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Success of Joint Force Sahel depends on local actor engagement

Success of Joint Force Sahel depends on local actor engagement
Civil society actors interacting in Mali, February 2017. Photo: Millénium Communication


Officially launched on 2 July 2017, the 5,000-strong Joint Force deployed by the regional organization G5 Sahel (JF-G5S), is the latest addition to the four multilateral peace missions and one French counter-terrorism operation that are currently present in Mali. The mandate of the Joint Force by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger is to “combat terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking”. Strongly supported by France in the hope that the JF-G5S will lay the base for an exit strategy for its 4,000 military personnel in operation Barkhane, the new force is going to complement the 12,000 personnel of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

While strengthened military presence aligns well with the international agenda of tackling counter-terrorism and irregular migration, security-focused strategies risk exacerbating the very deficiencies and government failings that helped fuel instability in the region in the first place. To increase the JF-G5S’s chances for success and having a positive impact on (human) security, it needs to embrace local (civil society) actors, and give attention to development and governance by means of a strong people-centered civilian component.

G5 Sahel
The countries of the G5 Sahel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / LeGrandJardin


Local answers to growing insecurity

The G5 Sahel Joint Force is the regional answer to the increasing turmoil in and around Mali. Two years after the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement between the government of Mali and two coalitions of armed groups, violations of the ceasefire continue, attacks by violent extremists are on the rise and the growing insecurity is spilling over the border areas into northern Burkina Faso and western Niger.  Moreover, insecurity has extended to central Mali, where violent extremists not only attack armed forces, but particularly imperil civilians. Simultaneously, the absence of state authority has allowed an upsurge in crime and inter-community violence.

Recent SIPRI research on the perceptions of insecurity by Malian civil society actors highlights that it takes more than a new military operation to tackle the country’s complex security problems. The quality of the relationship between local communities and their national armed forces is reported as essential for sustainable peace consolidation. SIPRI studies also confirm that peace operations in Africa are currently too top-down and often insufficiently connected to the end-users of peace: the local population. In Mali’s case, the lack of an inclusive dialogue is causing the civil-military relation to gradually deteriorate.

As security priorities in the North, Centre and South of the country are not uniform and highly volatile, strategies have to be contextualised and harmonized with local community security initiatives to ensure they answer to local dynamics, priorities and demands. Given their profound knowledge of circumstances on the ground, local involvement is required to contribute to tailor-made security responses.


The security – development nexus

According to SIPRI research, perceptions of insecurity in Mali are closely related to economic and developmental issues. Employment opportunities (or the lack thereof) figure at the top of perceived security risks in north and central Mali. An overly security-focused approach to combat terrorism and crime without providing development is therefore likely to be short term or even counterproductive.

While the security – development nexus is widely recognised, insecurity often seems to push development initiatives to the background due to pressure from both the Malian ruling elites and the international community. Despite its dual emphasis on security and development, the G5 Sahel’s approaches are no exception and have so far mainly focused on military and security coordination.

In spite of the praise for the long-desired Africanization of international interventions in Mali,  UNSC resolution 2359 failed to provide any financial support for the new force. This lack of funding for the JF-G5S increases the serious risk that the civilian component of the mission will be neglected in favour of the military component and economic and development issues will be ignored.

Malian soldiers
Malian soldiers stand in formation during the closing ceremony of Exercise Flintlock in Bamako, Mali, November 20, 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Staff Sergeant Samuel Bendet, U.S. Africa Command.


The role of governance in the fight against terrorism and crime

Before the new Force starts to crack down on terrorism and crime, these notions should be unpacked and understood in their local context. Historically an international crossroads for trade, cross-border economies are the main sources of income in the region. In this regard, it is important to note that what outsiders would perceive as a ‘criminal act’ often enjoys social legitimacy. The fight against organised crime, without understanding of the local socioeconomic environment and providing alternative livelihood opportunities, can fuel existing competition over control of trafficking routes. Moreover, the closing down of one human smuggling route often leads to the opening of other itineraries.

The concept of ‘terrorism’ also needs a closer local reading. Not only is there a gap between the local and international understanding of jihadism discourse but it is also impossible to fit ‘terrorists’ into one sociological category. Islamist violence cannot be delinked from other forms of political violence, while the one-to-one conflation of terrorism and crime is also contested. Groups from all sides, including state actors and the criminal justice system, are reported to be involved in the smuggling of cigarettes, drugs, weapons and people. Around 30,000 to 40,000 migrants transited through Mali in 2016 while illicit trafficking is estimated to generate $3.8 billion annually.

Sustainable answers to insecurity problems are ultimately political in nature and Mali’s lack of good governance is a major hindrance to sustainable peacebuilding. Due to the high extent of state complicity and the low level of state legitimacy in Mali, a state-centric law enforcement intervention by the JF-G5S runs the risk of reinforcing malign structures, rather than the reverse.


Civil society for a people-centred approach

France and the G5 announced ambitious plans for the JF-G5S: a control post should be installed in Sévaré (near Mopti) before the end of August, a donor conference is planned in Berlin in September and the force should be operational in October 2017.

Consequently, now is the time for the JF-G5S to maximize chances of success to patch up its weaknesses. To this end, in spite of the challenges, embracing local (civil society) actors is a prerequisite for the building of a culture of lawfulness, drug harm reduction and social cohesion, and should be a sine qua non for the new force’s deployment. Additionally, the JF-G5S requires a strong civilian component that focuses on development and governance through a bottom-up strategy promoting economic progress, alternative livelihoods, democratic civilian oversight, transparency and accountability.


Annelies Hickendorff was a Research Assistant with SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme.
Aurélien Tobie was a Senior Researcher and Activity Coordinator for the SIPRI Mali Civil Society and Peacebuilding Project.
Dr Jaïr van der Lijn is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.