Sahel visit leaves fundamental issues unaddressed

UNSC delegation continues to focus on technical implementation rather than tackling political problems.

A senior delegation from the UN Security Council has just made its way back to New York from a whirlwind trip to the Sahel. The trip followed a string of high profile armed attacks in the region, including that which cost the lives of four US Special Forces troops on the Niger-Mali border, and was meant to help the council identify better ways to confront the region’s security problems.

The trip clarified the international community’s commitment to the region, including from a heretofore reluctant United States, but also showed how far there still is to go in terms of tackling the political, economic and social issues that fuel conflicts. This is, sadly, typical of the persistent shortcomings of international approaches to the Sahel and to Mali in particular.

Algiers Accords

Although bookended by trips to Nouakchott and Ouagadougou, the core focus of the UNSC trip was Mali. Attacks by armed groups have doubled in recent months, making the implementation of the June 2015 Algiers Accords meant to restore peace to the country a priority for the international community. Alongside the head of the UN mission in Mali, Mahamet Saleh Annadif, the delegation criticised the delays in the implementation of the Algiers Accords and called on armed groups to accelerate the process.

In theory this is a good strategy. Only the problem is not with the speed of the Accords’ implementation. The problem is that the Accords do not solve the political, economic, and social problems underlying the crisis in Mali, and can only make progress as part of a much more holistic strategy.

As I argued earlier this year, one of the international community’s shortcomings is an emphasis on technical implementation above all else. This is borne out again in the most recent report from the UN Security Council on Mali, which lists progress in terms of draft laws written, conferences held, cantonment sites constructed, testimonies of victims of violence taken, but a significant lag in actual participation and collaboration between armed group signatories and the government, as well as local communities, in making the institutions of the peace accords functional. These are all good things, and necessary for progress, but they are not nearly enough.

Mali’s main rival armed groups finally came to a ceasefire deal in September following intense fighting. This ceasefire, which received more support from the armed group leadership than past agreements, came about through enormous pressure from the international community, including a threat of sanctions against anyone deemed to be obstructing the peace accords’ implementation, according to interviews with European officials and members of the armed groups.

However, the ceasefire and warm meetings in Bamako between the armed groups, the Presidency, and foreign delegations (including the UNSC representatives) has not yet created any real momentum. Just last week the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA) – composed of both former rebel and Islamist groups expressed its disapproval of a new law governing local territorial units in Mali, which they say was passed without their agreement in contravention to the Accords. And in their statement to the UN delegation, both the CMA and the government-aligned Plateforme critiqued specifically the government’s failure to honor some of its engagements and to operationalize institutions agreed to under the Accords operational.

This might sound like a lack of ‘technical implementation’ of the kind critiqued above, but the truth is that the holdup is much more political: the Malian government seems loathe to actually empower the local institutions it has agreed to implement. And although Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga was just in Europe drumming up support for a proposed 3.34 billion euro development fund for northern Mali, there is little indication for now that the money would be used as promised, or without creating waste and corruption.  

The lesson is that, to make these agreements work, armed groups have to respect their engagements but so does the Malian government. As such, while the sanctions regime is not a silver bullet to create peace in Mali, its weight must be used equally to threaten all spoilers, whether armed groups or the Malian government itself.

G5 Sahel

The G5 is the solution of choice for France, in particular, to restore stability to the Sahel, and the deadly attack that killed four American and four Nigerien troops on October 4th may make the United States more inclined to support the G5 and its newly-operational Joint Force. In Ouagadougou, the French ambassador to Burkina Faso even noted that “we have made the question of the G5 Sahel the priority of our presidency” of the UNSC.

Yet the initiative seems to suffer from a similar failure to engage with real political and security problems as other attempts to improve regional coordination and bring a measure of stability to the region. The recent fighting in Mali’s northeastern region of Menaka brought to the fore a series of clan and personal conflicts within armed groups that have been exacerbated by the alleged use by Niger of proxy forces to fight jihadist groups. This has empowered armed groups to use counterterrorism operations as a way to attack rival ethnic communities, which has in turn fueled support for jihadist groups in the region.

In each of these instances, higher-level technical processes and institutions give the appearance of progress, and in some cases generate real results. But if the political and social issues that motivate different actors  from armed groups to national governments to local communities and even jihadist militants are not dealt with openly and honestly as part of these processes, and if regional governments continue to try to rely on force to resolve these problems, the already worsening security situation in the Sahel will only continue to deteriorate further.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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