Can the African Union Make a Difference in the Sahel?

June 10, 2020

Ana-Maria Baloi


This report approaches the African Union’s recent decision to temporarily deploy troops in the Sahel region. The document informs the reader about the latest developments in terms of regional cooperation aimed at countering insurgency groups. For collection and processing, the author used OSINT, therefore the report is safe to be further distributed.



Reconstructed scenario is based on the following key judgements:


KJ-1. Military deployment alone won’t bring peace and stability in the Sahel, but it must be part of the solution. The West-Sahelian countries are facing terrorist attacks daily, therefore a military presence is highly needed.  


KJ-2. The African Union’s scheduled mission for the Sahel has the potential to improve regional security. With anti-French sentiments on the rise, the local populations are more likely to embrace an African military presence on their territories and to improve military-civilian cooperation.


KJ-3. The newly appointed mission is likely to face financial difficulties as no member state has volunteered so far to send troops or to provide logistic assistance.



Reconstructed scenario


In January 2020, after the African Union’s annual summit held in Addis Ababa, the bloc has announced the temporary deployment of a 3,000 force in West Africa’s Sahel region. The decision comes as a response to the increasing violence in the region and to the weak performance of the already present troops.  The new mission is set to work together with G-5 Sahel and ECOWAS.


The violent upsurge in the Sahel began in 2012, when an Islamist insurgency spread from northern Mali to the centre of the country and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. About 4,000 people died in the three countries last year, a fivefold increase compared with 2016. The phenomenon has also caused massive displacements with more than 4,000 people in Burkina Faso alone forced to flee. Attacks on civilians by armed groups have increased in number and frequency, and now Burkina Faso is facing attacks daily.


Many parts of the Sahel are severely underdeveloped. On top of the Islamic insurgencies, ethnic clashes occur periodically. Groups such as ISGS and JNIM continue to exploit poverty as well as religious and ethnic divisions for recruitment. The national armed forces are poorly equipped and outnumbered. They have also been accused of human rights abuses, which determines affected civilians to plead allegiance to the insurgents.


One year after the Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, key cities in northern Mali were occupied by insurgents. Fearing that the terrorist threat in the Sahel could impact Europe, France responded by initiating Operation Serval – the military intervention that precedes Operation Barkhane. UN also acted by establishing The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).


Along the years, insurgents split into numerous factions, pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda or ISIS. The number of terror attacks targeting civilians has skyrocketed and the current military missions are losing ground.



The AU’s New Mission


During the 2020 African Union summit, member states have decided to deploy 3,000 troops for six months to work with the Sahelian countries to counter regional violence and extremism. In early February, France has also announced it was increasing its military presence in the region by sending an additional 600 troops to its existing 4,500 mission.


The AU deployment is expected to happen during the year, but no precise date has been released. There are a few aspects of the mission the African Union has not figured out yet. As for now, no member state has offered to send troops and given the complexity of the region, many AU states might stay reluctant to the initiative.  Also, the financing is yet to be decided, as the organisation cannot count on UN funds only. The AU will also need to enhance its cooperation with organisations already active in the Sahel so that military interventions will be efficient.



Since 2003, the African Union has deployed nine Peace Support Operations (PSOs) and four AU-authorised missions across the continent. The missions vary in nature, personnel strength, duration and budget. The current PSOs include African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA) and Human Rights Observers and Military Experts in Burundi.


Assessment: Military deployment alone won’t bring peace and stability in the Sahel, but it must be part of the solution. The West-Sahel countries are facing terrorist attacks daily, therefore a military presence is highly needed. The already present troops in the region are weakened, outnumbered and poorly equipped. The AU mission is expected to improve the level of regional security.



The French Mission


On January 13, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the Pau Summit in France, inviting his counterparts from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The summit addressed the critical situation in the Sahel. The French leader criticised the anti-French sentiments growing in Mali and its neighbouring countries but pledged to increase the French military presence for the betterment of the security climate.  


France also promised to implement an intelligence-sharing agreement and integrated military command structure with the G5-Sahel nations and declared it would enhance its security efforts across the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. Although France is ensuring increased military support, analysts suggest the leaders failed to address political solutions to a crisis which killed more than 4,000 people in 2019. The Sahel region needs closer cooperation not only on the battlefield but also in politics and economics.  



Anti-French sentiments are also on the rise. In Mali, numerous protests take place frequently boycotting the French military presence in the region. This month Mali’s ambassador to France accused the French Foreign legion soldiers of “unruly behaviour” on the streets of Bamako, an accusation that led to his dismissal. France is becoming increasingly sensitive to regional criticism regarding the actions of its soldiers, with cooperation between the former colony and the Sahel states becoming tense. 


Assessment: The French-led military mission can ensure regional stability to some extent (especially in urban areas). However, French troops are fighting the jihadists for seven years now and no progress has been made (except for last weeks killing of the leader of AQIM). The security climate in the Sahel is worsening, therefore a new approach should be taken into consideration.



The British Mission


British troops will join the UN-backed mission in Mali with a 250-strong unit. The light-cavalry unit will arrive in Gao (Northern Mali) by the middle of 2020 and will undertake 30-day land operations deep into the jihadist territory. The deployment is the United Kingdom’s first significant return to an active war zone since the end of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan more than five years ago.


MINUSMA is now considered the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world. 200 UN personnel have already lost their lives due to ongoing terror attacks targeting civilians, foreign and local troops as well as NGO personnel. The planned deployment comes amid US warnings that the threat posed by a jihadist in the Sahel could start to threaten Europe as well as the wider region.


Assessment: The British deployment is expected to increase the performance of MINUSMA due to advanced weaponry and logistics. However, given Britain’s colonial past, local populations are likely to protest the British troops as well.



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