Conflict and Fragility


Strategic Missteps: Learning From a Failed EU Sahel Strategy

09 Nov 2020 - 14:59

This op-ed has previously been published by The Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).

The August 18th coup in Mali confronted European leaders with a harsh reality: financial resources, capacity building trainings and security cooperation alone are too thin a strategy to restore peace and stability in the Sahel. Following the 2012 upheaval, the European Union (EU) launched dedicated, well-funded initiatives and stabilization missions to reinforce the power of civilian governments and to support the fight against terrorism and organized crime. Nearly a decade later, as EU policymakers are set to renew the 2011 Sahel strategy, the coup in Mali acts as a magnifying glass for a failing approach. This is particularly striking as European initiatives in the Sahel, and Mali in particular, allegedly represent an achievement of EU’s defense and security policy as well as proof of its rising diplomatic power.

EU leaders are currently confronted with a fundamentally different security landscape than a decade ago, which has resulted in a shift towards a migration-security centred lens on the region. Since the 2011 Libyan collapse and subsequent 2012 rebellion and coup in Mali, armed groups have expanded to central Mali and subsequently to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, generating widespread displacement, death and severe political instability. All three countries are dealing with violent insurgencies by both Al-Qaeda and Islamic-State affiliated groups and the rise of communal violence. Nothing indicates that existing international interventions have succeeded in halting the spread of insecurity in the region. The increase in migration movements in 2015 has only amplified European concerns towards the Sahel, which were framed through a security lens, despite it being a different issue. Fittingly, the Sahel has been defined by the EU’s Special Representative for the region, Angel Losada, as a ‘poligon of crises.

Recent developments in the region illustrate the necessity to place greater focus on the political dimension of the conflicts. Both the government crisis in Mali and deteriorating civil society environment in Niger and Burkina Faso underline the deeply political nature of instability in the region: little attention has been given to the pertinence and the impact of its approach towards governance issues affecting Sahelian countries.

A Surplus of Drawbacks

2020 marks a critical juncture of EU policy in the Sahel in which the failures of current Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and other member state initiatives are increasingly apparent, amid a deteriorating security situation and rising numbers of civilian casualties. Such challenges are further magnified by the EU’s reliance on national partners lacking legitimacy at home.

There is a recurrent refrain in Brussels that by providing development aid and building state capacity, notably via military support, peace solutions will follow suit. This is especially problematic, as by ignoring socio-political landscapes, the failure to rebuild the Malian state[1] may lead to exacerbating tensions further down the line. If the EU appears to be colliding with and supporting illegitimate, corrupt and/or autocratic governments, disconnected from the needs and realities of their populations, consequences could be dire both for regional political stability and European soft power. In addition, cleansing a territory of violent extremist actors, or “mowing the lawn”,[2] and subsequently adding development funds, rarely leads to stability. This can be explained by three factors:

  • First, counterterrorism efforts rely on an overwhelming degree of international support, which is vulnerable to decreasing legitimacy for both Sahelian and European audiences. By contrast, violent extremist actors’ time horizons are not constrained by these short-term barriers, as they see themselves involved in a longer-term game. The effectiveness of counterterrorism as a dominant aspect of any stabilisation strategy is thus limited by definition.
  • Second, stabilisation mechanisms focus on extending the reach of the executive power and are thus a deeply political process, not only a technical one. This dynamic is often insufficiently taken into account. As a consequence of international support, governing authorities are regularly able to expand and abuse their personal power position to the detriment of citizens. This takes the form of financial gains or high profile corruption, restrained space for civil society and non-parliamentary opposition, the use of counter-terror forces deployed against civilians, a redeployment of an army that is not deemed legitimate in some regions and active undermining of ongoing peace-building processes as most recently revealed in Mali.[3] A technical perception of stabilisation ignores this political dimension and is often unable to address deeper socio-economic grievances.[4] While the current government crisis in Mali is the most recent striking example of how the major pressing demand in the country is an acutely political one, it is a notion that analysts have stressed for years.
  • Third and consequently, the notion of redeploying state actors in an effort to increase stability lacks coherence in environments in which those very actors are perceived as part of the problem. When national armies are killing more civilians than violent extremist groups, the return of state actors is not a goal in itself as it undermines stability by further exacerbating existing grievances against the state.

