12 December 2017

West Africa: Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force

Photo: NASA
(file photo)

Ten months after its launch, the G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), a joint project under- taken by the five countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) is slowly taking shape.

This force is now backed by two UN Security Council resolutions and has its own headquarters; it also carried out its first mission in the border zone of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in early November.

The force represents an important step toward addressing the worrying instability that affects Mali and the Sahel in general, but it remains a work in progress. This raises numerous unanswered questions about its funding, operational capacity, the political cooperation between its five members, and its place in the Sahel - a region crowded by sometimes-competing military and diplomatic initiatives.

The backers of the FC-G5S - meeting on 13 December at the Paris conference aiming at fine-tuning its operationalisation - must grasp the fact that the construction of this force, and more generally the resolution of crises in the Sahel, is not exclusively a matter of weapons and money.

As part of a larger organisation known as the G5, set up in 2014, the FC-G5S is still mainly an experimental force. Its creation is part of a growing appetite both within and outside the continent for this new generation of military response in a global context that is increasingly sceptical of the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping doctrine ill-suited to asymmetrical conflicts and terrorism.

Although not completely pulling out of the Sahel, France and other European countries with a presence in this region are attempting to reduce the number of their troops on the ground and to bring down the expense of their overseas operations by delegating them partially to their African partners and to the use of drones. The Sahel is politically and economically strategic, especially for France and Germany, both of which view the region as posing a potential threat to their own security and as a source of migration and terrorism. As for the African states themselves, they have lost trust in the ability of their own regional and continental organisations to guarantee their security. Instead they are choosing to try out these new alternatives, called ad hoc forces by specialists, as collective defence mechanisms.

The FC-G5S was created shortly after another ad hoc force, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), was launched by four countries (Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad); the MNJTF has been fighting against the Boko Haram's uprising in the Lake Chad Basin since 2012. Compared to this analogous force, the G5's equivalent has various weaknesses: the respective armies lack capability and its members are much poorer. Whereas the MNJTF can mobilise with discreet support from Western powers against a single enemy, the G5 acts in a region containing more than twenty active armed groups, making it difficult to focus on a common target.

This new force will increasingly need to carve out a place for itself in a region where the UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and France's Operation Barkhane already have forces in operation, and in the same thea- tre as a deployment of U.S. troops, whose exact number remains a mystery.

The success or failure of the new force will largely depend on how it positions itself in this crowded security field, and on its coordination with the armies already in place since 2013. France's Operation Barkhane will almost certainly guide the development of the FC-G5S, but it is much less obvious how the force will collaborate with MINUSMA (35 per cent of the troops for this UN mission are provided by the members of the G5 states). Any logistical support that MINUSMA might provide could not be regional, for example, because its stabilisation mandate only covers Mali.

Its success will also be contingent on its backers' ability to make it fit into the wider picture with a set of political objectives. In areas where the G5 has operations and comes to secure peace, spaces for negotiation must swiftly be found while channels of communication with certain leaders of jihadist groups from the Sahel should also be maintained or reactivated. The FC-G5S will achieve its objective by isolating jihadist groups from local communities and from other armed groups which currently give them support.

To be effective, the FC-G5S will need the trust and support from local populations, whose rights must be scrupulously respected; its mistakes and abuses will be sure to drive people in this region toward giving their allegiance to jihadist groups, which are skilled at offering protection and promises of revenge. In this sense, the MNJTF provides an example of what not to do: anger or fear incited by acts of brutality committed by its armed forces, particularly by Nigerian troops, caused many people to join the ranks of Boko Haram.

The G5 and its armed force must also earn the trust of Algeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). For the time being, these two regional powers prefer the Nouakchott process that groups together eleven West African countries, from the Lake Chad Basin and Maghreb, hence it is deemed more inclusive. In their eyes, this process is also more legitimate, having been initiated by the African Union (AU). Unless a better understanding is reached with these two partners, the search for greater regional cohesion will paradoxically lead to new rifts between neighbours.

Similarly, given the slow and difficult process of setting up this initiative, and all the effort required, it is important not to forget the peace process already underway and floundering in the north of Mali, and that it is currently the only political solution to a crisis which is more political and social than military. In short, the FC-G5S must not simply become a façade that conceals a lack of political vision.


  • Ensure scrupulous respect for the rights of people living in zones of FC-G5S's operations, otherwise a section of these populations, in search of protection, will side with the jihadist groups active in the Sahel.
  • Military personnel, police forces and the judiciaries of the G5 countries must therefore be made aware of fundamental human rights; legal recourses must be made available to families of those killed or arrested in connection to the G5 force's operations; compliance with the human rights and international humanitarian law reference framework established by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; with those found guilty of human rights violations must be severely punished.
  • The FC-G5S must be part of a project that is not simply repressive but instead seeks political solutions to crises affecting the Sahel. Its operations must go hand in hand with local-level negotiations designed to tackle the causes of conflicts and to encourage certain leaders of jihadist groups from the Sahel region to engage in dialogue.
  • Diplomatic initiatives must be taken in parallel with the use of force by the G5 countries and by France, the group's main backer. The prime objective of this approach would be to relieve any reservations that Algeria and ECOWAS may have about the creation of the FC-G5S, in order to create a regional unity that spreads beyond the G5 Sahel's borders, while also ensuring that these two regional powers will work alongside the G5, and not against it.
  • Bilateral military cooperation from the U.S. must be arranged for improved coordination with the other forces deployed in the Sahel. If the U.S. wishes to fight against jihadist groups, it should strive for its bilateral cooperation not to duplicate but complement the contributions made by France, the EU, and the UN to the FC-G5S.
  • The FC-G5S must be given significant financial backing. It would be better for the donors, who will meet in Brussels on 14 December, to provide immediate and tangible funds rather than simply make pledges.
  • They must show themselves to be sufficiently generous by providing more than the amount initially requested, and to guarantee long-term funding to the force.

Dakar, 12 December 2017

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