N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, is hosting the new summit of the G5-Sahel countries, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, in which France and other regional actors will be present. It is expected to see a change of course, at least a change of approach, compared to that agreed upon a year ago in France during the previous G5-Sahel summit.
Just a year ago, in January 2020, the summit was taking place in the French town of Pau, although it should have been held at the end of 2019, but several attacks in the Sahel close to the date of the summit forced it to be postponed to January. Precisely because of the increased violence experienced in 2019, not only due to jihadist attacks, but also due to communal violence in some countries, mainly Mali and Burkina Faso, the Pau summit had important consequences for the future of the region.
First of all, France, the country hosting the summit and the main supporter of the countries in the region, decided to increase its already significant military contribution in the Sahel. Thus, Macron announced that he would increase by 600 the number of troops deployed, bringing the total to 5,100 soldiers. In addition, the deployment of aerial means, both Mirage 2000 fighters, drones and attack helicopters, as well as heavy and light armored vehicles, will be added, which represents a great cost for the French coffers.
In addition to this increase to try to stop the increase in violence in the short term, the Coalition for the Sahel was announced during the Pau summit. This platform was created with the aim of coordinating the involvement of different actors in the Sahel region in order to enhance the results obtained on the ground in different fields. The Coalition consists of four pillars, the first two of which deal with security-related issues: the first consists of the fight against terrorism and the second of developing the capacities of regional security forces through training and providing equipment. During that summit, and in view of the aforementioned increase in violence, it was decided that French action and that of other actors should focus on these first two pillars.
Because of this, and in an attempt to share the burden of the fight against jihadism in a region whose consequences are suffered by Europe as a whole, Paris also launched the so-called Task Force Takuba. With it, Macron invited his European partners, not exclusively from the European Union, to participate more actively in the fight against terrorism. Although the European Union has its own training mission, the EUTM-Mali, which trains Malian troops, has no direct combat mandate. For this reason, Macron was looking for involvement on the ground, an initiative that several countries supported, but which very few have complemented with actual deployment: so far only three countries, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Sweden, have special operations troops involved in the fight against jihadism.
During the past 2020, French forces deployed in the framework of the Barkhane operation, together with the support of Malian forces, have carried out constant operations against the jihadists present in the region. These have taken place especially in Liptako-Gourma, the area of the three borders linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where the movements and attacks of the terrorist groups have the greatest presence. During some of them they have managed to neutralize some of the leaders of the different organizations here, without this having prevented 2020 from being a somewhat more violent year than the previous one, although the increase has not been as pronounced as in 2019.
The fact that the European presence is gaining ground, that EUTM-Mali has increased its mandate and expanded its troops and range of action beyond Mali, and also that the last few weeks have seen the death of several French troops, coupled with the French presence being increasingly questioned socially as in France, Macron has been pushed to change the approach taken in January 2020 in Pau. In addition, the military coup d'état in Mali last summer, which has forced the start of a new political transition process in the country, criticism of the possibility of Idriss Déby, President of Chad, running for re-election again, and regional and international concern about the excesses occasionally committed against the population by troops of the countries' armed and security forces, supports the theory that the strategy should be changed and the focus broadened.
The Sahel, France, Europe and the international community have a lot at stake in this summit. That is why, apart from the meeting between the G5-Sahel countries and France, the second General Assembly of the Alliance for the Sahel, a platform that emerged several years ago and which, similar to what the Coalition for the Sahel does, seeks to unite around it the investments in social and economic development being made in these five countries, is being held in the Chadian capital. At present, there are more than 800 projects costing more than 20 billion euros thanks to the contribution of 25 members, 14 of which full members. The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, is the current rotating president of this platform, a sign of Spain's commitment to the development of a region that is a priority for Spanish foreign action.
In the communiqué issued by the Alliance for the Sahel, the work carried out in areas such as access to drinking water, electricity or health services, youth employability, the role of women and children and climate change has been highlighted. Laya wanted to point out the importance of these projects, as they are the ones that will prevent the problems present in the region, leading sometimes to violence and terrorism, and also, of course, to migration in search of opportunities, especially to Spain.
