Breaking the habit: a new EU approach in the Sahel

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. French President Emmanuel Macron (R) welcomes Chad's President Idriss Deby (L) to attend a summit on the situation in the Sahel region in Pau, France, 13 January 2020. [EPA/EFE]

The death of Chad’s strong-man President Idriss Déby underscores the need for the EU to overhaul its strategy in the Sahel region, writes Bram Dijkstra.

Bram Dijkstra, Senior Associate Policy Officer, Open Society European Policy Institute

On Tuesday, Chad’s long-term President Idriss Déby was killed in clashes between rebels and government soldiers, the day after declaring victory in a disputed election. During his 30- year rule, Déby centralized power, cracked down on dissent and hollowed out the country’s political institutions, leaving a legacy of abuse.

He also was a key ally of the EU.

Chad – together with Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – is at the core of the EU’s foreign policy on the Sahel. Following state collapse in northern Mali and spurred by the 2015 “migration crisis”, EU leaders increasingly viewed “fixing” problems in their Sahelian backyard as central to protecting EU interests at home.

Cooperation with regional leaders like Déby became integral to efforts to curb migration and counter-terrorist threats – couched as efforts to stabilize the region. Yet as EU initiatives soared over the years, so did violence, displacement and instability, spreading well beyond Mali into neighbouring countries.

A decade of EU efforts to stabilize the region did not translate into more inclusive politics or strengthened democracies, nor has it managed to contain instability and insecurity. Civil society groups have long criticized the EU for prioritizing short-term security interests, while turning a blind eye to illiberal leanings in the region.

Most recently, a coalition of Sahelian and international organisations, known as the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, put forward an alternative vision, shifting focus from fighting insurgency to tackling the fragile politics underpinning the region’s conflicts.

The EU takes some of this criticism to heart as it signs off on a new strategy for the region. Notably, it proposes a “civilian and political leap forward” alongside its current security-forward approach. This is an important shift, at least in tone. The question is whether the EU can really break with past practice.

Sustainable political solutions are necessary to address the grave political and security crises faced by the region. But breaking with the EU’s current security doctrine, which hinges on cooperation with strongmen like Déby, requires more than rhetoric.

To anchor its investments in a political approach, the EU needs to question how its partnership with Sahelian states can reinforce authoritarian trends, eroding the very bonds between governments and citizens it professes to strengthen.

This support, focused on states’ capacity to fight back armed groups, has created perverse incentives for elites in the Sahel to maintain the status quo. Consistent EU messaging about the centrality of the Sahel to Europe’s own security may serve domestic publics, but also gives leverage to Sahelian elites whose political futures – and fortunes – have become intertwined with European support.

This undermines the EU’s ability to advance the necessary governance reforms for long-term stability. Its new strategy proposes a partnership based on “mutual accountability” to address this uneasy relationship.

But in a region where governments and their security forces can be predatory, corrupt and unaccountable, the question is whether more dialogue between European and Sahelian leaders can achieve results.

As a start, the EU should broaden the conversation beyond state representatives, and make greater effort to include the views of citizens. Without ownership by Sahelian people, no EU intervention can deliver lasting results.

It also means standing up more vocally for democracy and human rights. A values-based approach may tire leaders – Sahelian and European alike –, but short-term stability politics tend to backfire.

They serve neither the needs of Sahelian citizens nor the long-term goals of EU foreign policy. Supporting democracy in the Sahel – economically and politically – is in the EU’s long-term strategic interest, and its best bet to achieve sustainable development, respect for human rights, and long-term stability both at national and regional level.

As the Sahel crisis enters its second decade, the EU should consider what cost it is willing to pay to risk its credibility. The change of tone and cautious critique of its own policy are welcome, but it remains unclear whether it can align its policies and practice with the new rhetoric.

As long as the EU continues to frame its relations in the Sahel in terms of regional stability, finding a way out of the spiral remains elusive.

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