The European Union’s relationship with the countries of the Sahel is an agenda for both security and development, but one cannot progress without the other, said Pedro Serrano, Deputy Secretary-General for Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and Crisis Response at the European External Action Service (EEAS). “It’s clear there will be no peace in the Sahel in the absence of sustainable development in the Sahel,” he said.
Calling it “a challenge of tall order,” Mr. Serrano made this observation at an April 25th speaker’s series event on “A Partnership for Peace: The European Union and the Sahel.”
He discussed the five nations of the Sahel grouped together as the G5–Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad–and noted that they were among the poorest nations in the world where 80 percent of the people live on less than two dollars a day. The five countries’ aggregated population is now 90 million people and will grow to 240 million in 2050, occupying a partially desertified area ill-suited to agriculture.
“There’s no doubt that the fate of this ahead is first and foremost in the hands of the countries of the Sahel,” he said. The EU’s goal, he indicated, was “strengthening those countries, strengthening their development and their economies and their social structure, helping them overcome in some cases divisions that exist within these countries and intercommunal disputes. The EU is engaged in all these efforts in full partnership with the countries in the region.”
Aggravating instability in the region has been an expansion of organized crime, extremist terrorism, and jihadist groups, some of them offshoots of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which offer “big temptations” to young populations with limited resources and opportunities, Mr. Serrano said. In addition, the security of the Sahel, an arid belt across western and north central Africa extending from Senegal to Sudan, affects the security of neighboring countries in North Africa and consequently of Europe. There is also concern of spillover from instability in Libya and the Central African Republic.
“One of the biggest challenges of the region is the outreach of the state,” he said, “Most of this land is inhospitable…this leaves open space for terrorist groups or organized crime to roam freely in large parts of the country…We can leave no space open where terrorists can take over from weaker states as was the case in 2012 in Mali, where we got a very strong warning of what can happen and what we need to prevent from happening.”
He described a difficult “hearts and minds” challenge for the authorities. “When we think about how can we substitute what people in some of the most remote parts of these countries gain from organized crime with licit ways of living, it is practically very difficult to find an easy answer.” The need, he said, was “a real transformation economically of the countries and the ways it is structured, which is why security and defense forces cannot be the answer.”
The EU has three Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions in the Sahel – two civilian missions in Niger and Mali, as well as a military mission in Mali, supporting national security institutions. Other major outside actors are the UN, through the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), France and the US, which both have forces deployed in the region. The G5 countries have also deployed a joint force whose main aims are combating jihadist groups and preventing their cross-border movement. “It is important that they agree to cooperate because we would never be able to stop terrorism nor organized crime in a single country because the borders are totally porous,” Mr. Serrano said.
He estimated that the EU had invested eight billion euros in assistance in the area over the past seven years, but conceded that the overall situation was still “extremely worrying” with populations feeling under continual threat because 60 percent of the territory was left uncovered by security forces, a statistic he acknowledged was “very high”.
He emphasized that the EU was in for the long term. “First, most of the changes that need to take place are transformational changes in those societies themselves, they have to evolve socially and economically to be able to have sustainable development, and this is not something we are going to achieve in the short term.” The EU’s engagement and financial support were “permanent”, he said, in recognition of the “high magnitude” of the challenge. “It’s supporting, it’s ensuring that we all are moving in the best possible direction and ensuring that partnership respectful of national sovereignty and in full partnership nevertheless advances in the direction that will bring greater stability and development.”
Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, moderated the discussion.