“The Fight Against Terrorism in the Sahel Is Not Effective at All”

05. Februar 2020   ·   Youssouf Coulibaly

Dr. Youssouf Coulibaly, Malian security expert and Professor for international law in Bamako, criticizes a lack of results brought by the international missions and interventions to fight terrorism in Mali. Rather than supporting the French special force “Takuba”, Germany should provide more sustainable support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, as well as focus on micro-investments and support for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

1. The security situation in Mali is currently the subject of regular debates in European capitals. In your opinion, which are the greatest challenges in Mali?  

Today, Mali and the four other countries of the G5 Sahel (Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) are facing a security problem. This is a huge challenge: the stabilization of the region on the one hand and the fighting of terrorist groups, armed bandits, drug traffickers, human traffickers, migration, or illegal immigration on the other hand. Stabilizing and securing the entire Sahel zone, which comprises a very large territory, is the greatest challenge in terms of security, but of course, there are other challenges as well: Mali, like all countries in the Sahel, is a vulnerable country and development indicators are deteriorating further. 

2. How do you assess the international presence in Mali by France, the EU, and the UN? 

From 2013 onwards, since the Serval intervention when French forces stopped the terrorists' advance southwards, there has been an increase in the number of security agents, soldiers, and contingents from France and Europe, from many EU countries, including Germany, from the UN, and from [the West-African Regional Organization] ECOWAS. France is leading the military operations against terrorist groups in Mali. The French intervention that began in 2013 has, however, not yielded the expected results: After seven years of intervention and in spite of French military presence we have seen an increase in the number of attacks and the number of civilians and soldiers killed, whether regular soldiers from Mali, French soldiers, or UN Peacekeepers.

Concerning the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Mali (MINUSMA), the results are also not matching the expectations. They are making a strong effort in the context of stabilization, but their mandate is limited within the framework of stabilizing Mali, preventing violence against civilians, setting up the administration, and assisting the return of refugees. When you consider these steps, and if you combine them with the efforts of the French authorities to intervene militarily against the terrorists, you will see that the overall result is insufficient. This explains why there is an agitation in Malian civil society against the French presence.  

3. To what degree does the population support the various missions? Why?

Without the EU, without France, Mali would be occupied by terrorist groups today. The question of support for the missions and operations was raised during the inclusive national dialogue organized by the Government of Mali, which saw the participation of all sections of Malian society. The demonstrations organized against France and the international troops revealed the concerns of the Malian population, which led French President Macron to invite the Heads of State of the G5 Sahel and ask them explicitly: "Do you want us to be here or not?" There was a tendency in parts of Malian society to think that the international intervention was inefficient, did not really produce any positive results, only aggravated the situation, and that they should be asked to leave. But we security experts are convinced that this would be a very bad idea: who should replace their efforts? They would leave with everything, including funding, which would cause a lot of problems. The Sahel and Mali could even become a danger for Europe because troop withdrawal would potentially shift the current borders of migration movements in the Sahel. As long as there is instability, young people will not stay in areas where they risk being killed. They will be tempted to migrate towards well-being and safety. 

4. In your opinion, what role should the G5 Sahel Joint Force play in Mali? 

The G5 Sahel was created to stabilize the region and fight against terrorists. However, the G5 Sahel lacks considerably in means, human resources, material resources, and logistics. The idea behind the creation of the G5 Sahel is a very good one. It is the operationalization that has created big problems. I personally conduct trainings with the troops of the G5 Sahel and I find that they themselves want to end terrorism, migration, and the instability of our borders. But there is a real lack of means. Even if Germany provides us with a lot of battle tanks, our soldiers should be capable of operating them. We would also need spare parts and means of maintenance. No-one here is qualified to maintain them without the help of Germany, France, or Belgium. Therefore, the level of commitment to the G5 Sahel by the international community really needs to be reviewed in a strategic way and needs to be adapted to the current context.

5. About a year ago you advocated a reorientation of the international missions of the UN and the EU, in which Germany is also engaged. Have there been any changes?

