Fighting “Islamist terrorism” seems to be a priority for France’s newly-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, whose country has played a major military role in the Sahel region of Africa. However, increasingly, the Sahel is a European preoccupation, as Europe’s security is perceived as being closely linked to events in the region.

Macron’s first official visit outside Europe was to Mali, where French troops have been deployed since 2013 to combat jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The president visited Gao, where some 1,600 French troops are stationed in the context of Operation Barkhane.

Macron seems to have no plans to withdraw from Mali soon. On the contrary, he explained that French troops would remain in place until there was “no more Islamist terrorism” in the Sahel. He also called on European nations to be more involved in the antiterrorism effort and increase their military and development aid to the region. More recently, France—despite initial objections from the United States and the United Kingdom—secured passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution on the deployment of an African force—including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—to fight terrorism and drug and human trafficking in the region.

France has been seen as the actor with the hard power in the Sahel, while the European Union’s contribution is mainly in the form of soft power—focusing on diplomacy, development, and humanitarian aid. Yet this has changed. Since the Yaoundé convention of 1963 between the European Economic Community and African states, Europe’s engagement had been concentrated on development cooperation. However, the European Union (EU), which realizes that improved security in the Sahel would enhance European security as well, endorsed a comprehensive Sahel strategy in 2011. A “Sahel task force” was created and some €450 million were allocated to Mali, Mauritania, and Niger through the European Development Fund and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development. The Sahel strategy has been implemented through the Regional Action Plan and is supplemented by additional initiatives, such as the Global Alliance for Resilience launched in Burkina Faso in 2012, the Nouakchott Process launched in 2013 under African Union (AU) auspices, and the Bamako ministerial platform supported by the UN, the EU, and the AU, among others.


In other words the EU’s engagement in the Sahel has dramatically increased and is now also focused on security. That’s understandable. Europe’s southern geopolitical border is effectively the Maghreb countries, just north of the Sahel. The Sahel countries, with their long and porous borders, face multidimensional crises, including structural weaknesses, poor governance, corruption, underdevelopment, economic fragility, criminality, illicit trafficking, terrorism, unresolved internal conflicts, persistent food insecurity, environmental risks, and high population growth. This represents a source of great instability for the Maghreb, and by extension for Europe.

Europe has many stakes in what happens in the Sahel. The EU imports 23.4 percent of its ores and other minerals from Mauritania, Nigerian gas is expected to be brought to Europe through a Trans Sahara Gas Pipeline, and Niger’s uranium provides 20 percent of the fuel for France’s 58 nuclear reactors, which in turn generate approximately 75 percent of France’s electricity. Europe is also deeply affected by migration issues, with the Sahel being a major transit point for human trafficking to Europe. There are also security concerns, with the Sahel being a place of concentration for jihadi groups that might attack Europe or European interests and that have already abducted European nationals. It is also a region through which drug trafficking to Europe takes place.

As a consequence of all these challenges, the EU has been fostering bilateral as well as multilateral initiatives. These include the Sahel Security College as well as the West African police information system program, which is a platform for police information-sharing between Benin, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In addition, the EU has three missions in the context of its Common Security and Defense Policy: EUCAP Sahel Niger, which aims at helping Niger in its fight against terrorism and organized crime by providing the police, gendarmerie, and national guard with training and advice; EUCAP Sahel Mali, which trains and assists Mali’s security forces as well as coordinates cooperation with international partners; and the separate EU training mission in Mali, or EUTM, which trains combat units and provides expertise as well as guidance on command, logistical chains, and human resources. By coordinating with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, EUTM has helped in the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process framed by the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali.

Finally, the EU is also engaged with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in the context of the Sahel G5, which it has funded to the order of €50 million. This is an institutional framework created in 2014 for the harmonization of regional collaboration in development policies and security matters. It has helped enhance coordination and interoperability between the security forces of the countries of the Sahel, and a Sahel force will soon be operational alongside the 12,000-strong UN mission in Mali.

Through its regional strategy, the EU has succeeded in promoting and encouraging national policies in the Sahel. However, the EU is also functioning through a confusing array of other instruments and institutional frameworks­­. These include the Cotonou framework, the European Development Fund, and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. This has created inconsistencies and duplication, putting up obstacles to addressing the issues plaguing the Sahel.


To put an end to this situation, the EU must harmonize its multiplicity of approaches to the Sahel. It must also give African countries in general and the states of the Sahel in particular more responsibility in and ownership of what happens, especially through the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States.

At the same time, major regional partners, such as Nigeria and Algeria, should be accorded a distinctive status in coordinating over the affairs of the Sahel. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, with significant oil and gas reserves and has made a serious commitment to combating terrorism. Algeria is the fifth-largest supplier of gas to the EU, a source of stability, as well as a major military power with well-equipped and well-trained security forces experienced in fighting jihadi groups. That is why Europe should engage with Algeria and Nigeria as full-fledged partners in the Sahel, not merely as subcontractors of peace or inhibitors of migration flows to Europe.

With regard to Algeria in particular, a mutual lack of trust persists between Brussels and Algiers. The EU has reservations about Algeria’s commitment to fighting terrorism. Algeria on the other hand is suspicious of the EU because it views most European initiatives as being driven by France and is nervous about foreign direct military involvement in the region. As a result, there is a lack of information sharing and harmonization between EU-led initiatives and Algerian-led ones. For example, Algeria established the Comité d’Etat-Major Opérationnel Conjoint, which is located in Tamanrasset. The aim is to coordinate counterterrorism efforts across the region and facilitate the creation of joint patrols and cross-border operations. In addition, Algeria played a key role in the creation of the Unité de Fusion et de Liaison, which is located in Algiers and comprises eight countries—Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. It aims to foster intelligence exchanges between the parties.

That is why Brussels and Algiers would benefit from some form of institutionalized dialogue. The EU should involve Algeria in decisionmaking when it comes to Sahel-Maghreb security issues, as the interests of both sides are intrinsically linked.

For historical reasons, France has been more involved in the Sahel than its European counterparts. However, that is changing. The Sahel and its stability are crucial not only for France but also for Europe. As one of the poorest regions in the world the Sahel is in need of foreign assistance and Europe remains the most credible actor to help in that regard. That is why, despite recent EU efforts concentrating on security, Europe’s contribution to development and economic integration remains just as vital. Development and security are two sides of the same coin.