Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

West African leaders hold summit on Sahel anti-terror battle

In 2018, terrorist groups carried out more than one attack every day in the region

Malian soldiers in the G5 Sahel joint military force on patrol during a 2017 operation. AFP
Malian soldiers in the G5 Sahel joint military force on patrol during a 2017 operation. AFP

West African leaders will meet in the capital of Burkina Faso on Saturday for a summit expected to lead to an overhaul in the unsuccessful attempt to defeat terrorism in the Sahel region.

Most of the heads of Ecowas, the group of 15 countries on West Africa's coast and hinterland, are expected to attend the one-day meeting, which Chad, Cameroon and Mauritania will also attend.

Leading the agenda will be a review of the G5 Sahel, a five-nation alliance to combat terrorism in the fragile region, which lies between the Sahara and Atlantic.

Backed by former colonial power France, the G5 Sahel was formed to great fanfare in 2014.

The centrepiece of its strategy has been an initiative, launched in July 2017, to pool 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and wrench back control from insurgent groups in the region.

But hamstrung by insufficient funds, training and equipment, the force has only now reached 4,000 troops, and for many analysts it seems to be losing the battle.

The extremists have spread from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as Chad.

Their hit-and-run raids are inflicting growing human, economic and political tolls, sparking fears that the coastal countries to the south are next in line.

Another example of the difficulties the region faces came on Thursday, when two soldiers were killed in two attacks in northern Burkina Faso, AFP reported.

It was the latest in a series of deadly attacks on security forces in the landlocked West African nation.

Lassina Diarra, a regional political analyst, said scathingly that the Ouagadougou summit should "mark the burial" of the G5 Sahel.

"The Ecowas countries have realised that they have to act, that they are threatened," Mr Diarra said.

Ecowas is an abbreviation for the Economic Community of West African States.

Mahamadou Savadogo, a democracy and development researcher at Senegal's Gaston Berger University, said the G5 Sahel was "almost on its knees. It started off the wrong way".

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also has a grim view of the situation.

"I totally believe we are not winning the war against terrorism in the Sahel and that the operation should be strengthened," Mr Guterres said last week.

The scale of the challenge facing the G5 Sahel force is huge.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in the US says the number of radical attacks in the Sahel has doubled each year since 2016. Last year, the tally was 465.

"Despite significant international engagement and investment, violent extremism is increasing," the centre said.

The British humanitarian charity Oxfam says that 13 million people in the region need help. Water, food, health, shelter, sanitation and education are needed.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, at a summit of the African Union in July, called for an "international coalition" modelled on the loose alliance that fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

A wider international pitch also appeals to the Ivory Coast, which in 2016 suffered a terror attack that killed 19 people.

Its northern border has been declared by France's Foreign Ministry to be an "orange" security risk and French nationals are advised not to go there unless necessary.

Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara said that the UN mission to Mali and the G5 Sahel were not enough.

"We have to find wider and more effective means of coordination," Mr Ouattara said .

French president Emmanuel Macron, who has lobbied relentlessly for donations for the G5 Sahel force, has also signalled a subtle shift in tone.

Standing alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G7 summit in Biarritz last month, Mr Macron said it was time "for change, in methods and scale".

A French security official was guarded about what could come from the Ouagadougou summit.

"Another summit, another meeting that ends in a call for more cooperation," he said. "Perhaps. But at least you can see a movement for change.

Updated: September 13, 2019 03:23 AM

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