The junta in Mali, determined to antagonize France on every possible diplomatic front, is threatening to withdraw from the G5 Sahel, a regional organization created in 2014 by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Mali’s withdrawal would in turn affect the viability of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (French acronym FC-G5S). The Joint Force is a five-nation enterprise set up in 2017 with French backing. It draws troops from the G5 Sahel countries and had an initial target of 5,000 troops. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has said the Malian withdrawal leaves the organization “dead.”
The FC-G5S is, as this post’s title indicates, more important in my view as a political symbol than as a military reality. So-called “regional forces” are appealing to Western powers for various reasons, especially when those forces offer the promise that “African solutions to African problems” (a phrase that Western policymakers deploy selectively and, in my view, sometimes disingenuously) will either allow Western forces an exit strategy, or obviate the need for large Western military deployments in the first place. Some regional forces “work,” at least in the limited sense of partly beating back insurgencies and preserving some gains afterwards; the most successful in this sense is the African Union Mission in Somalia. Other regional forces may have some impact but their presence arguably muddies the waters, even distracting attention away from the propensity of member states to act unilaterally or on ad hoc basis – witness the widely hailed Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, but also witness the tendency of Nigeria, Chad, and other MNJTF contributors to do their own thing when the chips are down. The G5 Sahel Joint Force never even achieved the kind of aura the MNJTF developed – chased out of its own headquarters in 2018, the FC-G5S has no major military accomplishments to its credit.
Mali’s withdrawal or potential withdrawal (apparently this is a legal grey area) is a rebuke to France and Niger in particular. Mali’s junta, which has been cultivating near-pariah status in West Africa and with Western powers, was denied the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel in February; the presidency has remained with Chad’s President Mahamat Deby, who came to power in a coup that was much more palatable to Paris and Washington than the coups (two) that Mali’s junta perpetrated. Chadian-Malian relations are not so bad currently and Deby is urging Mali to stay in the G5 Sahel, but Malian-Nigerien relations are not so great, especially given successive Nigerien presidents’ critiques of the Malian junta. Niger and France are also drawing even closer together as France reacts to its frayed relations with the colonels in Bamako.
The collapse of the G5 Sahel would remove yet another piece of the largely Western-designed framework – unsuccessful, it should be noted – aimed at guiding Mali and the Sahel back to security and stability. Again, I think the G5 Sahel Joint Force was never going to achieve what its backers hoped. I think it would have been better if the FC-G5S could have been more thoughtfully dismantled and debated, but one could be harsh and say that the “death” of the G5 Sahel could productively force a reconsideration of the underlying policy assumptions (fantasies??) about how this all ends – including the recurring hope that the solution is something like an African Union force (a re-hatted G5 Sahel?) with a United Nations Chapter VII (enforcement) mandate and dedicated funding. Here I would note that even that plan is not really fleshed out from what I have seen – is the idea that security will be restored through an open-ended deployment of African forces, all while the region’s politics get worse and worse?
To sum up, then:
- Mali’s junta is reckless and is spending more time antagonizing France than improving anything in Mali
- Some of the things the Malian junta is taking aim at weren’t doing much good anyways
- Western powers don’t have a real plan