number of those people will be going back to North Africa, to the Maghreb, which isn't really what the G5 forces are concerned with. There will be a G5 force in northern Chad to deal with the potential overspill risks from southern Libya. But the G5 force's main preoccupation will be much more local in the fringe border areas within Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and to some extent, southeast Mauritania.

This interview was conducted by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh. It has been slightly edited for clarity.

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