The establishment of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel - FC-G5S) made intuitive sense as a cross-border solution to a shared problem when it was announced in February 2017. The Sahelian G5 nations (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) are blighted by insecurity and Islamist militancy. Their collective counter-terrorism military command was endorsed by two UN Security Council resolutions as well as pledges by bilateral donors. The FC-G5S faces formidable obstacles, however, and risks degrading the situation further by ramping up its operations.

The force faces a dizzyingly complex landscape of competing non-state actors, who have formed their own alliances. Pro-government militias in Mali and Niger augment stretched local forces, but are prone to violent feuding. They tend to represent local ethnic groups, and their armed clashes and shifting allegiances compound tensions between communities. Meanwhile, proliferating Islamist groups targeted by the FC-G5S have been spurred into cooperation by the increasing military threat. A month after the G5’s announcement, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Mali united as the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), while the self-described Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has other organisations in its orbit. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project recorded a sharp rise in fatalities and violence in the months after the formation of JNIM. Increasing insecurity has prompted local communities to form vigilante militias, such as the Koglweogo in Burkina Faso.

Despite international support, the FC-G5S is not the only, or even the largest, military command in the region. In addition to the UN’s stabilisation force in Mali and the Nigerian-led multinational deployment against Boko Haram on the Nigerien-Chadian border, the militaries of the US several European nations operate across the region. Since 2013, France has the largest presence, as it aims to prevent further terrorist attacks and migration crises at the source. France’s Mali-based Operation Barkhane already has more troops deployed than the five nations have committed to date. EU member states and the US welcomed and funded the FC-G5S, hoping that building indigenous counterterrorism capabilities would offer an eventual exit strategy. With the G5 already contributing to overlapping military initiatives, however, overextension and strategic incoherence could reduce the force’s effectiveness.   

More fundamentally, the FC-G5S risks further entrenching conflict in the region. The initiative to date is a narrow military solution for more deep-rooted economic, social and political problems. Poverty, ethnic division and poor employment opportunities undermine the authorities’ legitimacy, offering armed groups opportunities to exploit local grievances and recruit from marginalised communities. The G5 nations’ security sectors remain unreformed, and a lack of accountability breeds disillusionment in countries where the army holds significant political power. Burkina Faso’s military has reportedly employed heavy-handed tactics against local populations in the north in recent years. The FC-G5S will need to avoid accusations of abuse; similar charges have tarnished the Nigerian army and driven recruitment to Boko Haram.

Regional cooperation against groups that operate across borders is a welcome step in principle, but the FC-G5S appears to entrench the militarisation of the Sahel. The introduction of another force to a complex environment is unlikely to lower security risks in the medium term.