EU member states have showcased a large disconnect between their political ambitions to stabilize Sahelian territories and the willingness to act on such policies through military deployment.[5] As a result, counter-terrorism policies have largely been shaped by France. In this context, a comprehensive EU strategy in the Sahel will need to bypass unrealistic perceptions of military success against violent extremist actors in the Sahel. It must also overcome this security-development nexus binary approach and finally effectively address the political dimension of conflicts.

Combined, these observations on contemporary EU endeavours in the Sahel demonstrate the necessity to focus on wider governance issues that are only insufficiently addressed by the EU’s proclaimed three new priorities in the Sahel, as stated by the EU’s top diplomat for the Sahel, Angel Losada: coordination, human rights and ownership. Such points avoid concentrating on other, more pressing governance issues, such as stronger attention to providing opportune avenues for contestation, reform of the justice sector and a reconsideration of social and economic inequalities in most Sahel countries. While this is an especially daunting task amid Covid-budgetary constraints,[6] the August 2020 coup in Mali should be used as an occasion to critically question the decade-long EU Sahel initiatives and its overall strategy in the region, notably its vision of governance.

Centering Governance

For Sahelian citizens, the return of the state is not a goal in its own right. Increasingly, reported state atrocities against civilians in the name of counter-terrorism are only the latest and most drastic example adding to the crisis dynamics mentioned above. Grievances against central state authorities and administration are as much a result of absent service provision as they are of state authorities perceived as predatory and corrupt. The experience of abuse and mistreatment is prevalent and does not only include defence and security forces, but similarly the justice system, public administrators overseeing public services as well as customary leaders who have considerable impact on the governance of land and natural resources. In short, the state is at the very basis of the conflict dynamics and hence building state functions per se is not contributing to the governance problems at the root of insecurity. The task is therefore more daunting than stabilisation in and of itself. In order to obtain sustainable stability, international actors in the Sahel need to accompany a process of transformation that is not only restoring but re-founding the state. These findings have consistently stressed the need to imagine governance not simply as a lack of capacity, but as a much broader set of pre-existing powers balances in which international interventions take place and unfold their impact.[7]

Despite an existing consensus amongst researchers on the need to place governance issues at the centre of the Sahel strategy, this revelation has not yet found a way into policy making in the region. Instead, international intervention has followed a security-focused approach that combines counter-terrorism operations[8] with capacity-building. Across central Sahel, the outdated and problematic Malian peace agreement of 2015[9] remains the only framework with which to address the political instability. Even within this framework, the focus is placed on quantitative indicators of state presence, rather than on the quality of such presence. Ill-conceived performance indicators can easily lead to misinterpreting successes and failures. The presence of the army or the return of public institutions in a region (much like the Kidal case) are insufficient indicators to guarantee sustainable peace and security.

"Both the focus on capacity and political will fall short of addressing governance problems."

The Sahel is thereby illustrative of a gap between the governance understanding of researchers, and that of policy makers who tend to follow a binary understanding of governance challenges as either a lack of capacity or a lack of political will.[10] The consequences of both logics is the application of technical solutions – either in the form of capacity building as seen in the security sector, or in the form of conditionality and sanctions. Neither of these conceptualisations sufficiently take into account the perceived legitimacy of the governance actors at the centre of international state-building efforts. Both the focus on capacity and political will fall short of addressing governance problems. The former because technical solutions alone are not the answer, as they neglect the extent to which state administrations need to undergo transformation in order to respond efficiently to wide-spread grievances and citizens’ immediate needs. The latter, because conditionality will only achieve so much as long as national ownership is lacking.

EUTM: A Case Study of a EU’s Failing Vision on Governance

The case of the EU Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali is a perfect illustration of how this inadequate vision on governance can translate into highly counterproductive effects. In fact, EUTM Mali – upscaled to gradually expand to the remaining G5 Sahel countries – is an example of how European external action priorities, detached from local needs and lacking consideration for governance issues, have led to limited national buy-in from Malian counterparts and a lack of concrete results.[11] Current performance indicators, such as the amount of money spent or the number of trainings delivered, are inadequate. In addition, they reflect the EU’s poor understanding of what governance really entails.

If numbers spoke for themselves, EUTM could be considered as a success-story. It has trained over 15,000 Malian soldiers, not only combat battalions (GTIA) for immediate deployment but also smaller tactical units, company commanders and trainers. It has also developed specialized and individual courses such as demining, air support, and human rights. Adapting to the spread of security threats, it has decentralized its operations to move trainings and assistance closer to the front in Northern and Central Mali. Improvements are noticeable as soldiers are able to return fire and can hold their position more successfully. In 2012, some soldiers had never fired a bullet before being deployed. Soldiers can now use weapons.

The linear deterioration of the security situation however contradicts this narrative. There are recurrent reports of desertions and selling of weapons to the enemy.[12] EUTM’s initial goal of enabling the Malian civilian government to regain control of the northern regions has therefore failed, as several EUTM’ trained troops fled their posting and insufficient duration of EUTM trainings contributed to provoking such failures.[13]

These failures can be partly explained by the fact that EUTM does not have an executive mandate. European institutions and EU member states have an oversight capacity which is conditioning EUTM’s scope of action. Malian authorities are also hampering any initiatives related to governance issues. Despite these limitations, EUTM has launched new initiatives to enhance its technical support to the Ministry of Defense, notably supporting the development of a new Human Resources management tool.[14] However, ultimately, the EU and EUTM have the final word on their scope of action. European institutions design their programs and define their objectives, and they choose the recipients of their financial and technical support. They must therefore be held accountable, similarly to other international institutions, for the insufficiencies of their initiatives.

Hence, while the incapacity of EUTM to reflect on these failures can easily be linked to the absence of efficient monitoring capacities, it also reveals the inadequacy of the EU’s vision of governance when applied to field programming. The EU focuses on capacity-building rather than governance reforms. It prioritises immediate re-deployment rather than the fight against endemic corruption and often detaches its training programs from local needs and realities. Malians cannot “appropriate” all reforms, trainings and even material donations. If, for instance, Malian soldiers do not know how to drive, use or upkeep an offered vehicle, the intended operational benefit will be minimal.[15] Similarly, if the EU conducts trainings without addressing structural human resource issues, the effects could be detrimental. The root causes behind insufficient improvements on the battleground have therefore not been addressed by European initiatives. In short, if the EU does not focus on governance properly, without obtaining, i.e. conditioning its support to, substantial institutional reform and without comprehensive monitoring of its support to Sahelian partners, the ownership and efficiency of capacity-building programs will always be insufficient.

The EU has indeed failed to encourage sufficient institutional reforms within the Malian army. In 2020, seven years after EUTM mandate was initiated, and despite its objective to achieve such reform, the Malian army still lacks a well-defined strategic orientation and the constant turnover of European contingents and, therefore, trainers’ nationalities mean that norms, practices, standards and tactical visions conveyed to Malian troops are often contradictory if not unintelligible when delivered in an approximate French.[16]

Furthermore, the EU has also failed to contribute to addressing structural human resource issues prevailing in the Malian army and to place it at the centre of its action scope. Recruitment is still a pending issue. With only 16,500 active personnel, the Malian Army (Forces Armées Maliennes, FAMa) remain considerably understaffed for a country that stretches over one million square kilometres and shares borders with seven countries. Smaller neighbouring countries all have larger contingents: Senegal has roughly 19,000 enlistees, while Mauritania is staffed with 21,000 soldiers.[17] As a direct result, an estimated 75% of Malian troops are engaged in military operations at any given point in time. EUTM trainings therefore lack in-shape and available candidates, and the best officers are often unavailable due to multiple (financially attractive) solicitations abroad, a counterproductive effect of the myriad of external security assistance initiatives.[18] Hence, much like in 2012, the lack of support on the ground remains. Cohesion between and within units is simultaneously undermined by erratic human resource management.[19] Basic information needed to build coherent career-paths and align resources with long-term needs, such as soldiers’ profiles or their areas of deployment, are missing. Recruitment, deployment and advancement depend on social connections (or ability to pay) rather than merit.[20]

