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Experts Question Central Sahel Military Alliance Among Juntas

FILE - Soldiers from Burkina Faso's army line up for training organized by the International Counter-Terrorism Academy in Jacqueville, Ivory Coast, March 14, 2023.
FILE - Soldiers from Burkina Faso's army line up for training organized by the International Counter-Terrorism Academy in Jacqueville, Ivory Coast, March 14, 2023.

Less than a week after West Africa’s three military led countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger said they are forming a joint counterterrorism force, experts are voicing concerns about the arrangement.

The security situation in the Sahel region has deteriorated since the militaries overthrew their respective civilian-led governments due to insecurity and threats from jihadist groups. But some experts say the latest move could do more harm than good as the countries struggle with bad governance and a suspension of international support.

After hosting his counterparts from Burkina Faso and Mali in Niamey last week, Nigeran General Moussa Salaou Barmou, chief of armed forces, said the three West African nations will be better positioned to create conditions for region security by officially combining counterterrorism efforts.

Millions have been displaced by terror threats and attacks throughout all three countries.

Oluwole Ojewale, a regional coordinator at the Senegal-based Institute of Security Studies, calls the tripartite deal to fight terror along shared borders a significant development.

“The criminals, the terrorist groups, the jihadists, the bandits that are operating in those three areas, particularly in their border areas, they have safe havens across those countries,” Ojewale said. “They are recruiting from those countries, and they are perpetrating their attacks in those three countries. I think it's a welcome development that they want to collaborate in terms of providing a military solution to the crisis.”

Military leaders in Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou say they toppled their civilian-led governments for failing to deal with insecurity, particularly emanating from terror groups.

Since taking power, however, all three nations have seen conflict fatalities from political violence increase by 38% and civilian deaths by over 18%, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

All three military leaders have been at odds with other leaders in the Economic Community of West African States, a regional economic bloc, about how to return democratically elected civilian governments to power.

Western economic support and security backing has been suspended for all three countries since the military juntas came to power.

David Otto, head of security and defense analysis with the Geneva Center for Africa Security and Strategic Studies, says good governance and popular support is needed to defeat the terrorist threat.

“The success of any operational or any security or defense pact often is tied to economic stability,” he said. “[And] it is also tied to people's support. If the people in these countries do not have daily bread and the governance structure becomes weak, then that could also have a direct impact on the successes of these operations.”

Ojewale says a lack of international support may hinder their shared security goals. With the main support coming from Russia, he said, there might be a question of how much support is available because of the war in Ukraine.

But, he added, if the alliance can gather intelligence and be proactive in addressing the counterinsurgency operation and potential attacks, “Maybe they might be able to gain some mileage, but it’s yet to be seen.”

Experts note that given the current insecurity situation in these countries, their militarized approach to counterterrorism is likely to continue to escalate and increase violence within the community.