Improvised security initiatives forged to combat specific transnational threats are gradually becoming key features of the African security landscape. Proponents of such efforts see them as potentially consequential in shaping the patterns of interaction and military cooperation among affected states.
A similar perception of threats by states participating in such initiatives helps foster cohesion, whatever the other problems existing among them. The G5 Sahel Joint Force is a good example of this. The force was formally launched in 2017 by five countries of the Sahel—Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad—because of a genuine desire to address the threat that terrorist groups could spread out from their stronghold in northern Mali. Such coalitions allow for the adoption of issue-specific approaches, which yield engagement strategies limited in their goals and geographical reach. They also benefit from institutional and operational advantages over formal regional or continental security mechanisms, which can be large and unwieldy. Indeed, part of the appeal of such initiatives lies in their flexibility and adaptability.
The idea of creating a regional coalition, after years of persistent mistrust among heads of states in the Sahel, began taking shape in November 2013. That is when the Nigerian, Malian, and French armies conducted Operation Roussette on the Mali-Niger border. This military operation implemented decisions taken in Niger in October 2013 by an Operational Coordination Committee (OCC) that the chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and France had created months earlier in Paris. In terms of priorities the OCC was tasked with analyzing data and building semiannual action plans to deal with threats on the Mali-Mauritania, Burkina Faso-Mali, and Niger-Chad borders.
This concept of joint military operations was not new in the Sahel. Rather, this collaboration sought to resurrect a short-lived joint Malian-Mauritanian experiment that had taken place in 2011. In Operation Benkan (Unity), both countries’ forces collaborated to dislodge militants of Al-Qa‘eda in the Islamic Maghreb from their base in the Wagadou forest on the Malian side of their common border. After Operation Roussette, hundreds of troops from the five armies concerned carried out a handful of cross-border military operations in early 2014 by. Each army operated on its side of the border but had a right of hot pursuit, and was assisted by French troops who provided air cover as well as support in planning, logistics, intelligence, and medical evacuations.
After a year of coordinated military action in which the practice of coalition warfare proved promising, the necessity for the affected states to institutionalize their military consultation, planning, and operations became more pressing. Having already created in early 2014 the G5 Sahel—an intergovernmental cooperation framework designed to prop up regional development and security activities—Sahel leaders had to determine how to sustain the continuity of their security partnership. On November 4, 2015, the G5 Sahel heads of state signed the Military Cross-border Cooperation Partnership, which regulated the actions of G5 Sahel cross-border military operations. On November 20, at a meeting in Chad, they announced their intent to create their own joint force.
In a February 2017 summit in Bamako, after months of debate over the structure of the joint military force and its possible operations, the heads of state opted for a modest approach with a limited aim. The G5 Sahel Joint Force was not to police the whole G5 Sahel region—at least not initially. Its main task was limited to securing the borders of the eastern sector of the Sahel involving Niger and Chad, the central sector involving Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and the western sector involving Mauritania and Mali.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force conducted its first military operation, Operation Hawbi, in November 2017 in the border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The second, Operation Pagnali, took place in January 2018 in the area between Mali and Burkina Faso. Since then, the force has gained political momentum and international support. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton recently praised the force and called for more such initiatives by African states.
For now, the G5 Sahel Joint Force is still in a capacity development phase, heavily dependent on French military assistance and the goodwill of donors. The fact that the United Nations Security Council has so far refused to grant the force a peacekeeping mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter has complicated the efforts of the G5 member states to secure a stable revenue stream. Without access to the UN peacekeeping operations budget, the force will struggle to sort out its funding challenges.
The success of the G5 Sahel joint force is also dependent on its ability to differentiate itself in a crowded security environment, while coordinating action with other African and Western military forces present in the region. For instance, the question of cooperation, especially between the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which provides 35 percent of the troops assigned to MINUSMA, is not yet fully settled.
A third major challenge for the G5 Sahel Joint Force is to gain the support of local populations. To become legitimate guardians of regional security, the G5 Sahel states need to professionalize their armies, police, and intelligence services as well as seriously prosecute human rights violations.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force is a worthy initiative that can enhance regional military cooperation in a vast geographical area that is crisscrossed by transnational armed groups and smuggling and trafficking rings. But to optimize its stabilizing role, the force must rest upon a political framework that improves people’s access to justice and reduces socioeconomic inequalities.