3 July 2018

West Africa: G5 Sahel Force Faces Harder Start After Attack

The five-nation military force created to fight terrorism and crime in Africa's vast semi-arid Sahel region should have been operational by now. An attack on its Mali-based headquarters means a harder start.

A huge explosion rocked the central Malian town of Sevare, home to the G5 Sahel force, on Friday.

The presidents of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania announced the creation of the new joint military operation for the semi-desert region in November 2015. The five countries are contributing troops and money to the force that will be 5,000 strong.

"The G5 needs a stronger institutional framework and predictable, stable financial backing for the coming years, so it can perform its tasks of fighting terrorism and organized crime," United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in Mali recently.

The idea is that the G5 Sahel force does what the UN's own peacekeeping force in Mali, Minusma, is not allowed to do: directly take on terrorists and cross borders to chase them and other suspected criminals.

Is the G5 up to its task?

Moroccan researcher, Abdelhak Bassou, an expert on the region working for the Rabat-based OCP Policy Centre that specializes in peace and security issues, says work still needs to be done. He does not mince his words when he calls the force "a coalition of weaklings".

"What I mean by that is that you need to start reinforcing the constituent parts. You cannot have a strong multilateral operation if its five individual parts lack force. We have been reconstructing the Malian army for five years now. Where are we with that effort? And there are similar questions for the armies of Niger and Burkina Faso," Bassou said.

One general, five armies

His statement echoes what Guterres called "the institutional framework". One person is in charge of the G5 Sahel force - Malian General Didier Dacko, but how does he work with soldiers and officers from the other four armies?

Ewan Lawson, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has been studying such joint efforts. The technical term for that is interoperability. Can this be achieved?

"If you take an organization like NATO, over 60, 70 years [it] has developed this inter-operability to a relatively fine art. In the African context, these interoperabilities are developing. They are certainly moving in the right direction and definitely possible," said Lawson.

However, the problem of how to get cooperation going among three weak and restructuring armies and two that are considerably better organized and more experienced, such as Chad, remains.

"I'd not necessarily wish to judge who is good and who is better. But the Chadian army certainly brings a huge amount of experience. It's had operations along the Darfur border, it's had a conflict with Libya in the past and has been in Minusma for a long time where it played a really critical role," said Lawson.

If the attack on its headquarters shows one thing, it is that if the G5 Sahel force really wants to make a difference, it will need more money and it will need to get its act together quickly.

That was on the agenda at the African Union Summit in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, at the start of the week. But will it go beyond the usual strong declarations of support and strong condemnations of the attack?

Lawson appears optimistic. "Its mandate really is cross-border security. And in a large, ungoverned space like the Sahel with borders that are barely delineated that's got to be a good thing," he said.

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