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Sahel zone: New operation to fight terrorism

Jane Nyingi
January 16, 2018

Defense ministers from five countries in the Sahel region, as well as France, met in Paris in the latest push of joint anti-terrorism force in the fragile region.

Nigerien soldiers patrol the border between Niger and Nigeria
Image: I. Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

 "The joint force is gaining momentum... the first operation has taken place, the second one is starting today," Malian Defense Minister Tiena Coulibaly told reporters. France's defense minister Florence Parly said that the force would focus on the particularly volatile tri-border area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet.

The initiative brings together Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which aim to create a fully-fledged force of 5,000 troops to fight terrorism in the Sahel by mid-2018. It is supposed to work alongside France's Barkhane mission in Mali and the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. Several countries have pledged their support, with Saudi Arabia which is planning to contribute €100 million ($122 million) being one of the biggest donors.

While the G5 representatives said that they could not reveal details of the meeting for security reasons, Paul Melly, a regional expert with London-based think-tank Chatham House, told DW what outcomes were to be expected. 

DW: What was expected of the meeting?

Paul Melly: This meeting is for practical organizational arrangements, for how the new joint force being created by the  G5 Sahel countries will function. That indicates Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauretania. So they're creating a joint force, actually organizing the administration and the way the command will operate and how the force should be equipped.

Paul Melly
Paul Melly is an analyst with Chatham HouseImage: DW/F. Quenum

DW: Why has it taken so long for the G5 Sahel Joint Military Force to be deployed?

The Sahel region is a very challenging region. It's a very difficult place to operate. We're talking about a region that is thousands of kilometers across - Mali alone is 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) from east to west or north to south and Niger, Chad and Mauretania are a similar size. Even Burkina Faso is a  reasonably sized  country. So the area of operation is enormous and there was likely a desire to avoid sending a lot of troops into difficult terrain and difficult conditions without the right preparation.

Does this force have all it takes to fight terrorism in the region?

Yes, the force has quite a distinctive role. When you're in the region, you have quite a lot of national and international forces. So there would only be G5 forces to complement those and to operate at border regions, for example the borders between Mali and Niger and Burkina Faso. Many villages, many groups of mobile herders moving around, and so it's really important to have a force that can be comfortable with the local population. And the reason for making it a joint force, a multi-country force, is so that it can meet across the borders, because of course the militants are paying no attention to national boundaries. They will stage an attack in Niger and then flee back into Mali, or they will stage an attack in Mali and flee into northern Burkina. So the joint force will have the right to move over borders to carry out operations.

Apart from the military effort, what else do you think should the Sahel leaders do to counter the growing influence of terrorists in the region?

Well, it is a challenge. Alongside security is development. These are very poor countries. Therefore, the challenge of making development grow is particularly difficult and most countries in the region are land-locked as well. Development is difficult if you have insecurity. People aren't really doing trade or development activities. This is a massive challenge and it's going to be long term.

This interview was conducted by Jane Nyingi.

Paul Melly is an analyst at the London-based think-tank Chatham House.