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How to improve peacekeeping missions in the future? Lessons learned from the EU’s peacekeeping missions in the G5 Sahel region

https://global-strategy.org/how-to-improve-peacekeeping-missions-in-the-future-lessons-learned-from-the-eus-peacekeeping-missions-in-the-g5-sahel-region/ How to improve peacekeeping missions in the future? Lessons learned from the EU’s peacekeeping missions in the G5 Sahel region 2021-01-15 09:00:00 Christian Schreiber Blog post Global Strategy Reports Política de Defensa África Subsahariana Europa Global Strategy Reports 2021
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Global Strategy Report, 4/2021

Abstract: As a consequence of the rise of insecurity in the Sahel region, the G5 Sahel started to cooperate with the European Union in 2016 as it was in the interest of both to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, among other issues. The cooperation transformed itself into a multidimensional peacekeeping mission, setting a precedent on how a cooperation between civilian, military and other international peacekeeping missions can work together to improve the security situation not only of a country, but of a region.

Para citar como referencia: Schreiber, Christian (2021), “How to improve peacekeeping missions in the future? Lessons learned from the EU’s peacekeeping missions in the G5 Sahel region”, Global Strategy Report, No 4/2021.

The G5 Sahel and the European Union

The Sahel region is the divisor line between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahara. It is a combination of desert and humid weather that stretches from Eastern to Western Africa, from Senegal and Mauritania to Ethiopia and Eritrea. The name Sahel derives from the Arab language and means “shore”. Historically, many trade routes used to cross the region, yet, in recent years, insecurity has risen, and it became an area of conflict.

As a consequence of the rise of insecurity, the G5 Sahel was created to combat these issues, and improve the quality of life for their population. The G5 Sahel is a group composed by five countries — namely Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad, created the 16th of February 2014, and its seat is located in Nouakchott, Mauritania — that decided to cooperate after an African Union initiative to address a wide variety of issues that permeate the mentioned countries, such as the fight against terrorism and organized crime, the necessity to create stronger institutions, address the issue of climate change and water distribution, and the lack of infrastructure, among others.

Additionally, their objectives are to guarantee security among the members, seek strategies to improve the living conditions of the population, promote democracy and regional and international cooperation, as well as promote regional development. Three years later, in 2017, the newly created group established the Joint Force G5 Sahel, supported by France and Germany, as result from UN resolution 2359 aimed to combat terrorism in the Sahel.

As already mentioned before, security is one of the main issues the organization seeks to improve, therefore, the group started to cooperate with the European Union (EU) in 2016 — however, it is relevant to mention that the EU had already drafted a Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel in 2011, stating their concern about the security problems in the region, and they foresighted a cooperation for the future —, because it is in the interest of both to fight against terrorism, irregular migration, and illicit drug trafficking. This cooperation is of EU’s interest because the area is a transit zone for drugs coming from Latin America, and migration into Europe.

To briefly explain this, the motive that this region attracts this kind of illicit activity is because of the geographical location, as it is situated between the Western African coast, and Libya and Algeria. These two countries are the outgoing ports for migration and drugs to be smuggled into Europe. Furthermore, terrorist groups and criminal organizations take advantage of the political and social instability that pervades this area to expand, and to profit from mentioned illicit activities.

The historical background of the EU-G5 Sahel partnership goes back to the beginning of the decade of 2010, when the insecurity rose considerably in Mali, and became a hotspot for conflict in 2012 when a series of violent incidents took place due to the insurgency in Northern Mali. As a consequence, UN Resolution 2085 was drafted to highlight the security concerns, and exhorted UN members to aid Mali. The first country to offer its aid to ensure security was France through Operation Serval in 2013.

One year later, France expanded its security aid to the geographical region we know today as the G5 Sahel trough Operation Barkhane. In this operation, France deployed approximately 5,000 troops and equipment in the five countries. France’s incursion in the region to provide support in the matter of security was the precedent for the three EU-Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) peacekeeping missions, and marked the beginning of the partnership between both organizations, among them EUTM (European Union Training Mission) Mali, EUCAP (European Union Capacity Building Mission) Mali, and EUCAP Niger.

The purpose of this article is to present and explain the before mentioned peacekeeping missions, and extract the lessons that can be learned for future peacekeeping missions.

The Peacekeeping Missions

The EU has currently three peacekeeping missions active in the G5 Sahel region that train local police and military forces alike, as well as military capacity building,  state building, and fighting against terrorist groups and organized crime. The missions are the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM-Mali), and the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) in Mali and Niger.

Before continuing, it is pertinent to mention a brief timeline of how the battle fronts have been shifting due to the splitting and spreading of militant groups, either by local and international efforts, or by divergences between the groups. The first crisis happened in 2012 during a series of violent attacks by Tuareg militant groups that sought, and are still seeking, the independence for the Azawad region in Mali, hence the group is called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Since then, violence spread all around the region in different areas, constantly shifting the front of battle. The first spread arrived three years later in 2015 when the militants from Northern Mali relocated the central territory of the country.

