The African Union said on Thursday, February 27 that it expected to send a temporary deployment of 3,000 troops to West Africa’s Sahel region, where regional forces are struggling to respond to a nearly eight-year-old Islamist insurgency.
The decision was made at the African Union summit earlier this month, Smail Chergui, the Commissioner of the African Union Peace and Security Commission said, but the announcement was not made until a press conference Thursday.
“On the decision of the summit to work on deploying a force of 3,000 troops to help the Sahel countries degrade terrorist groups, I think this is a decision that we’ll be working on together with the G5 Sahel and ECOWAS,” Chergui said.
“I think this decision has been taken because as we see, as you can recognize yourself, the threat is expanding, it’s becoming more complex,” Chergui added.
Final decisions from the A.U. summit have yet to be published, but diplomats have confirmed some details of the proposed Sahel deployment.
“The summit decided to deploy about 3,000 troops for a period of six months to work with the countries of the Sahel to deal with the menace that they are facing,” Edward Xolisa Makaya, South Africa’s ambassador to the A.U., told AFP. “It’s just a sign or a show of solidarity with the people of the Sahel.”
South Africa took over as A.U. chair at the summit and plans and to host an extraordinary A.U. summit on security issues in May.
Makaya said he hoped the Sahel deployment would take place “during the course of the year.”
But many details of the possible deployment have yet to be worked out.
Makaya said no countries had come forward to volunteer troops, and it was also unclear how the deployment would be financed.
“Of course the member states have been called upon to make offers and contributions, and they did, some member states did make offers during the discussions,” he said. “But we are not at liberty to mention their names now.”
However, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at their September 14 Extraordinary Summit on Counter-Terrorism decided to mobilize “up to a billion dollars for the fight against terrorism,” Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said said after the meeting. The money, paid into a common fund from 2020 to 2024, will help reinforce the military operations of the nations involved, and those of the joint military operations in the region.
Thursday’s press conference took place as part of a meeting between A.U. and European leaders.
The E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said at the press conference that an A.U. deployment to the Sahel would be “very much welcome.”
“I think we have enough logistical coordination capacity in order to manage all together,” he said.
Multilateral military missions in the Sahel
It is unclear how a potential A.U. mission would interact with the other multilateral missions already operating against armed groups in the vast sub-Saharan region.
The France-led Operation Barkhane, a 5,100-strong mission with a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region, focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), which comprises troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, and MINUSMA, the U.N. stabilization mission in Mali.
France and the G5 Sahel states in January injected new urgency into the counter-terrorism fight, announcing a new Coalition for the Sahel which will see increased coordination between French and local forces. Barkhane and FCG5S forces operating under joint command will focus on the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border zone, targeting Islamic State as a priority.
Barkhane is already building command coordination with Sahel Coalition partner forces, setting up dedicated coordination mechanisms in Niger’s capital Niamey and Chad’s capital N’Djamena, where Barkhane is headquartered, while Mali has launched Operation Maliko, a new counter-terrorism operation that will take into account cross-border, regional and international cooperation.
France has also been trying to build support for the new special operations Task Force Takuba that will train, advise, assist and accompany local forces in their fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and will be fully operational by the autumn.
Insurgency in the Sahel
The complex insurgency in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012, when a Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by al-Qaeda-linked extremists who took key cities in the desert north. The following year, former colonial power France began the Operation Serval military intervention – the predecessor to Barkhane – driving the jihadists from the towns, and MINUSMA was established.
But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger. Inter-ethnic bloodshed is a regular occurrence.
More than 4,000 people were reported killed in militant attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger last year, according to the U.N., and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the spiraling violence in the Sahel has spread to coastal states of West Africa.
Many armed groups including Islamic State are active in the Sahel region, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Sahel area to ISWAP, its West Africa Province affiliate that split from Boko Haram in 2016, rather than to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
On Sunday, the U.N. added both ISWAP and ISGS to its ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list.
With reporting from AFP