The role of the Alliance for the Sahel is evidence of the change of approach that has been discussed in N'Djamena also in the framework of the Coalition for the Sahel and the G5-Sahel, which is holding its seventh summit. France intends to reduce its presence in the Sahel, something announced by both Macron and Defense Minister Florence Parly, although it seems that the delicate situation still facing the countries will limit the departure to the 600 troops with which Barkhane was expanded at the last summit. Macron is facing presidential elections in 2022, and the growing rejection of the French presence in the Sahel requires gestures on his part inviting a reduction of the presence. It will remain to be seen whether the withdrawal of this number of troops is enough to satisfy public opinion, as Macron must strike a balance between his electoral strategy and throwing away the work done for almost a decade in the region with a quick exit that the Sahel countries are not able to make up for.
The military presence, as indicated above, has not been the only issue to be addressed. The change in the approach of France and the Coalition for the Sahel is intended that, after a 2020 in which the first two pillars linked to security have been predominant, we will see a 2021 in which pillars 3 and 4 will gain prominence. The third, which concerns the social and economic development of the region, and the fourth, which encompasses improving the governance of the countries at all levels, are in line with what has been discussed within the framework of the Sahel Alliance: development of the region will reduce the problems that give rise to all the others, from internal displacement, immigration, community strife and jihadist terrorism.
It is important to note that terrorism and violence is not limited to the five countries that make up the G5-Sahel. In fact, during the last few months attacks have taken place, still very sporadically in other countries such as Ivory Coast, so that the international community is concerned that the terrorist phenomenon could spread to other countries and increase regional stability. For this reason, it is worth mentioning the presence at the summit of other countries such as Ghana and Sudan, and also Morocco, a country that plays a very important role in the fight against irregular immigration, especially that which is aimed at Spanish territory. Delegations from Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo were also present, as well as the president of ECOWAS. Although they did not participate in the G5 summit, but were present due to their participation in the framework of the Alliance for the Sahel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the European Union attended.
N'Djamena has witnessed the need for a change of strategy in the region, which would mark a turning point and reduce the situation of violence which, although present for several years, has reached worrying levels over the last two years. The summits that have taken place in Chad have indicated the direction to be taken in the coming months and years, aimed at stimulating the social development of these countries, while at the same time continuing a relentless fight against jihadist terrorism represented by the branches of Al Qaeda and Daesh in the region.
Macron, who spoke via videoconference, and who in recent weeks has met in Paris with his counterparts from the Sahel, has indicated that a "political leap" must be made, alluding to the fact that the military section, that of the aforementioned governance, must adopt a role with greater weight in the resolution of the situation. He also pointed out that oolitical action “is the missing link between the military and development” and that without it, military presence and economic investment are diluted in instability. The chairman of the Senate Defense Committee announced a figure that until now was unknown, during the last year between 1,200 and 1,500 terrorists have been killed by French forces. This is an impressive number and highlights Barkhane's efforts. However, the terrorist threat is still there, and it must be eliminated. He also thanked the Chadian president for his decision to send 1,200 troops to the three border area, the area most affected by terrorism, a decision he described as "courageous". He did not comment on the withdrawal of the 600 troops, although he maintained that it would be a decision to be taken in the coming months.
Spain has recently taken important steps to strengthen its commitment and weight in the region. In addition to the well-known performance in Senegal of the Ivory Coast detachment, with which Spain supports with two aircraft the logistics and transport of French troops in the Sahelian scenario, Madrid announced last summer the new special envoy to the Sahel, with which to boost diplomatic relations with these countries. Spain has also increased its presence within the EUTM-Mali, whose mandate has been extended and its military contingent doubled, with Spain contributing half of the troops, in addition to other means. It is not foreseen, in the short term, that Spain could join the military presence in the framework of the TF Takuba, something that France would welcome with gratitude, so our country is, for the moment, out of the line of combat against terrorism, and especially committed to the training of the forces of the countries of the region and to the development through the financing of projects of the Alliance for the Sahel.