The Sahel region is an area in sub-Saharan Africa characterized by conflicts primarily between state forces and armed terrorist groups. Over the past ten years, it has devastated the area and triggered a severe humanitarian crisis, leading to the intervention of several international military forces in the territory.
International missions in the Sahel: a timeline of the last decade
In particular, France started its intervention in the Sahel after the political crisis in Mali between 2012 and 2013 following the coup d’état against the then-president Amadou Toumani Touré. In the north of the country, the collapse of state power had allowed the advance of the Tuareg, separatist rebels, with their consequent unilateral declaration of independence of the northern region of Azawad in April 2012. At that point, Mali had formally requested help from France, which launched Operation Serval intending to provide military and logistical aid to the Malian government. After the joint operations of French and African soldiers, the United Nations Security Council launched the mission MINUSMA- Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies Pour La Stabilisation au Mali. In order to cope with the escalation of terrorist acts in the Sahel region, the French government decided the following year to launch a project of intervention territorially more extensive than Operation Serval, thus laying the groundwork for the creation of a new operation called Barkhane.
Opération Barkhane has been a mission led by the French army conducted in cooperation with other countries in addition to Mali: Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, which thus create the G5-Sahel, a framework for the coordination of regional cooperation in West Africa. The number of means employed has been substantial: 3 drones, 20 helicopters, 280 armoured vehicles, 400 logistical vehicles; moreover, since 2013, 51 French soldiers have lost their lives in the Sahel. President Emmanuel Macron, well aware that the French public opinion strong of these data was increasingly opposed to the mission, in February 2021 during the virtual summit of the G5 had expressed the will to reduce the French presence in the region.
The end of the Barkhane operation and the beginning of the Takuba mission
In a lengthy press conference held last June 10, President Macron officially announced the end of Operation Barkhane, which will take place through a partial withdrawal of the French military contingent. During his speech, the French president announced the end of Barkhane as an external operation, allowing support and cooperation with the countries’ armies in the region. He highlighted that “the form of our presence, now for several years, is no longer adapted to the reality of the fighting.” Macron also stated in this regard that France could not work with Sahel governments that continue to negotiate with Islamist militants, particularly the current, critical situation in Mali. In fact, in May of this year, only nine months after the previous coup d’état of August 2020 that had led to the resignation of the newly elected president Ibrahim Keita Boubacar, the country was crossed by a new military coup. With the subsequent declaration of a seizure of power by Colonel Assimi Goïta (appointed as vice-president to an interim government aimed at leading Mali in the 2020 post-coup era), Malian authorities offered France a new opportunity to announce the withdrawal of its forces from the Sahel; forces that, however, will be replaced by special ones, structured around the joint Takuba mission.
Task Force Takuba, a term meaning sword in the Tuareg dialect, is an international interagency mission introduced in 2020 under the French command. Its official mandate consists of training, accompanying, and mentoring in the “three borders” called Liptako-Gourma: Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Military personnel from France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Romania, Germany, Greece, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Spain and Sweden operate in coordination with other international organizations such as the U.S. AFRICOM – United States African Command and MINUSMA. These international missions underline the fundamental importance of the Sahel not only for the broader stabilization of West Africa but also for security aspects of Europe. In fact, in addition to jihadist terrorism, illegal trafficking and the situation of migration from the region towards territories considered safer, such as Europe, are of concern.
The Sahel humanitarian crisis
Among the scenarios envisaged for the future of the Sahel, it is the humanitarian one that is the most worrisome. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA said last April that the humanitarian situation in the region is deteriorating rapidly due to the escalation of the conflict, the increase in food insecurity and COVID-19. As a response to the pandemics, one of the initiatives adopted and supported by Sweden and UNDP is the Sahel Resilience Project which addresses regulatory, political, and budgetary frameworks of disaster risk governance at the regional and national levels in the Sahel region – to promote recovery processes, taking into account the underlying risks of disaster and climate change and urban risk management. Due to the sanitarian crisis, the Sahel Resilience Project re-programmed disaster risk management activities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic at the regional level and in seven project countries in June 2020. The total resource envelope is $1,442,000 initially for six months in 2020, extended to 2021.
The insecurity in the region is disproportionately affecting children and women. Incidents of Gender-based violence are spiking, with widespread risks of women and girls being abducted, married by force, sexually assaulted and raped. It is estimated that by 2021 nearly 29 million people in the sub-Saharan region will need assistance and protection, and more than 5 million people will be internally displaced in the Sahel due to the activities of armed groups and widespread violence. The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR denounced that people fleeing the conflict in Mali fled to Burkina Faso for years. Some 25,000 refugees lived in refugee camps across the country, many of which have been attacked more than once. The threat of violence makes it nearly impossible for aid workers from UNHCR and other organizations to reach some of the people forced to flee. We also have to remember that the region is suffering the effects of climate change with unpredictable weather patterns, floods and land degradation that have jeopardized agriculture and livestock activities. Therefore, one of the major challenges that will have to be faced, in addition to the above-mentioned international problems, concerns the severe internal humanitarian crisis affecting an already weak area that needs specific programs aimed at people, especially children and women fleeing conflict and violence.