On January 13, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a summit of the G5 Sahel, a group of five Sahelian countries (Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Mauritania) that are affected by Islamist terrorism. Pictured: Macron and Sahelian leaders at the G5 Sahel summit. (Photo by Guillaume Horcajuelo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
On January 13, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a summit of the G5 Sahel, a group of five Sahelian countries (Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Mauritania) that are affected by Islamist terrorism. The location of the summit, the small city of Pau in the south of France, was not chosen at random: it hosts the base of France’s 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment. Seven of the thirteen French soldiers who died in a November 25, 2019 helicopter accident in Mali belonged to this unit. Since 2013, France has lost 44 soldiers in the Sahel.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies:
“The Sahel has experienced the most rapid increase in militant Islamist group activity of any region in Africa in recent years. Violent events involving extremist groups in the region have doubled every year since 2015. In 2019, there have been more than 700 such violent episodes. Fatalities linked to these events have increased from 225 to 2,000 during the same period. This surge in violence has uprooted more than 900,000 people, including 500,000 in Burkina Faso in 2019 alone.”
Large parts of the territories are slipping out of the authorities’ control.
At the beginning of this year, Mohamed Ibn Chambers, UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, told the UN Security Council: “The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets.”
“The UNOWAS chief elaborated on terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger, which have leapt five-fold since 2016 – with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier.”
In Burkina Faso, a country that was still considered stable two years ago, the death toll has risen even more dramatically, from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019. The focus of terrorist attacks is predating eastwards and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States, such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
The causes of the destabilization of the Sahelian countries are many and complex. Local factors — ethnic, religious or the feeling of abandonment by the state — seem to play a predominant role. These states, which inherited their borders from colonization, are weak and their populations often have no strong feeling of belonging to a state worth defending. The Tuaregs in Mali, for example, former nomads who have recently settled down, are faced with economic and political marginalization and problems of assimilation into the Malian state. Terrorists groups have often exploited these deep-seated local grievances.
Among the many causes of these conflicts, one might highlight three.
The first, which is rarely mentioned, is the demographic explosion experienced by countries that have no access to the sea and few resources of their own. In Niger, the annual population growth rate is almost 4%. At the time of its independence in 1960, the country had a population of 3.4 million, which is now estimated at 24.2 million — a seven-fold increase in 60 years. According to the World Bank, real GDP per capita in Niger stands at only about USD $400 per capita.
Unlike most countries in the world, which have undergone a demographic transition, the birth rate in Niger has hardly changed over time: seven births per woman, and half of the population is under 15 years of age. The situation is similar in neighboring countries. This young population, which has few economic prospects and little to lose, is increasingly escaping the traditional authority of local elders and chiefs, and constitutes an abundant workforce for terrorist groups.
A second factor, which would require a comprehensive study in each country, is the evolution of Islam in the region. The tolerant local Islam that was prevalent in West Africa has been subjected to Salafist influence coming from the Gulf Arab states. This is reflected in an explosion in the number of Salafist mosques and the emergence of radical discourse, in some instances advocating violence.
A third factor is the destabilization of the region following the Western intervention in Libya in 2011, which overthrew the Gaddafi regime. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi played an important role in the Sahel, both economically and as a “mediator” in various local conflicts. The most visible consequence was the more than 20 million weapons made available by the civil war and the demise of a centralized state in Libya — weapons that now available for purchase by rebel or terrorist groups.
Even if violent attacks are now mostly concentrated around the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the unstable area subject to terrorism covers a huge area — equivalent to half of Europe or the United States — and is spread over five countries.
In Niger, the Islamic State is strong enough to launch attacks on army bases. On December 13, 2019, in a spectacular assault involving dozens of vehicles and motorcycles, hundreds of terrorists tried to take over the military base of Chinagoder, and managed to kill 89 soldiers. In December of 2019 alone, Niger lost at least 174 soldiers in three different attacks on military installations.
The armies of the countries that face this formidable threat are weak, often poorly trained and equipped, and at risk of low morale after the losses already suffered fighting terrorism. Since 2013, French army units have been deployed in the region. In that year, with Operation Serval, the French military prevented insurgent groups from taking the capital of Mali, Bamako. Since 2014, with Operation Barkhane, the headquarters of which is located in N’djamena, the capital of Chad, the French military has extended its field of action to the five countries of the Sahel. 4,500 French troops are currently in the region, and President Macron has promised 220 more.
Because it involves such a huge territory, and because Europeans simply do not have the air support and intelligence capabilities of the United States, American support in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel is critical. Last December, US Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced that the United States was considering a drastic reduction — or even a complete withdrawal — of US forces from West Africa, a position anxiously criticized, with good reason, by European allies.
US President Donald J. Trump would understandably like the Europeans to do more to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East and Africa. He is right. Europe is more directly concerned by the destabilization of these regions than the United States. The continent is still dependent on the Persian Gulf for its energy supply, and a destabilization of the Sahel countries would lead to vast new migratory pressures on Europe.
Most European Union countries, however, starting with Germany, refuse to draw conclusions about the consequences of the situation and increase their military spending and involvement in operations abroad. Germany relies on NATO and the United States and, when it comes to fighting abroad, on France and the United Kingdom, the only two European countries capable of deploying combat-trained forces.
France’s military presence in the Sahel faces strong opposition. As a former colonial power of the five countries concerned, it is not, in theory, the best candidate to intervene: it will always come up against the accusation of neo-colonialism, even if in practice it is the only country ready to send in seasoned fighting forces — at the request, it must be stressed, of the five governments under threat.
Even though there are no perfect solutions in this complex conflict involving several militant Islamist groups, the confrontation does not look likely to disappear in the near future. On the contrary, it is spreading. In the short term, an American withdrawal would have disastrous consequences. US air support is absolutely crucial in the fight against terrorism.
If the United States decides to withdraw anyway, which would be an incalculable mistake, President Trump should announce a two-year deadline, in the form of an ultimatum, for the Europeans to take over the just completed $110 million US base in Niger and make it operational with drones and aircraft under the European flag. Another option would be to involve NATO, but this could only be done at the call of the countries concerned and with the clear support of the African Union as a whole.
In the medium term, the ideal would be for these five African countries to be able to fend for themselves in the fight against terrorism with Western material and logistical support, but without deploying troops from outside the African continent. I am a fervent advocate of letting Africa solve its problems as much as possible within an African framework, but it must be acknowledged that in several conflicts, this is still not realistic and possible.
In the immediate future, other European countries should respond to the call for help made by France and the G5 Sahel countries and become far more involved in this region whose potential implosion would inevitably impact most of Africa and Europe.
Alain Destexhe, a columnist and political analyst, is an honorary Senator in Belgium and former Secretary General of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders.