Conflict and Fragility


The politics of security sector reform in the Sahel

01 May 2017 - 16:16
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 28 April 2017, senior research fellow Erwin van Veen spoke to the European Union’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) about the topic of security sector reform in the Sahel. The PSC is the bloc’s ambassador-level body in charge of EU foreign and security policy. Basing his remarks on recent Clingendael research, Erwin’s intervention is reflected in brief below.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. I’m delighted to share some insights into security sector reform in the Sahel. To get us started, it’s useful to recapitulate three characteristics of external support for security sector reform that we know to be critical to its success. First, security sector reform efforts must be designed as politically sensitive change management efforts. This is because they seek to influence the organization and performance of security institutions. In fragile societies, such institutions are typically not there to assure the safety of citizens, but to ensure ruling elites stay in power. Second, security sector reform efforts need to be long-term and iterative in their implementation because change happens when it is politically opportune. This means that having time is of the essence. Third, security sector reform efforts need to work with the many security providers, formal and informal, that one typically finds in fragile societies.

Yet, the reality of many security sector reform efforts – including those that the EU engages in - is that they are state-focused, emphasize formal institution building, prioritize train, build and equip-type activities and are short-term in duration.

This means that many such reform efforts remain ineffective, mostly because of their lack of political focus, understanding and engagement.

If we look at the possibilities for security sector reform in the Sahel with this lens, it is easy to see how the political dynamics and systems in place are essential to consider what is feasible. Libya, for example, features the complete fragmentation of politics, power and violence between militias, warlords and radical groups. Mali is essentially a patronage democracy run as an oligarchy between a few key families. The recent peace agreement with the Tuareg has not changed this dynamic yet. Finally, Algeria is a brittle autocracy with a succession and budget problem.

It is in this political context that European concerns with terrorism and migration drive most of its security sector reform efforts. Starting with terrorism, this state of affairs is deeply problematic. Terrorism is of course a legitimate concern, but if countering it means strengthening the repressive and dysfunctional state security institutions that keep elites in power, the cure might be worse than the disease. It ignores popular and local security concerns which, if left unaddressed, easily lead to the proliferation of armed groups. We have already witnessed this in Mali.

The present European approach to migration reinforces this dynamic and further privileges the region’s fragile states as primary interlocutors and conduits for reducing migration flows. The EU’s approach largely comes down to law enforcement focusing on border control and anti-smuggler operations. Apart from mistakenly seeing smugglers as organized crime syndicates instead of independent, small operators, this approach mostly criminalized migrants, reduces the feasibility of traditional migration in West-Africa as a survival strategy and turns migrants into expandable commodities. In some places, slave markets are back in business.

What would it take to improve external support for security sector support in the Sahel? Three actions should be considered:

  • Focus on reducing the local insecurity in places like Agadez, Tamanrasset and Sebha that results from migration, smuggling and terrorism. It would make security sector reform efforts more durable and sustainable since they would build popular support and mitigate excesses.
  • Put corruption center stage in security sector reform efforts because this can help expose and reduce the complicity of state forces in organized crime, human smuggling and perhaps even in supporting terrorist groups.
  • Track the impact of EU anti-terrorism and anti-migration policies and measures with much greater rigor and focus to learn what policies actually achieve despite – or in spite of - their intentions.

Thank you for your attention.’