Afterwards, the second time the front shifted was during 2016, but this time towards Niger, and was promoted by al-Qaeda related groups. The third spread happened two years later, after the merger of an al-Qaeda linked terrorist group called Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). This time the violent hotspots moved towards the frontier between Mali and Burkina Faso. It is considered that the fourth expansion of militant groups would try to reach the Western African coast. (Berger, 2019)

For context, JNIM is a merger “[…] between four terrorist organizations that pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Their ideology is Salafi-Jihadist oriented, and their objective is to establish a Salafi-Islamist state in the region. Moreover, they mainly operate in Mali but also have a presence in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, and other surrounding countries.” After the merging, a wave of violence erupted in Mali and Burkina Faso.

To exemplify better the shifts and the impact on terrorist attacks, I used the Global Terrorism Database 2019 (GTD) to create a graph with all terrorist attacks from 2008 to 2018 in the G5 Sahel countries (Figure 1), as well as to create a map showing the location of attacks in the years the spreading happened (Figure 2).

To begin with, Figure 1 shows a clear rise of terrorist attacks in 2012, when the Northern Mali crisis first started, while, In the meantime, the other countries do not seem affected by the crisis. Despite this, the violence continued increasing in Mali, along with local and international efforts to disperse it.

However, it was during the first spread in 2015 that the rest of the G5 Sahel countries noticed an increase in terrorist attacks, and this is best seen in Figure 2. In the map we can see that the amount of attacks considerably increased in Central Mali, as well as a surge of terrorist activity between Niger and Chad, and most probably also in that area of Nigeria[1]. Nevertheless, the spreading in 2016 appeared to be effective as the attacks decreased that year.

It was not until two years later, in 2017, that JNIM was created and the attacks rose drastically again in all countries (Figure 1), and continued with a heavy presence in Central Mali (Figure 2).

In spite of all the efforts, the last update of the GTD suggests that in 2018 violence is on the rise, and does not seem to show a trend downwards. In fact, Mali and Burkina Faso experienced their most violent year in 2018, with a new hotspot of terrorist activity in Burkina Faso, as well as Central Mali still being under heavy attacks, just as Berger (2019) stated.

As we can see, the violence that started in 2012 has only increased, and required a stronger EU intervention to stabilize the Sahel, hence the peacekeeping missions that are active today. The shifting also demonstrates how easily can violent and militant groups adapt to new circumstances, meaning that the defense requires to be dynamic as well.


The European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) entered into force in 2013, with the first soldiers arriving at the beginning of February of the same year.  Since then, “[…] twenty-five European countries have maintained a presence in Mali, training their soldiers and performing patrols.” Its main objective is to “strengthen the capabilities of the Malian Armed Forces, with the ultimate result being self-sustaining armed forces capable of contributing to the defense of their population and territory.”

The way the mission is doing this is by training and give give advice to the Malian Military Units, contribute with military education, and train the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

The mission is mainly deployed in Southern and Central Mali, and has been extended four times, each by approximately two years. The first mandate in 2013 established the mission, the second one in 2014 only extended it without further variations, but it was on the third mandate in 2016 that the mission expanded its zone of operation, and commenced to support the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The last mandate was in 2018 and was deemed to end on May 18, 2020. Additionally, the partnership between the EU and the G5 Sahel was reaffirmed in a joint declaration in April 2020, inferring that the missions will remain active for the time being.


Along with the EUTM Mali, the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) plays another role in Mali and in the G5 Sahel overall since it entered into force in 2014. First and foremost, this missions is entirely civilian, meaning that it is directed towards the police, and state building and governance.

The mission has four key objectives, being (1) to improve the operational efficiency, (2) to reestablish the respective government hierarchical system, (3) to reinforce the role of administrative and judicial authorities in the matter of public administration on one side, and on the other, to control their own missions, and (4) to regain control of the Northern Mali.

To achieve this, the mandate established a line of operation in strategic advisory, in the training and formation of the police authorities, coordination with the other peacekeeping missions like MINUSMA and EUTM Mali so that each can perform their task more effectively, and create a regional coordination with the G5 Sahel, i.e. regionalization of the mandate so that it applies to the rest of the countries as well.


Niger is the last exit point of the G5 Sahel in which drug and human trafficking transits before entering either Algeria or Libya to continue their journey into Europe. For this reason, it can be understood why the European Union has an interest in having a presence in this area. The EUCAP Niger is very similar to EUCAP Mali — launched in 2012 per request of Niger’s government —, in the sense that it is also a civilian mission, with the difference that it comprises a wider range of topics. Its main objectives are to strengthen Niger’s security sector in terms of interoperability against terrorism and organized crime, and to better control migration, as well as providing with training to local authorities so the objectives can be sustained in the long term.

What can we learn from the missions?

At the end the question remains: has it been successful or has it at least helped in something? The answer is difficult to measure, as it requires many factors to be analyzed, and even then it would not result in a conclusive answer because there will always be a lack of information. What is important to mention is that these peacekeeping missions have certainly helped to create a precedent on how a cooperation between civilian, military and other international peacekeeping missions can work together to improve the security situation not only of a country, but of a region.

