Securing our neighbours’ neighbourhood: EU’s commitment in Mali

External Relations

As the intensity of the crisis on the EU border rises, so does the call of the many advocating a major pull back from more “remote” theaters, in order to better focus European resources and diplomatic efforts on its nearest priorities. Luckily, Brussels policymakers did not completely fall into this temptation, as in today’s deeply intertwined regional mosaic, the security of our neighbourhood is deeply affected by what is happening just beyond.

The negative spill-over of the Islamic State rise, flourished in Iraq and growingly noticeable due to the further destabilization of Libya, should be a good reminder of the severe risks entailed in “Western disengagement”; not least, it proves a very practical example on why we need the EU to stand to its ambition as a fully-fledged global player.
These are among the reasons why we should welcome the developments of last “hectic week” in Mali. The country was first torn at the beginning of 2012 by the self-proclaimed secession of northern regions by Tuareg rebels – joined by radical Salafist groups quitting the Libyan turmoil – and then by a military coup which ousted former president Amadou Toumani Touré.

The resulting chaos, escalating clashes and the growing risks for the already endangered Sahel countries led to the first reaction of the international community, with France and Western African countries deploying armed missions to contain the descent of northern groups in early 2013. Following that stage, the EU had already played a primary role by establishing a military training mission to strengthen and increase the resilience of Malian armed forces (EUTM Mali).

Two years passed since then and, notwithstanding the successful process that led to the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and the establishment of the third government during his office, perspectives of stabilization of the country still remain fragile. The core political demand of the eventual form of Malian state remain the unsolved key issue, with northern groups pushing for a more federalist set-up and the central government in Bamako seeking a unitary way-out. Four rounds of negotiations took place in Algiers but, to date, the mediation did not yield the much hoped outcome and fights still occur beyond the line dividing the tropical south from the desert in the north.

While the Malian population still waits from a Godot coming from Algiers, other major developments just happened, and the author of this article had the privilege of being a witness of two of them.
First, Europe clearly showed that addressing this crisis still remains among its foreign policy priorities: at the very beginning of current negotiations’ efforts, Mogherini’s service agreed with the African Union (AU) to hold the first ever joint trip of their political and security decision making bodies right in Mali, last week. The mission of two political and security Committees (PSC), gathering more than 50 ambassadors from EU and the AU, was received by the Malian presidency and government, and the diplomats further extended the scope of their agenda to civil society organizations and representatives.

Most surprisingly, the two PSCs flied to the United Nations headquarters in the city of Gao, in one of the northern regions, only a week after the building was sieged by protesters, leading to clashes which resulted into the death of four.

The “historical event”, as defined in a tweet by EU Africa Director Nick Westcott, sends a clear message about the strong commitment in the Sahel region of both the AU and EU, and helps adding pressure to all the parties involved in the conflict to join the negotiations table with due flexibility and political will to actually end violences.

The fifth round of talks in Algiers is happening right as this article is being written, but EU has already taken another major step to support the country in maintaining its constitutional order and assist the reform process of the whole security sector – all necessary to ensure the sustainability of a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement.

Bamako, 10 February 2015: the President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the EU Ambassador in Bamako, Richard Zink, and the Head of the EU Civilian Mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali) Albrecht Conze, during the inauguration of the Mission

On 10 February, the EU civilian mission to support Mali’s stabilization through the reform of the security sector (EUCAP Sahel Mali) was inaugurated. For the first time, the launch ceremony of a CFDP mission was attended by the highest political authority in the host country, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Ministries of Defence and Security were present, as well as representatives from the UN, third States and civil society organization.

Albrecht Conze, the German Ambassador appointed Head of EUCAP Sahel Mali last year, will guide the Mission whose role is to help maintaining the constitutional order in Mali, contribute to its stabilization and facilitate the re-establishment of effective governance in the north. From the operational perspective, the Mission will advise and train the three Internal Security Forces (ISF) in order to restore their hierarchy lines and strengthen their capacities and the ones of their supervising judiciary and administrative authorities. With a relatively small budget of around 11 million € per year, by the end of its mandate the Mission will have been training one third of the ISF and completed their overall reform process. All of this should happen in full coordination with international partners and in consultation with the civil society – as the Head of Mission Conze said during the ceremony, “security shall be reached through the hearts and minds of Malians”.

This is not an easy task. The Mission starts with many challenges, and restoring the presence of the security forces in the north of the country largely depends from some considerable factors. In particular, if the talks in Algiers will effectively result in a comprehensive peace agreement, local authorities must develop full “ownership” of the objectives of the Mission. Past twenty years have given many examples of the recurring instability in conflict zones right after the end of an international endeavour.
In this case, there are positive signs, as the 2015 was announced as the year of “the reform of security and defence” and, in this perspective President Keita stated “EUCAP is a plus, and will contribute to the stabilization of Mali”.

Securing Mali is the cornerstone for securing Sahel and, by consequence, reducing the extents of trafficking and smuggling of arms – and even human beings – across the Sahara. EUTM and EUCAP Sahel Mali, with MINUSMA, thus hold a primary role for our own security, regardless of the distance separating Brussels from Sahel.


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