The EU has attempted to pressure the Malian Ministry of Defense to implement a new payroll system, which would prevent the misappropriation and embezzlement of soldiers’ low wages. Similarly to payroll, the Ministry of Defense is also plagued by corruption and limited oversight with respect to their procurement procedures. In 27 March 2020, prosecutor Mahamadou Kassogué announced that his team brought to light acts of embezzlement of public funds equivalent to approximately 15 million euros and over-invoicing for an amount exceeding 45 million euros, respectively linked to the acquisition of the presidential plane and overpriced arms contracts. Several of ex-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK)'s relatives, including his former chief of staff and ministers, were directly named in this case. Opposition leaders exploited these scandals to their advantages in the months leading to the coup

In fact, if systemic corruption isn’t addressed, how can an underpaid, disenchanted and ill-motivated soldier be willing to sacrifice his life and trust the hierarchy? Enhancing the fight against corruption, engaging robust policies and resources to improve public ethic and management, is therefore detrimental. The key would be to (re)build a sentiment of justice and to restore trust in public institutions. It is critical to implement successful sustainable reform of the FAMa, and to recreate a sense of belonging among its ranks.

"The key would be to (re)build a sentiment of justice and to restore trust in public institutions."

As mentioned, assisting feeble, long neglected and severely disorganized institutions such as Sahelian armies is by no means an easy task as they have been in a state of disarray for a long time. Since the early 1990s, armies have suffered “from underfunding, nepotism, under training, poor pay.”[21] The legacy of colonialism also plays an important role in understanding why “(…) ethnic and tribal biases in the armed forces, persistent politicisation of the military, and weak operational capacity”,[22] notably to explain why soldiers defected to join rebel ranks during the current conflicts in Niger or Mali.[23] The EU has made steps in the right direction to improve its programming. Since early 2019, faced by increased accountability demands for its action due to the lack of concrete progress, the EU has decided to condition a (very) small part of its budget support to the Malian army in the advancement of the human resources reform project. Yet, this welcome evolution might be insufficient to have any leverage. European institutions are supposed to shell out money to manifest the organization’s efficiency and visibility, but is financial support sufficient?

General Conclusions

The case of EUTM Mali is a perfect illustration of how an inadequate vision on governance can translate into highly counterproductive effects. Governance grievances cannot be countered as long as these attempted solutions do not include and address the role of government actors in it. The reason why research consensus on governance has found such little space for reflection in policy lies in the fact that it ultimately touches upon questions of national sovereignty and the fragile notion of “partnership” between the EU and its member states on the one hand, and Sahelian states on the other. If the right governing structures are not in place, if there is no accountability nor transparency linked to public decision making, if the justice system isn’t working, if corruption is not actively fought, then no amount of capacity-building can have long-lasting positive impact. As the latest report from the UN Security Council’s expert group on Mali highlights, capacity building can end up reinforcing the technical and financial means of the wrong people.[24] Hence, the EU should consider revising its vision of governance in its strategy and programming.

EU Sahel initiatives such as EUTM Mali have prioritised capacity building and financial support over structural reforms. They have focused on state-building instead of re-founding the state by reforming justice institutions, tackling corruption and lacking accountability as reflected in human resource flaws. In public contestation against former president IBK that culminated in the military coup by the same armed forces the EU contributed to train, these three points of contestation figured prominently. The scant attention the EU has given to these aspects illustrates the failure of both Mali’s political elite and the international community. It calls for a critical look at the shortcomings of previous interventions as funding of EU programmes in Sahel constantly increases.

"The scant attention the EU has given to these aspects illustrates the failure of both Mali’s political elite and the international community."

EU efforts in the Sahel remain heavily focused on the security-development nexus and a capacity-focused perception of governance. This approach falls short of addressing the underlying grievances of Sahelian citizens, which are just as much a consequence of state politics as of their absence. While resources will be further limited as a consequence of Covid-19, no quest for stability can attempt to replace long-term policy goals with short-term focus on military means. A renewed version of governance must entail a clear-eyed understanding of political dimensions of existing crisis, support for systemic reforms and inclusion of (non) parliamentary oppositions to allow for a more peaceful re-ordering of the state-society contract. 

If they fail to do so, the EU and its member states risk complacency and being perceived as enabling and reinforcing an executive that is not only detached from citizen’s need but also predatory. The implication of soldiers trained and equipped by EUTM in a coup which overthrew a civilian government should be considered as a dire warning in this regard, especially when the EU mission is extending its reach to all Sahel countries. While responsibility for these acts lies with the national governments, this most recent incident is illustrative of the fact that re-enforcement and re-establishing of state authority is highly political, especially if it re-enforces a state that is considered illegitimate by many. Supporting the use of force through counter-terror operations is thus far from a non-political act, and in the worst-case scenario‚ contributes to propping up authoritarian inclinations

It is fundamental for EU leadership to look at its strategic choices in the Sahel and to avoid perpetrating the same mistakes that were and are to this day being made in the central Sahel. The discrepancies outlined above do not only hold true for Mali, but similarly for Niger and Burkina Faso as they approach elections amid Covid-19 tensions and widespread insecurity.[25] In particular choosing how and whether to reinforce EUCAP in Niger should be analysed in light of current developments in Mali. The example of Niger illustrates that the strengthening of executive functions is not solely limited to stabilisation missions, but can also accompany newly securitised issues such as migration.

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[1] Craven-Matthews C. and Englebert P. (2017), A Potemkin State in the Sahel? The empirical and the fictional in Malian state reconstruction, Journal of African Security

[2] Shkolnik M. (2016), “Mowing the Grass” and Operation Protective Edge: Israel’s strategy for protracted asymmetric conflict with Hamas, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal; Guichaoua Y. (2015), L’impasse du Contre Terrorisme au Sahel, The Conversation.

[3] Final report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali, Un Security Council, August 2020

[4] Mac Ginty, R. (2012), Against Stabilization in Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 1(1), pp.20–30

[5] Signe Marie Cold-Ravnkilde, Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, Disentangling the security traffic jam in the Sahel: constitutive effects of contemporary interventionismInternational Affairs, Volume 96, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages 855–874.

[6] “Livelihoods from these activities [small business activities conducted in the streets and/

or in crowded, open markets] were threatened and, in some cases, lost because of curfews and closure of markets imposed by the authorities in an effort to contain the virus”.

[7] Charbonneau Bruno (2017) Intervention in Mali: building peace between peacekeeping and counterterrorism, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 35:4, 415-431, DOI: 10.1080/02589001.2017.1363383

[8] Bilaterally through French operation Barkhane; multilaterally through the new task force Takuba; or regionally through the G5 Sahel

[9] Carter Center series of reports on the implementation of the Peace Agreement.

[10] Tull Denis (2020), German and International Crisis Management in the Sahel Why Discussions about Sahel Policy Are Going around in Circles

[11] Tull D., The European Union Training Mission and the Struggle for a New Model Army in Mali, IRSEM, 11th February 2020.

[12] Panel d’Experts du Comité de Sanctions sur le Mali, Rapport Final août 2019, New-York, Conseil de Sécurité des Nations Unies

[13] Boisvert Marc-André, “2012 : L’étrange défaite de l’armée malienne,” 18 January 2017.

[14] Smith Sean & al. (2019), Building Integrity in Mali’s Military and Security Sectors: an overview of institutional safeguards, Transparency International

[15] Tull D., The European Union Training Mission and the Struggle for a New Model Army in Mali, IRSEM, 11th February 2020.

[16] In addition, whilst the majority of soldiers have notions of French, not all troop do master this language perfectly.

[17] Armed forces personnel, total | Data | Table. 2018.

[18] Ibid. Tull 2020

[19] Amnesty International, Mali : risque de chaos dans le nord si les combats continuent, 17 février 2012

[20] Sana E. (2013), « L’armée malienne, entre instabilité, inégalités sociales et luttes de places » in La guerre au Mali, Dir. Galy M.Cahiers libres, Paris, pp. 106-124.

[21] “Intervening in Mali: West African Nations Plan Offensive against Islamist and Tuareg Rebels”, Andrew McGregor, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, No 13, June 29, 2012, p. 10.

[22] Ouédraogo E. Advancing Military Professionalism In Africa. Washington D.C.: Africa Center for Strategic Studies; 2014:16.

[23] Panel d’Experts du Comité de Sanctions sur le Mali, Rapport Final août 2019, New-York, Conseil de Sécurité des Nations Unies

[24] Final report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali, Un Security Council, August 2020

[25] Panel d’Experts du Comité de Sanctions sur le Mali, Rapport Final août 2020, New-York, Conseil de Sécurité des Nations Unies