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Establishing a regional security architecture in the Sahel

Headquarters of G5 Sahel joint force based in Sévaré. Credit: MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko
Headquarters of G5 Sahel joint force based in Sévaré. Credit: MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

Today the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union (EU) will adopt a number of decisions on the Sahel and Mali. In light of these conclusions, SIPRI has published a topical backgrounder on the G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S).


Deployed in late 2017, the FC-G5S is the military arm of broader regional cooperation among five states (the G5 Sahel/G5S) with shared security and development challenges. Since then, it has accrued international support, expanded on initial operations, and re-organized parallel development components to respond to a growing number of security concerns in the Sahel. International stakeholders and state governments in the region are hopeful that the FC-G5S will adapt to recent developments and local needs in order to establish a lasting peace. This backgrounder outlines the structure of the FC-G5S including its mandate and funding as well as parallel initiatives organized by member states.

The Sahel is a region that has historically been troubled by weak governance, high levels of youth unemployment, porous borders, frequent drought, high levels of food insecurity and paltry development progress. Since the 2012 crisis in Mali, the region has also witnessed an escalation in jihadist activity and a burgeoning of illicit migratory networks and trafficking. The area is therefore the subject of increasing international concern, as ungoverned spaces could provide ‘safe havens’ for terrorist activity.

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is the UN peacekeeping mission with the highest casualty rate in the world. Working alongside the French Operation Barkhane, it has made little progress in ensuring the safe implementation of the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Accord for Mali. As Mali heads into presidential elections in July, local populations increasingly regard MINUSMA as failing to provide significant security gains and look to alternatives.*

The violence has had overall negative effects on the movement of people and illegal goods throughout the Sahel, and many of the human security concerns are shared across state borders. Consequently, The President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, while President of the African Union (AU) in 2014, galvanized the G5S to create a cohesion of states with historic rivalries to quell the insecurity that was now viewed as a regional problem. On the urging of France and the Sahel states themselves, all of which are former French colonies, the international community recognized the FC-G5S—an agglomeration of 5000 military personnel, police officers, gendarmerie and border patrol officers from five of the states in the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The force carried out its first policing operations in October 2017.


Forging a regional force with global support

The African Union Peace and Security Council inaugurated the FC-G5S in July 2017 and the decision was ratified by UN Security Council Resolution 2359. The resolution expressed ‘deep concern’ over delays in the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement and a hope that by contributing to a more secure environment in the Sahel, the G5S would assist MINUSMA to stabilize Mali and fulfil its mandate in collaboration with the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) in the Sahel and Sahara region. As part of a political trend to withdraw from multilateral entanglements and concern over the estimated €423 million price tag for the force, the United States blocked a Chapter VII authorization and financial contributions from being included in the Security Council Resolution. On the urging of France, however, and amid increasing scrutiny of US activity in the region after an ambush in Niger, where the United States has a drone base, the USA accepted a diluted version of the resolution that ‘welcomed’ the force and pledged $60 million in support. Nonetheless, the USA bypassed the UN by providing military advisory support, training, equipment, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on a bilateral basis.

The force has since been attracting donors from across the globe: from the outset, the European Union (€100 million), Saudi Arabia (€100 million), the United Arab Emirates (€30 million), and most recently Turkey and Rwanda, among others. The coalition of Sahel states shied away from integrating the regional powers of the Maghreb, Morocco and Algeria, whose previous efforts to create cohesion on regional security matters, the CEN-SAD and CEMOC, failed to gain traction. Algeria remains distrustful and disenfranchised, viewing the force as an extension of French hegemony.  The G5S countries also denied Senegal’s repeated requests for inclusion, and the Senegalese administration later barred the FC-G5S commander, General Didier Dacko of Mali, from attending the 2017 Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa.


Establishing a mandate for the G5 joint security force

Stationed in Sévaré, the FC-G5S operates on three fronts: the Liptako-Gourma transborder area, the Mali-Mauritanian border and the Niger-Chad border. Its mandate targets a literal gap in the reach of the national forces of the states parties by endeavouring to catch fighters and traffickers who slip across borders. The force can also access areas that are out of reach for MINUSMA and engage more directly in offensive action and counterterrorism operations against Jamaat al-Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its affiliates and subsidiaries such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine and Katiba Macina. By walking a fine line between local ownership by its member states and access to the international expertise of external partners, the FC-G5S streamlines French cooperation and support to the countries of the Sahel. France provides the organizational structure for the force and takes part in six-monthly meetings of its military command. Because the FC-G5S combats illegal trafficking in addition to the terrorist groups designated in the mandate of Operation Barkhane, the force indirectly broadens the reach of a French military apparatus reluctant to become directly embroiled in local disputes. According to General Lecointre, the Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, France hopes that the FC-G5S will facilitate autonomy and local ownership, and take over some of the responsibilities of Operation Barkhane’s Operational Coordination Committee (Comités de Coordination Opérationelle, CCO), which acts as a coordinating and institutionalizing body for security programmes in the region. In terms of priorities, defence and security, governance, infrastructure and resilience form the force’s four pillars, but counterterrorism operations remain paramount in international eyes. The Malian representative at the Security Council meeting when Resolution 2359 was discussed emphasized humanitarian operations, development initiatives and state building as integral components of the mandate, elements both reflective of local priorities and critical to the region’s security in the long term.*

