On January 13 of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Sahelian heads of state for a summit in Pau, France. Among the outcomes of the summit was the announcement of a new “Coalition for the Sahel,” which will focus on four “pillars”: counterterrorism, military capacity-building, supporting the return of the state, and development. The Coalition is meant to coordinate existing activities, with France and the G5 Sahel as it primary members. A major question is whether the Coalition is merely a rebranding of pre-existing elements, or whether it will represent something genuinely new.
On June 12, the Coalition for the Sahel held its first (virtual) meeting. This ministerial-level meeting was hosted jointly by Mauritanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (Mauritania holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel for 2020), European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell Fontelles, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The “informal conclusions” can be found here (English) and here (French). My read is that the meeting was mostly a stock-taking, a review of initiatives currently underway such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, France’s Sahel Alliance, France’s Takuba Task Force, etc. You can read a French government English-language explainer on the G5 Sahel and the Sahel Alliance here, and an Al Jazeera report on the Takuba Task Force here.
My usage of “France’s this” and “France’s that” could be debated, but I do it deliberately. The rhetoric of “coalition” and “alliance” is deliberate on France’s part, meant to imply a collective stake in the Sahel crisis, but to me the vibe is one of top-down French influence, and I can’t tell what level of buy-in there is from Sahelian heads of state. Notably, for example, I could not find mention of the Coalition in the final communiqué from the last G5 Sahel summit, held in Nouakchott in February. And here is Reuters, also describing France as the driving force and discussing the Coalition in terms of French government goals:
France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.
I don’t think that’s going to pan out. The different components of the Coalition have already been struggling to reverse some of the worst trends in the Sahel, and I don’t think coordination is the most important missing element. The criticism leveled at the French government after the Pau summit, namely that France lacks a genuine political strategy, still holds. And the Pau summit may have even inadvertently upped the pressure for Sahelian soldiers to commit abuses against civilians, abuses that are themselves a key driver of insurgency.
In terms of what comes next, I’m not sure – readers may know. The next G5 Sahel summit is scheduled for February 2021 in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, but I suspect we will hear from the Coalition before then.