Wednesday

27th Jan 2021

Column

In the Sahel, France deserves the support of Europe

The coup in Mali, the second in eight years, again raises the question of where the region is headed and how European countries could contribute to stability in the region.

The disaster in the Sahel, the area south of the Sahara desert, is spreading further. Violence, poverty and drought have driven millions of people to flee. French attempts to cut off terrorist groups are not enough.

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  • France deserves support, Jonathan Holslag writes. Terrorism in the Sahel is a threat to all of Europe

When Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected president of Mali in 2013, there was a moment of hope that he would fight against corruption and mismanagement. Foreign aid agencies pledged tens of millions of dollars to support good governance in Mali.

But Keita turned out to be a disappointment. "He was a weak president, without the vision and energy to run the country," suggested a former French ambassador in the newspaper Le Monde.

Regardless of whether the president had the energy to rule, the question is whether he ever really had the power to rule.

Winning elections is a business; but when a large part of your country is in the grip of terrorist groups and even some 15,000 foreign soldiers fail to contain them, what can one expect from a president who barely has an army worthy of the name?

Not to mention the economic challenges.

Half of the Malian population is under the age of 18. About 90 percent of the working population depends on the informal sector. Gross domestic production per capita is below $1,000.

Donors are pumping money into Mali. Europe is trying to help Mali to make agriculture more competitive.

The fact remains, however, that this aid is dwarfing what donor countries earn from Mali through trade. The European trade surplus with Mali is about $1.2bn; the Chinese $300m.

Without economic stability, there is no political stability, and without political stability it remains difficult to prevent more young men from being caught by terrorists and other armed gangs.

In the report Journey to Extremism in Africa, the United Nations a few years ago already confirmed the link between factors such as unemployment and the willingness to fight: 'work' is the most frequently-mentioned reason for joining a terrorist group.

With tens of millions of poor in the Sahel, the potential recruitment pond for terrorists is even larger than in the Middle East.

After the coup in Mali, Paris is trying harder to convince other European countries to send troops. The French soldiers in and around Mali are on the gums.

China and Russia are strengthening their position. More and more you hear that the Sahel could become the "Afghanistan" of Europe: geopolitical quicksand.

Still, France deserves support. Terrorism in the Sahel is a threat to all of Europe. But in addition to the military approach, we should aim at a European level for a review of our development cooperation and economic relations.

We have to get rid of the pattern in which we pump development aid without giving entrepreneurs and small farmers a chance. Perhaps we should give African countries some protectionism, put a brake on our own exports in order to give space to agriculture and industry there.

Instead of only collecting unprocessed cotton in Mali, we could try to build a textile industry there. The military camps will certainly be needed for some time to come; but let's at least build a sizeable industrial zone next to it.

If Europe wants to have a chance to bring back some stability and keep some ground against other powers, it must learn to be a better partner. Doing what we are doing is not an option; neither is turning your back on the Sahel.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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