23rd Jan 2021


European hiccups on the way to West Africa

The Josep Borrell mandate for the African continent, sketched last February on his first visit to Addis Ababa as the new EU high representative, highlights the need for an effective partnership of equals with Africa.

Such guideline is particularly relevant now that EU Commissioner von der Leyen also outlined at the State of the Union last week that Europe will "use its diplomatic strength to broker agreements that make a difference", showcasing an interest to make Europe a more forceful international actor.

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Despite the fact that the EU-Africa Summit will reportedly not take place in October, it is still vital to analyse some of the shortcomings of this "partnership of equals".

One issue here is that the EU has a number of strategies for various regions on the African continent, which makes such partnership less organic than Borrell would want it to be.

The five countries that make up the G5 Sahel (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad) are just a piece of this puzzle, yet a significant one, given the huge investments the EU has been pouring in the region and the most recent developments in Mali following the coup.

In addition, the EU is expected to soon, perhaps this week, release its renewed Sahel strategy, which was in dire need of a revamp and which will no doubt reflect some of the words of Borrell.

The unfaltering idea in European policy-making circles is that Sahelian leaders are partners who are currently struggling with a series of crises (the Sahel is a "polygon of crises", the EU special representative for the Sahel, Angel Losada, recently stated) and Europe should support them in their quest for security and stabilisation.

The French approach is not too different – as was demonstrated in Pau in January this year, where Macron called up Sahelian leaders to publicly show the French and West African public that the Sahel is asking for our help - and only because they ask, we help.

There are a number of hiccups to such strategy, despite it not seeming too problematic if you look at it from a distance.

After all, the G5 Sahel countries are guided by democratically-elected leaders, they need development aid and are facing an armed surge by a multiplicity of actors.

Thus the EU and those member states who choose to engage will be providing development aid (coordinated by the Alliance Sahel) and sending a number of security missions, most of which be in the form of remote warfare, through training of security forces, provision of equipment and support for regional security initiatives such as the G5 Joint Force.

But the hiccups are not just small incidents along the way and they risk leading to suffocation: first of all, Mali, one of the countries which received the most support, recently suffered a coup, as mutinous members of its armed forces ousted president Ibrahim Boubakar Keita back in August.

Since the EU Training Mission there has trained a large number of Malian soldiers, it is not surprising that some of the mutinous troops had also received EU training.

'Reliable partner governments'?

This doesn't necessarily mean that the Keita government was trustworthy and competent (the allegations of embezzlement and corruption in his government were widespread), it just shows how the concept of 'reliable partner governments' is a rather shaky one.

Secondly, European and member state intervention in the region appears to be proceeding via juxtaposition rather than through a methodised vision: the EU has always been a muscular aid and development donor, and it now wants to be a better security actor also.

This is due to a number of geopolitical developments, which have ultimately led to a desire on the part of EU leadership to obtain true European strategic autonomy.

The danger here, as exemplified with the Sahel, is that by adding the word security to your strategy and calling it a security-development nexus, what is being left out is political perspective. In other words, to become a convincing security actor, you need a political strategy that can deliver and possibly do so in the least damaging way possible (in order to avoid the infamous 'US military interventions' model).

Thirdly, and this is key, lessons learned in the development arena, should serve the EU well in the political and security domains also.

The Malian Peace Agreement, which was signed in 2015 is a strongly political document, whose implementation lags behind dramatically, as reported by its Independent Observer.

From a political point of view measuring success through performance indicators and data is a fairly hard task, but the failure to uphold strong European diplomatic successes such as the Iran deal, should be the first lesson whenever approaching other EU foreign policy theatres.

Otherwise, if EU leadership keeps blowing hot and cold, it will never be politically credible to itself and to non-EU governments alike. From a more security perspective, there are a huge number of lessons learned and strategies to measure success and assess whether a policy should be swerved in another direction.

This has been said repeatedly, but measuring if training works by the number of soldiers that are present in class and that end up taking a test is not good enough.

EUTM is the largest capacity-building actor in Mali, but it appears to be building the capacity of an 'interpretation of an army' rather than an army in its own right. In addition, the FAMA, the Malian army, are not just dysfunctional, they are in some instances harmful, as shown by recent MINUSMA reports of human rights abuses committed by security forces.

The EU can claim that it has trained, equipped and formed an impressive number of Sahelian troops, but this is a very partial definition of success. Better accountability measures (positive conditionality, sanctions) should be put in place and followed through, rather than following the vague and all-encompassing motto 'we will not support those who commit atrocities', as recently stated in a European Parliament resolution on external security interventions.

All of this has been analysed by the EU Court of Auditors in their 2018 report on Mali and Niger and some of the recommendations in that report have been taken seriously, chiefly the regionalisation of EU missions, through the creation of the Regional Advisory and Coordination Cells (RACCs).

Others, such as the need to measure impact more effectively and be more accountable, have so far been ignored, so much so that last March the scope of EUTM was expanded and their funding increased.

Author bio

Delina Goxho is an independent analyst, currently covering European presence in the Sahel for the the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Brussels.


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


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