Organised Crime Haunts the Sahel. EU Responses

By Liz Moran

In June 2022, the World Health Organisation recounted that the Sahel was facing unparalleled humanitarian needs as a result of armed conflict, poverty, and political instability. A few months later, equally concerning news arrived. By January 2023, the United Nations informed the UN Security Council of unprecedented insecurity in the Sahel. Ms. Biha, Officer-in-Charge for the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), stated that despite efforts, security had deteriorated again in the region. In light of these recent events, Ms. Biha urged ambassadors to continue to support a strategy centred on building resilience, promoting good governance, and strengthening peace and security.

Haunted by socio-political instability, climate change and food insecurity, organised crime and violent extremist organisations, ethnic conflicts and poverty, the Sahel has been depicted as the “corridor of all dangers”. This article aims to reflect on a decade of the EU’s efforts to promote security in the Sahel.

An Epidemic: Extremism, Drugs, and Human Trafficking in the Sahel

Trafficking in the Sahel can be traced back to cigarette smuggling in the 1980s, a practice that created networks essential for drug trafficking to grow. Since then, trafficking has become increasingly complex. First, drug traffickers found a gold mine in the Sahel to conduct their activities due to established smuggling routes and a perceived laxer law enforcement. Second, the Sahel has become a fertile land for irregular migration and weapons smuggling. In a region reigned by poverty, such businesses are said to generate US$ 3.8 billion annually.

The emergence of organised crime, however, does not take place in a vacuum, scholars argue. Poverty, unemployment, and weak social infrastructures foster organised crime. Likewise, the emergence of violent extremism in the region has been explained by the incapacity of fragile Sahelian states to control parts of their territories, allowing the emergence of “safe havens”. In these, criminal and extremist groups become substitutes for state authorities and provide some basic services to impoverished local communities. Moreover, two events have been cited as contributors to the Sahel’s instability and insecurity: first, the disintegration of the Libyan state in 2011, which flooded the Sahel with cheap arms and attracted and stirred up violent religious extremism; and second, the Malian civil war of 2012. 

The UNOWAS is alarmed that drug trafficking only heightens insecurity in a volatile region that remains out of the control of national security. Terrorist networks and rebel groups, the organisation highlights, could derive significant economic benefits from criminal activities, including drug and arms trafficking. It is feared, thus, that trafficking might be fuelling conflict dynamics in the region. Indeed, studies have found that there is a crime-conflict nexus, that is, just as conflict creates and sustains criminal markets, illicit economies also contribute to and fuel conflict. In this sense, scholars have noted that trafficking could be exploited by terrorists to raise money (gold, drugs), might (weapons), and manpower (human beings), furthering their destabilising agenda.

EU Efforts to Counter Insecurity, Organised Crime, and Instability in the Sahel

As irregular migration to Europe and violent extremism rose, the Sahel has been framed as a security matter to the EU. Indeed, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that “instability and terrorism in the Sahel directly threaten our security. It is therefore our duty of solidarity, and also in our interest, to stand by the people and countries of the Sahel.” Moreover, key EU foreign policy documents (Global Strategy, 2016, i.e.) have reinforced the “internal-external security nexus”. Organised crime, thus, has been conceptualised as a cross-border phenomenon whose tentacles may reach the EU and cooperating with third countries is seen as a necessity to counter it. 

In 2011, the EU adopted its Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, launching three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. Moreover, the EU has collaborated tightly with the G5 Sahel, an institutional framework for the coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security, formed by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Since then, efforts have been centred on assisting in drafting regional and national security strategies and penal codes through advising, training, equipping and capacity-building of internal security and criminal justice apparatuses. However, CSDP missions have shifted from a focus on institution and state-building to a securitised and crime-fighting one. The alignment of France and Germany in favour of security and military initiatives accounts for this shift, scholars argue

Moreover, the EU had intended to adopt a comprehensive approach to the crisis in the Sahel, understanding security and development as interconnected. Therefore, security efforts were coupled with development projects.

Need for Change?

The EU’s efforts in promoting (in)security in the Sahel have not been exempt from criticism. Experts noted that by focusing on short-term military and migration objectives, the EU’s efforts tackle the symptoms but not the underlying causes. Likewise, others argue that a few hundred million euros to support development programs is not enough. The EU, they highlight, needs to understand that tackling unemployment and marginalisation is the path to solutions, not supporting repressive governments as proxies for its security. The EU’s 2021 Sahel Strategy, thus, was seen as an opportunity to rethink the Union’s effort and to pursue a people-centred strategy.

Perhaps building on this criticism, the 2021 Council Conclusions of the Integrated Strategy in the Sahel expressed the interest of the Union in building closer partnerships with the Sahel countries. Intentions to contribute to sustainable development, economic growth, institutional capacity building, peacebuilding and peacekeeping were emphasised. 

These intentions, however, may be short-lived. Considering Russia’s –and Wagner mercenaries’– recent involvement in the region and widespread anti-French sentiments, it is unclear how EU operations in the region will evolve. In this sense, France’s removal of its mission in Mali is likely to impact the EU’s efforts, as EU missions were often deployed in collaboration with France’s operations. Scholars have argued that the involvement of Russia, China, and the Wagner group, as well as the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, will likely result in the predominance of “security first”, hard tools, and military solutions, even if the promotion of peace, democracy, and human rights are still pillars of the EU’s external action.

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