In the Covid 19 exceptional regional and international context, the G 5 Sahel summit is taking place in Nouakchott, Mauritania, this 30 June. A context overcast by an enemy inept to negotiate but hard to defeat. At the same time, governments face an inflation of challenges compounded by the pandemic, weakened economies, and the hardening of born in terrorist groups.
Old or new the threats are deeply seated.
As it brings together allies and partners, cannot be just another meeting. On the contrary, it should be of specific importance both at participants’ level and on the quality of their talks. There should be no room for the usual requests for ‘’ additional resources ’’ or the commitments for ‘’ huge funding ’’. To win the hearts and minds of local populations, now more informed through social networks, the summit conclusions should be robust and clear enough.
The political and military issues, strongly shaken by Covid 19, invite to mark a decisive turning point for the G 5 Sahel states, their most concerned neighbors and external partners.
Back to January 2013 when victorious rebels rushing southwards to Mali capital, Bamako, when a French military strike stopped and disorganized their columns in Kona, Mopti region. Hence began operation Serval, now Berkhane 5,100 soldiers strong. Reorganized, Malian Armed Forces operate today along 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers, the robust Chadians and other troupes with advanced equipment from the US and EU friendly countries. Overall, more than 30,000 troupes facing 1.000 jihadists.
A costly economic support.
In addition to military deployments, economic programs are underway. Three are the most known: the Coalition for the Sahel whose main objectives are to integrate international institutions approaches and visions on the region, the Alliance for the Sahel that finance, in cooperation with the Coalition development aid projects and the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel, a German and French initiative.
These three come in addition to older projects the Club du Sahel and the Inter-States Committee to Combat Drought in the Sahel.
These economic efforts and the steady military successes face an increasingly entrenched terrorism. Hunted since 2013, terrorist have lost most of their military leaders, fled the large cities and are now spread into the wilderness. Without disappearing from the landscape, they still take hostages and managed to poison inter-ethnic cohabitation and to weakening central governments.
Violence is taking deeper roots. Today, one single sound of a motorcycle engine sows panic among scared peasants. Terrorism is surreptitiously turned into ethno-sectarian platform exactly as in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen or Libya. All three are states where « retribalization », or the return to the tribal system, is a regression of patriotic feelings and a loss of governments’ legitimacy.
Operationalizing the strategies.
In this ever more violent environment, are effective governance and successful military operations still sustainable? While any settlement of a civil conflict poses formidable political, ethical, financial challenges, time for decisive choices is not elastic. A way out of the crisis has become imperative.
The region’s leaders are aware of the complexity of the numerous challenges. The first is the deeply rooted ideological-ethnic terrorism. It is a reality and like a “fish in the water” of the ethnic groups. Embedded in the national landscape, its perversity stirs up ancestral enmities, thanks to unbridled social networks. It relentless push southwards to the Gulf of Guinea is a today threat but surely the tomorrow war.
The internationalization of the region conflicts is accelerating with Russia and Turkey in Libya, following there the Gulf States and others while the bloody killings around Lake Chad go on. All these are signs that the G 5 Sahel region is next for more turmoil.
Thus, the importance of settling its main cause: the recurrent but ignored Mali crisis. Ignored despite many peace agreements signed in 1991, 2006 on 15 June 2015 in Algiers.
To get out of their present difficulties, the Sahel governments may get inspiration from two earlier anti-terrorist strategies. The first was carried out by Russia, Algeria and the Gulf States, countries where the « ex-Afghans » and their national recruits waged ferocious rebellions but ended up eliminated. They may also follow the counter-terrorism model chosen by the international community, from 1991 to date, in Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. Indeed, each of these two strategies has either very high or unsustainable costs. Still, a choice was made.
Beyond these examples, the main difficulty in overcoming the crisis lies in the ideological inability of terrorists to trust a negotiated settlement. Cornered and losing men, ground and material, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shebaab in Somalia, Daesh in Mosul, the Islamists in Chechnya, all, by self-indoctrination and more certainly by inexperience, continued to fight, losing more fighters and more territories! Their stubborn fight to get ‘’ all-or-nothing’’, makes negotiations pointless.
They are hostages of their militant past and of false expectations linked to the weaknesses of national governments often fragilized by endemic corruption.
What way out?
To invigorate the relationships with their allies, Nouakchott gathering leaders should focus simultaneously on both the civilian and the military areas. They should encourage a unifying political discourse. Straight and action-oriented, it can be more effective against armed extremism than warlike speeches often derided by the social networks. Second, the professionalization of the security forces calls for more open recruitments, more frequent training and a stronger empathy with the populations.
In reshuffling the strategic priorities, the aggressive intrusion of Covid 19 reminds that Sahel armed conflict has started well before 2013. Thus Nouakchott summit should open up prospects in order to avoid, for all, the perpetuation of a conflict that has already gone on too long. Largely due to an enemy inept to negotiate and incredibly hard to eradicate totally.