Militarizing the Sahel Won’t Make Europe More Secure
The EU’s obsession with security in the Sahel is a reflection of its own anxieties—and a betrayal of its values.
Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya 11 years ago and the ensuing security crisis in Mali, Europe has accelerated the process of pushing the borders of its immediate southern neighborhood. It has committed more spending, initiated more development and stabilization programs, and stepped up its foreign military footprint in Africa’s Sahel countries, especially Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which are now considered part of Europe's “doorstep.”
Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya 11 years ago and the ensuing security crisis in Mali, Europe has accelerated the process of pushing the borders of its immediate southern neighborhood. It has committed more spending, initiated more development and stabilization programs, and stepped up its foreign military footprint in Africa’s Sahel countries, especially Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which are now considered part of Europe’s “doorstep.”
Before 2011, the Sahel region was perceived by European policymakers as a remote desert land prone to droughts and in need of infrastructure and humanitarian aid. It is now seen as the source of dangerous population growth, unwanted migration, and violent extremism, and as the favored turf for greedy Russian mercenaries. It has thus been turned into a laboratory where Europe acts out its geopolitical insecurities.
Europe likes to see itself as a normative power—a global diffuser of liberal ideas through its generous foreign policy—but seeking to curb migration in regions such as Agadez in Niger, insisting that the Sahel is a laboratory for Europe’s security and defense ambitions, and eventually enabling the militarization of an entire region are policies at odds with the promotion of human rights, gender equality, and diplomatic solutions to crises.
To tackle the multiple crises in the region, with Mali at its epicenter, the European Union and its member states have put in place a considerable number of initiatives in which security is the paramount concern.
The 2021 European Sahel strategy highlights a variety of alleged threats, mixing up a bit of everything: international terrorism, uncontrolled migration flows, illicit trafficking, political instability, and global warming. These multiple threats, bundled up in the same eclectic basket, appear to represent different degrees of fear. The prognosis of an African demographic boom (or “time bomb,” as many European officials call it) of unemployed, possibly radicalized young men fueling the next migration crisis is seen as the primary threat to European security. Poverty, goods trafficking, and global warming are portrayed as exacerbating factors.
The Sahel is framed in Brussels as a problem for Europe’s future. Stemming migration and promoting European security collaboration are the EU’s main objectives. The war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggressive diplomatic and military expansionism in Africa—made clear through the deployment of its mercenaries in Mali as well as elsewhere on the continent (chiefly the Central African Republic but also Libya and Sudan)—have added yet another layer of anxiety.
The Sahel is now also a playground where countries that Europe views as strategic competitors such as Russia, China, and Turkey need to be kept in check. As mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are now trying to seduce Burkina Faso’s military regime after making a breakthrough in Mali, there is an urgent conversation in Brussels about speeding up ways of spending the European Peace Facility, an ironically named financial instrument that would allow for the EU to provide lethal weaponry to Sahelian leaders, to match the challenge.
France, which intervened militarily in Mali in early 2013 after two-thirds of the country’s territory fell into the hands of jihadi forces, has asked European partners to join its military adventure, complemented by increased development assistance. A virtuous dynamic—combining security provision and development—was supposed to follow. Militarily, the burden-sharing effort has translated into Task Force Takuba, a coalition of the willing integrated in the French Operation Barkhane.
The objective was to offer closer mentoring to Sahelian armies through the deployment of special forces while spreading the financial and political cost among more participants. The Europeanization of interventionism was, according to the French rationale, a way to dilute accusations of neocolonialism and at the same time affirm Europe’s strategic autonomy vis-à-vis NATO. Task Force Takuba was small but was expected to pave the way for more ambitious plans toward the creation of a proper European defense championed by France.
But Task Force Takuba was eventually terminated before coming to fruition, and so was the EU-specific training mission in Mali. Their rejection by the Malian authorities after a second military coup in May 2021 is the main reason for their termination. Almost ten years of mostly ineffective French counterterrorism efforts have made Western interventionism unwelcome.
On the European side, things haven’t been smooth either, as French unilateralism has caused frustration among European partners. In addition, the appetite to join the military venture was unevenly distributed. Many European forces are embedded within the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, and they do not intend to invest more troops but rather count on more remote forms of military participation, such as airpower or training missions.
Joining the coalition of the willing was also primarily based on transactional diplomacy. For instance, Estonia has little interest in the Sahel yet is keen to strengthen its security relationship with France due to its own anxieties about Russia. Importantly, French counterterrorism objectives are not as prominent for several of its European partners, such as Italy and Spain, which are more concerned with migration, and a lack of agreement over something so crucial appears to have a fragmenting effect on European efforts in the Sahel.
Paris would tell Madrid, “Yes, counterterrorism is not your main goal, but I’m sure you care about migration—why don’t you send your gendarmes to stem flows of migrants? That will also help my counterterrorism objectives.” According to this logic, everyone wins politically—even though, operationally, a messy patchwork of security initiatives ends up being implemented.
While in Brussels, officials may think that the people of the Sahel are entirely unaware of what EU objectives are, Sahelian people know that the Europeans are not there with the same objectives they had before the 2012 Mali crisis, namely development and cooperation. These days the agenda is threat containment. The accusation of neocolonialism that France wanted to dodge has largely been deflected to Europe more broadly.
Regional public opinion, already well versed in anti-imperialist narratives, increasingly endorses the conspiracy theories that engulf Sahelian social media. Mali’s brutal dismissal of Western interventionism isn’t making it disappear. Now, the firmly entrenched view that the Sahel as a whole is a crucial security concern means that European securitization efforts should be placed on neighboring countries.
But have the Malian lessons been learned? The French military Operation Barkhane will redeploy a transformed version of itself to Niger, and there it’s also likely France’s presence will be contested. Even a light-touch approach may not suffice, as the remote warfare approach chosen by Western powers brings problems of its own, such as a saturation of military aid, coordination, strategic effectiveness, and accountability. What is seen as remote interventionism in European capitals is not seen that way in the Sahel, where European donors and troops provoke a distortion of national and regional dynamics.
A distorted perception of the Sahel that overemphasizes the demographic and security threats to Europe has made some form of European intervention a necessity in the eyes of European decision-makers. Fears of the Sahel have grown to a point where nonintervention has become impossible.
But a catalogue of fears should not make policy—and the recent history of relationships between Europe and the Sahel has cast doubt on effective ways to intervene. Given the value Europe has placed on the region, failing in the Sahel might plunge Europe into a deeper well of insecurities.
Creating effective European policies requires acknowledging some basic realities. Crucially, framing policies based solely on European fears is unlikely to meet Sahelians’ aspirations for meaningful change. The days of hubristic foreign-led state-building are over. Building stable future polities in the Sahel necessitates homegrown negotiations in which illiberal insurgents may have to be involved. For this to happen, an open and healthy civic space is needed. In the short run, addressing humanitarian needs caused by the protracted crisis will require a significant mobilization of resources, which also means letting people move.
There’s room for Europe to help meaningfully and humbly in these areas—but catastrophizing about the region and further militarizing it will only make matters worse.
Delina Goxho is a doctoral candidate at Scuola Normale Superiore, where she studies remote warfare in Niger. Twitter: @delinagoxho
Yvan Guichaoua is a senior lecturer at the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent. He studies rebellions in Niger and Mali, the rise of jihadism in the Sahel, and foreign intervention. Twitter: @YGuichaoua
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