Figure 1: FC-G5S by the numbers
3 missions: counter-terrorism, organised cross-border crime and human trafficking
5 countries: Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali
5000 soldiers, gendarmerie and police officers across 7 battalions
3 geographical sectors: headquartered in N’beiket, Niamey and Wour
€414 million raised for launch of the joint force
€115 million estimated cost per year to maintain 1 year in action

The G5S launched it’s initial military operation, Operation Hawbi (black cow), on 27 October–11 November 2017 when 750 FC-G5S troops patrolled alongside 180 French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in the Liptako-Gourma border region. The operation identified a need to adapt tactics to counter unpredictable guerrilla movements and to improve communication channels—orders were given by Whatsapp message. Local populations were reluctant to denounce fighters for fear of a backlash from these groups if they were seen to be cooperating with the security forces. According to General Seyni Garba, the Chief of Defence Staff in Niger, in some instances civilian community members even warned armed groups in the area about the operation. Garba identified a need to establish trust with local populations through a long-term security presence, rather than via discrete counterterrorism operations. It will also be important to clarify how to narrow the target down to terrorists and traffickers, as opposed to insurgents or bandits, who fall within the mandate of MINUSMA, as these groups are often intermixed or quick to change their affiliations.


Broadening an approach to sustainable peace: complimentary initiatives and the Alliance for the Sahel

The creation and branding of the FC-G5S has spurred an upsurge in programmes by international organizations and the G5 states themselves to run in parallel with the force’s military and reconnaissance operations, G5S preventative programmes and judicial procedures. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has supported the creation of a Security Cooperation Platform (Plateforme de Coopération en Matière de Securité, PCMS) for law enforcement agents, representatives of the judicial system and advisers from Interpol to collaborate on counterterrorism and transnational organized crime. Mali, Niger and Chad are cooperating to share good practices on interrogation and trying alleged terrorists in the Afrique de l’Ouest contre la criminalité organisée (West African Network of Central Authorities and Prosecutors, WACAP). Burkina Faso is piloting a risk evaluation programme to prevent radicalization in overpopulated prisons. The AU has also stepped in to bolster the regional security efforts of the G5S countries through the African Union Nouakchott process, which aims to enhance security cooperation through intelligence-based policing, holistic treatment of criminal chains and the creation of horizontal structures to strengthen cohesion, trust and mutual assistance on security matters. The prospects for fruitful interoperability with G5S operations have heightened incentives and the impetus for the AU to revitalize the APSA in the Sahel and the Sahara region, as well as the African Standby Force. The merits of these initiatives hinge on effective coordination and information sharing across platforms, but the ad hoc nature of these collaborations still allows the G5S countries to distance themselves from the reputational shortcomings of previous institutional programmes.

To bolster the force’s development pillar, France and Germany, as well as the EU, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme launched the Alliance for the Sahel in July 2017. The Alliance has committed (see figure 2) €6 billion to youth unemployment, rural development and food security, energy and climate, governance, and decentralization initiatives and to improve access to basic services through 500 projects in the region in the period 2018–22. As of June 2018, the Alliance had enlarged its membership from the founding stakeholders to include the UK, Italy, Spain (at the Brussels summit on the G5 in February 2018), and most recently, Saudi Arabia. The Alliance is still fine tuning its organisational structure and remains open to new partners willing to embrace its priorities, methods and principle of reciprocal delegations. Coordinating the work of the Alliance, whose largest donor is France, with that of a wider set of actors in order to streamline development activities and match the priorities of states is now an item on the global agenda.

Figure 2: The Alliance for the Sahel aims to provide 500 projects in the 2018-22 period.
Figure 2: The Alliance for the Sahel aims to provide 500 projects in the 2018–22 period.

There is an intensified and recognized need for the G5S states to coordinate the consistent French support with an ad hoc and autonomous relationship with existing security bodies such as the AU in a mandate that fills the gap in the current security architecture. There is also strong international interest in allowing the G5S to sustain a coordinated security architecture where previous efforts have fallen short. In this multifaceted and dynamic conflict environment, the FC-G5S is confronted with definitional questions over what constitutes an ‘enemy’ or a ‘terrorist’, and procedures for targeting a range of criminal behaviour that will meet international standards and expectations, while taking on the myriad local challenges that undermine the region’s prospects for a lasting peace. Despite power struggles and historical challenges, the G5S nations are confronted with a need to work together to establish themselves as legitimate guardians of regional security, both with regard to immediate counterterrorism operations and through the long-term promotion of good governance, development and human rights—all essential components of lasting solutions to the intertwined conflicts of the Sahel.


* Gorman, Z., Les résultats préliminairies du questionnaire 3 sur la résolution 1325 du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies, [Preliminary results of questionnaire 3 on UN Security Council Resolution 1325], 9 May, Bamako. To request information about this study, please contact Zoë Gorman at


Zoë Gorman was a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.
Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.