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December 2023: The last German soldiers return from Mali after the end of MINUSMA.

December 2023: The last German soldiers return from Mali after the end of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The International Interventions in the Sahel: a Collective Failure?

blog Joint Futures 37, 15.01.2024

The ongoing crisis in the Sahel shows that traditional instruments of international involvement are no longer adequate to respond to the challenges in security provision and governance. Policymakers need to rethink their approach to addressing insecurity in the region and in Africa more generally


A decade after international actors led their first operations in the Sahel, their collective failure is widely recognized. The Sahel multidimensional crisis is in fact clear evidence that most of the bilateral and multilateral mechanisms established since the early 1990s to prevent and manage conflicts can increasingly be considered obsolete and irrelevant. Similarly, the military and civilian instruments set up at both international and regional levels also largely appear to be outdated to address the complexity of the Sahelian context.

Misunderstanding the multidimensional nature of the Sahel crisis

Firstly, most military initiatives taken by the Sahelian states, with the support of their international partners have failed to achieve their main objective to prevent and – then more modestly –  to curb the entrenchment and spread of radical Islamist groups, which have been reduced to their battle mode by the all-encompassing term of "armed terrorist groups". On the one hand, the violent rivalries between these groups based on their competing affiliations either with al-Qaeda (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims /GSIM)) or the Islamic State-Sahel (ISIS-Sahel) have not been sufficiently taken into account. The political rationale behind the struggle of some groups has been denied or overlooked, making it difficult to set political objectives that military interventions should achieve. Furthermore, it has not been sufficiently acknowledged that the Sahel region is hit by an essentially multifaceted crisis involving a wide variety of heterogeneous actors that should be considered alongside jihadist groups. These include separatist political and military entities, self-defence groups and community-based militias, as well as groups or individuals involved in typically criminal activities. The crisis quickly spread to central Mali, then to the Liptako-Gourma region (at the border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) and finally reaching the north of the coastal countries.

The limits of military training and intervention

The aforementioned limitations explain why the French military operation Barkhane as well as the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) advisory and training missions (European Union Training Mission, EUTM, and the European Union Capacity Building Mission, EUCAP Sahel) have all failed in efficiently training the Sahelian defence and security forces as part of their counter-terrorism efforts. It is also worth questioning the training curricula and equipment policies that were promoted, even before the crisis erupted. Decades of defence and security cooperation have undoubtedly helped to develop and strengthen the operational capabilities of the Sahelian armies, but without adequately supporting reforms geared towards the democratic control and armed forces of the armed forces. The approach predominantly relying on "train and equip" programmes has provided a fertile soil for armed takeovers in a region whose Praetorian history has been all too quickly forgotten.

More normative approaches have also failed, including the concept of "security system reform", whose limitations have led not only to 6 coups d'état in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger between August 2020 and July 2023, but also in massive embezzlement of defence budgets and human rights abuses by the armed forces in each of these countries.

An unmanageable institutional machinery

Juxtaposing the myriad of initiatives adopted by the various summits held to resolve the Sahel crisis – G5/Sahel, Alliance for the Sahel, Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S), European Task Force Takuba – has also made it impossible to coordinate and ensure the coherence of the heavy institutional machinery entrusted to the International Coalition for the Sahel, whose establishment was agreed in Nouakchott in June 2020. The difficulties encountered in making the G5-Sahel Joint Force operational showed how complex and lengthy the administrative and budgetary procedures governing the substantial funding announced at international donor conferences can be. The inefficiency of these various initiatives also raises questions about the relevance of the methodologies adopted by international partners. Excessively standardised instruments such as "results-based approaches", logical frameworks, theories of change, outcomes harvesting, milestones and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes based on quantitative indicators have been inadequate to meaningfully capture success or take into account local specificities.

Despite proposals to reform UN peace operations, notably through the HIPPO and Cruz reports, MINUSMA's mandate did not make it possible to handle a situation whose implications very quickly went beyond the organisation of electoral polls or the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, while the protection of civilians and the investigation of human rights violations became increasingly difficult to conduct due to the deterioration of relations with the national authorities.

Growing resentment towards international partners

Today, the international actors supporting or directly involved in these initiatives are increasingly being rejected by the Sahelian opinion and by West African populations in general. Local resentment is being expressed in increasingly virulent ways on the streets and on social media. The civil and military interventions of bilateral and multilateral partners are being criticized in three ways:

Firstly, the norms upheld via the democratic-liberal approach – underpinning the institutional engineering and peace-building efforts that are part of a vast international stabilisation project – are now being rejected because of their dual and double standards nature with respect to democratic governance, human rights protection and the rule of law. For instance, the immediate support provided by France or the African Union to the unconstitutional Comité militaire de transition (CMT) headed by the son of the late Marshal-President Idriss Déby via a dynastic transition has contrasted with the harsh sanctions imposed on the Malian, Burkinabe and Niger juntas. Public opinion has protested against such a policy of double standards, which has also led to a lenient acceptance of constitutional manipulations by civilians eager to run for office, as in Côte d'Ivoire or Guinea.

Secondly, the national and local actors who played a part in the implementation of international programmes are now often considered as illegitimate and unrepresentative by other civil society organisations, which claim to be patriotic, nationalist or even, in some cases, black supremacists, and which assert their emancipatory aspirations;

Finally, the principles of gender and inclusion promoted at the international level are widely dismissed by societies that pride themselves on the importance and relevance of their traditional – and often conservative – values.

Although less exposed to direct criticism than France or the United Nations, Germany should take these structural dynamics into account to maintain its commitment or extend its presence on the African continent. An understanding of these issues could help to increase the positive impacts of the recent policy of memorial recognition and forgiveness that was drawn up during the double visit to Africa by the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It might also be relevant for Germany to:

  • Review the train-and-equip approach that has underpinned all European security assistance programmes over the last past decade, with no significant results in the fight against jihadi groups whilst some of the army units benefiting from such support have been involved in coups;
  • Rethink the overly standardized instruments that frame civilian assistance;
  • Develop a much deeper knowledge and understanding of the local context in the Sahel.

Dr. Niagalé Bagayoko is a political scientist researching security systems in African French-speaking countries, Western security policies in Africa and African conflict-management mechanisms. She currently chairs the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) and develops the Africa programme of the Fondation Méditerranéenne d'Etudes Stratégiques (FEMS).

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.