Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force
Expected Council Action
In May, the Council is expected to hold a briefing on the counter-terrorism Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (FC-G5S), established in 2017 by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (G5 Sahel).
Key Recent Developments
The continued deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel has increased political instability in the region, undermining the unity and effectiveness of the FC-G5S. Earlier this year, Burkina Faso became the latest G5 Sahel country to experience a coup d’état. Meanwhile, contingents from Mali, which had coups d’état in 2020 and 2021, have not been participating in the joint force. The G5 Sahel defence ministers have not met since November 2021, and the annual heads of state summit of the G5 Sahel, usually held in February, has not yet taken place. Mali would have acceded to its rotating presidency at the summit, but other G5 members reportedly oppose that. For now, Chad remains in this role. Relations are particularly strained between Mali and Niger.
Negotiations continued between Mali’s transitional authorities and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on establishing a new timeline to hold elections and restore constitutional order. Since ECOWAS imposed economic and financial sanctions on Mali in January because of the delay in fulfilling the original 18-month transition calendar, the sides have moved closer to agreeing on a new timetable. In March, transition president and coup leader Assimi Goïta proposed an additional two-year extension of the transition. At a 25 March summit in Accra, ECOWAS reacted by calling for an extension of 12 to 16 months.
Meanwhile, France decided to withdraw from Mali its troops that are part of its Sahel-wide counter-terrorism force, Operation Barkhane, amid deteriorating relations with transition authorities and the reported deployment in December 2021 of personnel from the Wagner Group, the Russian private security company. On 17 February, France, allied European countries and Canada announced that they would fully withdraw their forces from Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba—the European special forces mission—from Mali within six months. “Due to the multiple obstructions…the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali”, according to a joint statement by France, Canada, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and 20 other European and African countries. The statement said they would “continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region”, focusing on Niger and West African coastal countries, and had begun consultations to determine the form of this cooperation by June 2022. On 22 April, Niger’s parliament approved the deployment of “foreign forces” to the country to fight “terrorism”, which has been seen as endorsing the re-deployment to Niger of units from Barkhane and Takuba in Mali.
Malian forces, bolstered by the reported deployment of the Wagner personnel, launched a new counter-terrorism offensive in its central region at the start of the year, achieving some military gains. Simultaneously, reports of human rights violations by security forces increased. In the worst such incident, Wagner and Malian forces allegedly executed around 300 civilians and suspected terrorists in the central Mali village of Mourah from 27 to 30 March. Mali claimed that it had killed 203 terrorist combatants during an operation from 23 to 31 March in Mourah.
Amid rising public anger over insecurity in Burkina Faso, military officers carried out a coup d’état against Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. On 24 January, soldiers from the previously unknown Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration (MPSR), led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, announced that they had deposed Kaboré because of the “ongoing degradation of the security situation”.
Damiba was sworn in as transition president on 16 February. In a 23 February report to Damiba, a commission established by the MPSR to develop a draft transitional charter and agenda reportedly proposed a 30-month transition period. On 1 March, Damiba signed a charter outlining a 36-month transition. As with Mali, ECOWAS has been leading negotiations with the new authorities on a calendar for restoring constitutional order. At its 25 March summit, ECOWAS, which suspended Burkina Faso from the regional body in January, called for an “acceptable transition timetable” by 25 April, failing which “economic and financial sanctions will be applied immediately”. In a 26 April statement, ECOWAS said that it would send a mission to Burkina Faso ahead of its next summit, the date of which was not specified.
Despite the military’s overthrow of Kaboré over his handling of the jihadist insurgency, widespread insecurity persists. During two separate clashes on 20 March with militants in the southeastern provinces of Gourma and Koulpelogo, 13 and 11 soldiers were killed, respectively. At least 12 soldiers and four paramilitary fighters were killed in an 8 April attack on a base in Burkina’s north.
A 14 April OCHA humanitarian update reported that there are 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burkina Faso, 350,000 (IDPs) in Mali, and 140,000 in Niger, with an additional 140,000 refugees in the region. During the month of March alone, according to the OCHA update, there were 407 security incidents in the central Sahel region, causing the death of 1,402 people. Niger faces the additional threat of the terrorist group Boko Haram in its southeast. Chad is the third G5 Sahel country conducting a political transition following the death of long-time president Idriss Déby in April 2021 during fighting with rebels and the military unconstitutionally acceding to power.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue is how developments in the region have negatively affected the effectiveness of the FC-G5S and unity among G5 Sahel countries.
In this context, a related issue is the emergence of other security initiatives in the region to address the expanding terrorism threat. These include the Accra Initiative, launched in 2017 by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, and the still-developing plans to reconfigure Operation Barkhane and increase cooperation between France, other European countries, Niger, and coastal West African states. The UN is planning a joint assessment of security in the Sahel with the AU, ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel.
The question of international support for the FC-G5S is an ongoing issue. Council members may consider backing the idea of a dedicated political forum, suggested by the Secretary-General in a 4 October 2021 letter to Council members on options to enhance support. He contended that a political forum—comprising representatives of the G5 Sahel and other international and regional organisations, such as the AU, ECOWAS, the UN and the EU, as well as Security Council members—could promote regional ownership, foster enhanced international support, and help align the operations of the FC-G5S with important political processes, such as the implementation of the 2015 Mali Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.
The compliance of the FC-G5S with international humanitarian law, which is critical for effective counter-terrorism operations, is another ongoing issue. Complementing security initiatives with stronger approaches to addressing root causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, governance and climate change in the Sahel, including through the UN’s Sahel strategy, remains a key issue. In June, the Council will renew the mandate of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In doing so, it may address issues related to reported human rights violations by Malian security forces and the implementation of Mali’s Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which is also viewed as critical for addressing the region’s structural instability.
Council dynamics on the FC-G5S have often revolved around how to support the joint force, with members being divided over whether to authorise a UN office to provide logistical support and more predictable funding. At this time, however, the proposal appears to be sidelined, given the divisions among G5 Sahel member states.
Ghana, as the West African Council member, has championed ECOWAS responses to the coups d’état in Mali and Burkina Faso. Ghana signed the February joint statement on the decision by France and European countries to withdraw their counter-terrorism operations from Mali and to undertake consultations on strengthening cooperation with Niger and coastal West African states to combat the terrorism threat in the Sahel. Mali’s decision to accept the deployment of Wagner appeared to be the final straw for France and other European countries to end their military missions in Mali amidst their growing frustration with the authorities.
Since reports about the deployment of the Wagner Group to Mali, Russia has been supportive of Mali’s transitional authorities, often with China’s backing, making agreement on Council products on Mali more difficult. Russia also apparently softened language in the initial press statement drafted by the A3 (Gabon, Ghana and Kenya) that Council members issued on the coup d’état in Burkina Faso.
Council members conducted a visiting mission to the Sahel on the situation in Mali and the FC-G5S last October. France, Kenya and outgoing Council member Niger co-led this mission, which was the first Council trip abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE G5 SAHEL JOINT FORCE
|Security Council Letter|
|4 October 2021S/2021/850||This was a Secretary-General’s letter on options to increase support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|12 November 2021S/PV.8903||This was a briefing on the G5 Sahel Joint Force.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|9 February 2022SC/14790||This press statement expressed serious concern about the unconstitutional change of government in Burkina Faso.|