In addition, there is the sentiment that the Sahel mission has “[…] become for the EU an area of experimentation for the implementation of its integrated approach.” This approach “[…] based on the idea that security, development and governance are essentially intertwined“, as the missions are from a multidisciplinary nature.

We can at least identify two key lessons: the first one is the adaptability and flexibility of the missions, and the second one is the comprehensive scope of having two different types of missions, a civilian and a military one, operating in the same area in synchrony with a multidisciplinary approach.

To briefly remember, the main goals of these peacekeeping missions are to provide with training and state building to local authorities so that in the long term they would be able to sustain themselves, and secondly to stabilize and pacify the region in the meantime for the long term as well.

This has prompted an evolution of the mandates over the years. Like stated before, the European help started with Operation Serval in Mali, and evolved into what we see today, the EU participating at different levels in peacekeeping. This is the flexibility and adaptation they had to develop in order to meet the new scenarios they are presented because, as Berger stated, there is a constant shift of violence in the region.

This adaptability was thanks to the regionalization of the EU’s efforts, i.e. expanding their missions to not only apply to singular countries, but to an entire group of countries as well.

Moreover and in respect of the second point, the multidisciplinary nature of the missions help to fight at different fronts in a metaphorical sense. In other words, the military and civilian missions are approaching the same problem from different angles at the same time, as EUCAP focuses itself on state building, police training, and governance, as explained in the last chapter, while EUTM trains the military to combat terrorism and organized crime, as is the case of their support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force, while providing assistance in pacifying the region through the use of force.

As Bernardo Venturi wrote, “[t]hese new activities reveal a prominent focus on pragmatism and a functional approach, with their normative commitments related to human rights, good governance, inclusiveness and gender equality relegated to the background.” This way, the EU is essentially training local authorities to build an effective governance and response team that meets their security needs, so that they are self sustainable in the future.

What is interesting are the short and long term efforts working together to develop a comprehensive approach on State building, rather than only sending military forces to oversee the situation, and perhaps help the local community as a third party observer. Here, the missions are interacting with the locals.

Nevertheless, this plan can have potential weak spots. Because both missions are planned to work together to achieve a common goal, if one has a shortcoming, it can potentially slow down or hurt the advancements of the other. For instance, Venturi  points out a weak spot, namely that the indicators to determine whether the mission and its tasks have been effective or not, as he found out that in some case they had a weak performance in their monitoring and evaluation, meaning that the effect could not be accurately measured at all. This can slow down the pace in which the mission is going, and certainly put more stress on the other.

Seen this way, the military mission is covering the short term objective of pacifying the region, while in the long term training a military force. Yet, if the civilian mission on state building is either slow or not effective, the military mission would have to remain at the frontlines in the former case, and on the latter, the government would not be able to successfully control its territory with their newly trained armed forces.


The European Union has several motives to be preoccupied for the rise of violence in the G5 Sahel region, and it has been a concern since 2011. Therefore, the cooperation with the G5 Sahel does not only benefit the EU to stop drug and human trafficking, but the Sahel as well, as both organizations have the same objectives in common: end with terrorist and criminal activity, and bring peace and strong institutions to the region to achieve a lasting peace.

The approach the EU is taking is an interesting one, as it is not only providing military training and support on the frontlines, but civilian as well, i.e. police training, and state building. This strategy has the goal to make the region self sustainable in the future without the need of external forces intervening. The multidisciplinary approach is what can be learnt and used for future peacekeeping missions around the world, in order to make them even more comprehensive and well grounded, as well as having a direct participation in the conflict.

The second important factor is the rapidness and flexibility the mandates change in order to adapt to the new scenarios they are confronted with.

In spite of the possible challenges and shortcomings, it is not entirely possible to assure quantitatively if there has been an impact on decreasing terrorist activity or not. As seen in Figure 1, in 2012 Mali experienced a rise on terrorist attacks due to the rebellion in the north, despite Operation Serval being approved for 2012 and EUTM Mali one year later. Furthermore, an interesting decline in terrorist attacks, perhaps as a result of the ongoing efforts of the peacekeeping missions to split the insurgencies, happened in 2016 when the G5 Sahel cooperated as a group with the EU.

However, the situation has not been improving since then, and all countries are facing a rise of violence, particularly as seen in 2017 when JNIM was created along with the G5 Sahel Joint Force. What is important to have in account is that how would it have been in terms of violence, if the peacekeeping mission never were never implemented. It will be interesting to monitor the impact the joint force will have to reduce the violence in the future.

What can be said with accuracy is that the region is transcending into one of their most difficult epochs, and it is only through local and international cooperation that the situation can improve, hence the importance of all peacekeeping missions.

[1] It is not shown in the map because Nigeria is not part of he G5 Sahel.

Editado por: Global Strategy. Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN 2695-8937

Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber graduated from the B.A. in International Relations at Tec. de Monterrey Mexico City and has a Master’s Degree in Peace and Security Studies by the University of Hamburg. He specializes in asymmetrical warfare and emerging technologies.

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Christian Schreiber