Yes, indeed, recently we have seen that our pleas have been heard – especially Germany has carried out a number of concrete actions. I had placed the emphasis [in the interview from April 2019] on local development because the crisis in Mali can often be explained in terms of lack of development in many areas. This lack of development pushes young people to get involved with terrorist groups in order to earn a little money to meet their needs. I think that our call has been heard and that necessary efforts are gradually being made. But it is a very slow, very timid process. What we urgently need today is to invest in quick-impact projects. At the same time, we need to train security personnel and help the state to return to the northern regions and establish itself. Without the presence of the government, even with European aid and funding, there will be no follow-up measures on this aid. 

6. What would be your three concrete recommendations for Germany’s and the EU’s engagement in Mali?

There is a lot of advice, a lot of requests that could in fact be asked of Germany: Firstly, to directly partake in efforts to stabilize Mali, specifically in the areas of investment and the creation of micro-projects for farmers. Secondly, there is a need for institutional reform, especially since there will be legislative elections in March. Germany can support the training of electoral assistants so that the election goes smoothly. If the election does not go well, all previous efforts are destroyed. My third piece of advice is that Germany should review its strategy with regard to its involvement in the effort to combat terrorists. This means quite simply: providing more material support, more logistical support to the G5 Sahel groups, but not making the mistake of thinking that this will enable the G5 Sahel to eradicate or stop migration. This is not true. To stop migration we need to invest in the areas where young people leave their families. Those would be my three recommendations. 

7. What do you think of the new planned special force "Takuba"? 

This idea of a new special force is rejected by many people here in Mali. People think that it will be another structure generating unnecessary costs. Many people think that it would be better to strengthen existing structures, such as Barkhane and the G5 Sahel. “Takuba” is a Tuareg word and means “sword”. For the Tuaregs, drawing their swords means to go out to kill or wage war. This means that it will be a special force trained only to wage war. However, the experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have shown us that war is not the solution. Another concern is the composition of this special force: will it be made up of French soldiers only, or European soldiers only, or will it be a mixed force with Africans?

The fight against terrorism in the Sahel is not effective at all. Fighting terrorism is not only done by military means, rather, it is an everyday struggle that must be waged by the civilian population, the administrative authorities, and also the military. The decision was made to adopt a military approach. As a result, the civilian population often receives terrorists in their families, they even house them and cohabit with them, because the civilian population is simply not involved in the fight.

The second point concerning this special force is the problem of coordination between the various actors. Without coordination, this special force will not produce the expected results, if created. This is why I do not think that the idea of a new special force is the solution. But perhaps this special force could work in collaboration with the members of the G5 Sahel. I think that would be smart and could be fruitful. 

8. Should Germany contribute? What kind of involvement would you want from Germany? 

So far, Germany's presence has been very accepted and very much appreciated by the authorities and the civilian population, because they know that when Germany becomes involved, matters become concrete.

I think that Germany must revive diplomatic channels. From now on, Germany must have reliable local partners and real access, its own network of Malians, which will enable it to show presence on all levels in the years to come. Because the territory is vast, development is indispensable. There is hope: We have natural resources and we also have the energy. All that is needed is a diplomatic strategy that will enable Germany to consolidate its position in Mali. The German presence is already very much appreciated by the civilian population and the locals. If you go to rural areas, you see GIZ projects in areas where you would not have imagined them. These achievements must be strengthened and consolidated.

9. What would you wish for the future of Mali? 

My wish for Mali is a stable and developed Mali, free of all terrorists, closely working in good relations with our European friends, who have fantastic development models and can share their development experience with us. We have the wealth, we have the natural resources that we can put to good use for our development efforts in a win-win operation, in a Mali of peace. I want our European friends to be free to come to Mali, to go on holiday in the Sahel, to attend festivals in the desert without fear of being kidnapped. 

The Interview was conducted by Julia Friedrich and Marie Wagner on 23 January 2020 and translated from French. It was edited for clarity and brevity. A German version and the French version (original language of the interview) were published on this blog. 

Friedenseinsätze Sub-Sahara Afrika Mali

Youssouf Coulibaly

Dr. Youssouf Coulibaly is a professor at the University of Legal and Political Sciences in Bamako. In addition, he trains military, police, gendarmes, and civilians in Mali and throughout Africa at the Peacekeeping School in Bamako on behalf of the Ministry of Defense. The Peacekeeping School in Bamako is tasked with selecting soldiers to participate in peacekeeping operations in West Africa and the African Union.