EU’s moral dilemma in the Sahel – POLITICO



OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — When Ahmado Bikienga heard that villages near his home were being seized by armed Islamists, he didn’t expect the violence would force him to flee too.  

“We didn’t know who was attacking us, they just came in on motorbikes and started shooting and shouting,” he recalled. “When you’re trying to save your family, you don’t stop to think, you just run with the clothes on your back.”

Bikienga and his family have spent the past year in an informal IDP camp near Kaya, a town some 100 kilometers north of Burkina Faso’s capital. They are among the more than 1 million Burkinabè to be displaced by the militant violence that has ravaged the country for the past several years as it spread from neighboring Mali.

The conflict, which has taken Burkina Faso from one of the most stable countries in West Africa to one of the most dangerous, poses a dilemma to European policymakers intent on stabilizing an increasingly volatile region that is key to its geopolitical goals — chief among them containing the spread of terrorism and curtailing migration to Europe.  

Analysts have warned that the European Union’s Sahel strategy prioritized counterterrorism and military solutions to the conflict, rather than seeking to solve issues of governance that would bring more lasting stability to the region.  

Now, even as Brussels revises its Sahel strategy in light of the tenacity of the ongoing conflict, it faces an added complication. According to local officials and analysts, the central government has started to engage in talks with the armed Islamist groups. And it appears to be working: There has been a noticeable drop in attacks from Islamic militants and fewer unlawful killings by state security forces and militia.  

The move puts the EU in a bind, as it has previously opposed opening talks with terrorist-affiliated groups. 

“The question of negotiations with terrorists is a delicate one,” Ángel Losada Fernández, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, said in a recent interview with POLITICO. “It’s an important question, but it’s very difficult to say who are the ones who are really the terrorists with blood on their hands.”  

Instead, he said, the EU is focused on supporting the government’s efforts to heal tensions between communities in order to prevent extremists from exploiting long-held ethnic grievances as a recruitment tool.  

But some suggest the EU is softening its staunch opposition to talks with terrorists in light of the worsening crisis. 

“Some months ago, our official position was: We don’t talk about negotiations,” an EU diplomat with intimate knowledge of the bloc’s operations in Burkina Faso told POLITICO. “This position has changed a little — at least in theory.”  

The EU’s understanding, the diplomat said, was that the Burkinabè government is at an “early stage of its evolution toward talks with the terrorists.” The diplomat specified that the EU believed talks were being held at a “low level for now” and did not involve militant leaders themselves. 

“The EU continues to be prudent regarding this issue, but we are not against real dialogue with more people,” the diplomat added.  

When Burkina Faso’s prime minister, Christophe Dabiré, first raised the possibility of direct talks with jihadists during a speech in parliament in early February, the sudden shift in policy took diplomats by surprise. In the weeks that followed Burkinabè officials tried to walk back the comments.

And later in February, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a meeting with the leaders of the so-called G5 countries — Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad — it had been agreed there would be no negotiations with extremist leaders. Those included Iyad Ag Ghaly, the head of an umbrella coalition of al-Qaeda-aligned groups called the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), and Amadou Koufa, the leader of one of those groups, Katiba Macina. 

But in the eastern city of Fada N’Gourma Timothé Mano, the leader of a state-backed militia, told POLITICO that talks between his group, the VDP, government representatives and jihadists have been ongoing in the city since October.  

“Talks are in play because if the government doesn’t do anything, in a couple of months the number of jihadists will increase again and the killing will restart,” he said. 

In the northern town of Djibo close to the border with Mali, locals credit talks as the reason a semblance of peace has returned to their community and some IDPs have been able to return.  

Heìni Nsaibia, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, believes the Burkinabè authorities are trying to keep the talks out of the public eye.   

“Outwardly they have adopted a real hardline approach to militancy and terrorism because for a time that suited popular opinion, but they remain sensitive and secret when it comes to negotiations because they are afraid of failure,” he said. “Nobody is absolutely sure what the militants’ objectives are.” 

Shift in EU strategy 

At the core of the EU’s strategy in the Sahel, which dates back to 2011, is the belief that security and development are interdependent. To contribute to the region’s stability, it primarily foresaw investments in development projects and support and training for local security services.

But critics of the EU’s approach say the bloc put counterterrorism considerations first, with its main objectives to prevent jihadist attacks on European soil and cutting down on migrants displaced by terrorist violence fleeing to the Continent. This not only failed to prevent a deepening of the crisis in the region, but put governance issues on the back-burner, further complicating conflict resolution. 

According to think tank ISPI, the EU has fallen short of addressing the “governance problems at the root of insecurity” and failed to tackle the issue of the government’s involvement in the crisis. For many Sahelian citizens, it notes, “the return of the state is not a goal in its own right,” in light of state atrocities committed against citizens.  

Many in Burkina Faso see the central government as having actively contributed to the security crisis. Human Rights Watch has reported over 600 unlawful killings by the security forces of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger during counterterrorism operations since late 2019. These attacks have often driven disenfranchised youths into the arms of terrorist groups. 

While the EU says Sahelian partners have pledged to safeguard human rights, no member of Burkina Faso’s security services has been put on trial for human rights abuses.  

According to Corinne Dufka, Sahel Director for Human Rights Watch, the EU is becoming more robust in demanding accountability. But, she added, “their reluctance in the past was taken as a green light.” 

Reforming governance structures and trust in the government should be the bloc’s first priority in the country, according to Hannah Armstrong, a senior consulting analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think tank.  

“What needs to be done right now is not wiping out terrorists, it needs to be building links between central states and rural communities,” said Armstrong.  “The over-militarized strategy has already done damage to those fragile links between the center and rural zones … when you approach the issue of negotiations this framing creates a lot of extra obstacles for dialogue [to help establish peace].” 

In redrafting its Sahel strategy — which is set to be approved before June — the EU wants to ensure it reflects new developments on the ground, is “operational and result-oriented” and “favors ownership and real appropriation by G5 Sahel countries,” the EU diplomat with knowledge of Burkina Faso told POLITICO. There are no signs yet that what’s being drawn up will be an entirely novel approach.

Following more than a decade of involvement and billions of euros spent in the region, there is a recognition in EU quarters that a military solution alone will not bring peace to the Sahel, and that without effective governance, security gains and development projects will crumble. 

The reported start of negotiations between the Burkinabè government and terror groups may pose a moral dilemma for the EU, but it could also prove to be a way out of this protracted crisis. 



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