Prior to the end of 2012, the Sahel, the region comprising Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, did not receive much attention in Europe outside Paris. However, since the French-led intervention in early 2013 to combat the violent Islamist takeover in northern Mali, the Sahel has become a regular subject for discussion among European foreign and security policymakers. Suddenly, as Bamako was faced with a coup, it hit home to Europeans how close the region is and how closely intertwined with European interests it has become.
As we near the end of 2013, the strategic importance of this region, and the risk that instability there poses, has come to be accepted not just by the European Union but also by the wider international community. A United Nations-led delegation that visited the Sahel last week was testament to this, highlighting as it did the myriad challenges these four countries face, including a chronic food crisis, lack of economic growth, a harsh climate and the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. Inevitably, disillusionment at the lack of easy solutions to these problems creates a fertile environment for the spread of support for extremist and terrorist groups.
Last week’s donors’ conference in the region pledged around $11 billion, including around $7 billion over the next seven years from the EU. But EU representatives were at pains to emphasize that the development effort is only part of the story, interconnected as it is with other aspects of the EU’s “comprehensive approach” toward the Sahel, notably in security and stability. The major priorities of this security and stability approach have been outlined by European External Action Service representatives in the region as the peace agreement in the north of Mali, state-building, managing demographic growth and combating radicalization. Each one of these priority areas is fiendishly difficult in itself.