African anti-jihad force makes first steps in troubled Sahel

Malian general Didier Dacko has taken the helm of the G5 Sahel anti-terror force — but, as he admits, the new unit ‘needs support to grow’ (AFP Photo)

Five nations in Africa’s Sahel region are progressively deploying a counter-terror force to combat jihadist groups but the project will be vulnerable during its fledgling stage, diplomats and military sources say.

The so-called “G5 Sahel” states are some of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Spread across largely tough, desert terrain, the G5’s counter-terror force will launch its first operation against jihadists at the end of October, codenamed “Buffalo” in a local language according to official documents seen by AFP, with several more planned.

At the new force’s military headquarters in Sevare, central Mali, Commander Didier Dacko is highly aware of vulnerabilities linked to incomplete troop numbers and a funding gap.

“This joint force is newborn,” said Dacko, a Malian general, speaking during a visit last week by a UN Security Council delegation to the yellow and pink buildings of the HQ.

“It needs support to grow,” he added.

Its activities will be initially confined to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where weak central governments have little reach in isolated areas, and tensions between nomadic herding communities and farmers have led to recent bloody clashes.

Persuading communities in these areas to drop support for jihadists, who in some cases have taken on a quasi-state-like role, would also be key, Dacko said.

In the early days of the force’s existence, strategy will be centred on “taking back control of border areas,” where attacks occur regularly as domestic troops cannot enter another nation’s territory, Dacko said.

The force has specifically addressed this problem by allowing personnel to operate across the five nations’ borders, as long as prior notice of entry is given.

– Border focus –

The region’s jihadist problem is persistent and getting worse: one attack in Niger’s restive southwest, which borders Mali, killed 13 paramilitary police on Saturday.

That followed a deadly ambush on a joint US-Niger patrol that has thrown the United States’ growing involvement in African counter-terror policy into the spotlight.

And earlier this month, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres reported an increase of more than 100 percent in attacks against UN peacekeepers, Malian troops and French forces since June.

The estimated budget for the force’s first year of operations is tentatively estimated at 423 million euros ($499 million), but so far only 108 million euros have been raised, almost half from the European Union.

The force will eventually comprise seven battalions, two apiece for Mali and Niger, and one for each of the other nations, with a total capacity of 5,000 men.

Command posts will be set up in Mauritania, Niger and Chad, representing the force in key western, central and eastern locations respectively, with Niger’s already in service.

– International support –

The vast Sahel region has turned into a hotbed of violent extremism and lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, Islamists overran northern Mali in 2012 and as Boko Haram has spread its tentacles across the Lake Chad region.

The Security Council visit to Sevare is therefore a measure of how badly the international community wants the region to progress on its own by establishing a sustainable solution for counter-terror with its own troops.

Mali already has a UN peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym MINUSMA, and France has its own 4,000-strong Barkhane force deployed across the Sahel, but the G5 nations announced the long-discussed force would become a reality in February.

The Sahel’s active foreign missions are wary of the force’s vulnerability in its first active stages, when troop numbers are sub-optimal.

The UN’s Guterres has put forward four options to back the force, including setting up a United Nations support office in the Sahel and sharing resources from the 13,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Mali.

He has recommended extra financial backing for equipment including heavily reinforced vehicles and observation capacities, including drones.

The force’s main backer in the United Nations, France, has urged Europe and the US to show moral and financial support for the initiative, and placed it top of its priorities in the world body for October.

A ministerial-level meeting on support for the force will be held at the UN on October 30, while a donors’ conference is scheduled for December 16 in Brussels.