The future of the European Union’s defence and security relations with Africa grabbed the spotlight this week, after France and its European allies announced plans to withdraw forces from the West African State of Mali.
France and French-led EU forces have been fighting armed groups in Mali since 2013. But the country’s relations with Mali have deteriorated since the military seized power in May 2021, the country’s second coup in less than a year.
Speaking at a news conference before the sixth EU-Africa Summit, which seeks to strengthen the European Union’s ties with the African Union, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the withdrawal of French troops and French-led missions of European nations in Mali would take four to six months and Paris would deploy its troops elsewhere in the Sahel region.
Niger’s President Mohammed Bazoum confirmed on Friday that his country would host French-led Takuba forces and praised their work. “They are special forces with capabilities responding to the threat posed by terrorist organizations,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and Defence Minister Colonel Sadio Camara have welcomed bilateral discussions with other European partners who wish to cooperate in maintaining security in the country.
The announcement of the withdrawal, however, has raised questions about the future of EU training missions in Mali and across Africa.
Katja Keul, deputy minister at Germany’s foreign ministry released a news statement expressing that France’s actions will also have an impact on Germany’s joint international engagement in the region.
Moreover, some EU officials are on edge regarding both the presence of Russian mercenaries and growing Chinese influence in volatile parts of Africa, and fear that the lack of an EU security presence could bolster Moscow and Beijing’s ambitions.
Prior to the EU-Africa Summit, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief Josep Borrell, told reporters, “We are not abandoning the Sahel. We are just restructuring our presence.”
He added that the EU’s support would be implemented in accordance with the political situation in Mali.
Lucia Montanaro, Europe head of the conflict prevention and peace-building NGO Saferworld, said current events in Mali should make the EU rethink, rebalance and readjust its approach to maintaining peace and security across Africa.
“Europe has focussed on militarisation and security first approaches. Heavily militarised responses suppress the symptoms of insecurity without addressing underlying causes like structural inequality, corruption, and exclusionary governance which are drivers of conflict,” she told Al Jazeera.
“EU member states urgently need to take heed of the failures of this approach in the Sahel, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It should not be only about supporting the state, but actually supporting the people of these countries and harnessing their expertise, in order to address the fundamental drivers of conflict,” she explained.
EU security support meeting African needs?
Maintaining peace and security in Africa has been a key priority for the EU. This has been particularly evident in the Sahel region where the bloc has spent more than one billion euros ($1.13bn) to increase the capacity of military forces to fight armed groups.
Dr Julian Bergmann, senior researcher at the German Development Institute who focuses on Europe’s relations with Africa, explains that while investments are helpful, it is important to understand the objectives of the EU’s security missions.
“There are different types of EU engagements in Africa. If we take the Sahel for example, there are military training missions like EUTM Mali, civilian missions such as EUCAP Sahel and development and humanitarian aid engagements. Military training, strategic advice given to African armed forces and mentoring are some of the common objectives of these EU training missions,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But there are also broader political aspects, contributing to security and stability in the region and making the security sector more democratically accountable,” he explained.
Beyond the Sahel region, the EU is also countering armed groups in Libya and Somalia and also has military training missions in the Central African Republic and Mozambique.
But Olivier Guriyanan, executive director at Bucofore, a research centre operating in Chad and Central and West-African sub-regions, said EU and international support is not always tailored to meet local needs.
“Despite massive mobilisation of security assistance, there has been an escalation of violence in the Sahel and other African countries. What international actors need to realise is that communal violence, corrupt governments, tensions between farmers and herders, violent looting, are bigger threats in Africa. But the international actors’ perception of security, is reduced to terrorism and migration, which simplifies the reality,” he told Al Jazeera.
“African people need international support in terms of military training and civilian support. But the focus should be on building the capacities of local security actors instead of having international soldiers on the ground,” he added.
‘People-centred security approach’
At a press conference after the EU-Africa Summit in Brussels, Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat highlighted that both the EU and Africa need to change how they have handled peace and security operations.
“Some EU peacekeeping missions have been in Africa for approximately 60 years. But African countries are also ready to mobilise people. We have done so and done it in the G5 Sahel and Mozambique. But we have to change the way we look at doing things together,” he said.
Lidet Tadesse, associate director at the European Centre for Development, noted that summits are rarely an opportunity to address complex issues like security in depth. She said African countries also need to assert their sovereignty in the security architecture.
“In Somalia and the Sahel, there has been sufficient EU military support and police training. But the popular perception is that despite so many security missions in the country, citizens still don’t feel safe. Going forward, security discussions should be conducted at all political levels starting from the local level,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The framing that the EU’s presence is meant to deliver security or its absence is a pathway to peace, is a bit simplistic when the situation is complex. Such a status quo is no longer sustainable and international presence in the region needs to be critically assessed,” she added.
Safer World’s Montanaro also believes that security is simply an ingredient of peace and explains that the EU should realign its lens to boost its relations across Africa.
“Recreating trust between civilians and security actors, providing support to the social contract and increasing dialogues between security actors and citizens, will ensure that EU security forces cater to the African people,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It’s important for the EU to readjust its approach to one that is much more people-centred that addresses the structural drivers of insecurity,” she added.