TUNIS - Mauritania, a poor but relatively stable and secure country in West Africa, has assumed the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel alliance at a time the region struggles with the rapid expansion of jihadist groups.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani assumed leadership of the five-country military alliance at the end of a summit, taking over from Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore.
Burkina Faso is among countries in the region that have suffered jihadist attacks in recent years, which experts fear could seep into Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Guinea.
UN figures indicate the jihadist attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso killed 4,000 people in 2019. The attacks also caused the displacement of more than 770,000 people, including 20,000 schoolchildren, Burkinabe authorities said.
Jihadist groups in the Sahel have taken advantage of the absence of an international strategy towards the Libyan crisis but also by regional and internal factors, including expansion of extremist groups in countries beset with communal conflicts, climate change and poverty, experts said.
The spread of Islamic extremism has overwhelmed Mali, where President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita made the unprecedented move of engaging in dialogue with the jihadists.
“The death toll today is exponential that I believe it is time to explore other ways,” said Keita, citing Algeria’s talks with Islamists that ended a civil war in the early 2000s.
There is a large foreign military presence in Mali, including France’s biggest foreign military mission.
The main security threat in Burkina Faso is Ansarul Islam, linked to the Macina Liberation Front, also known as Katibat Macina. That group has ties to Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, an alliance of Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Mourabitoun, which competes with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Ould Ghazouani outlined a strategy to allow G5 countries to more closely cooperate in combating jihadist threats. A former army general and defence minister, Ould Ghazouani is well-positioned to take on the leadership of the G5, which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, analysts said.
“The takeover by President Ould Ghazouani of the leadership of the G5 at this crucial juncture is a source of confidence, optimism and hope for the peoples of the region and their leaders,” said Mauritanian security expert Mohamed Yahya Ould Ahmednah. “The president has a long experience and deep understanding of the intricacies of the game on the Sahel.
“He is able to resolve the pending conflicts without making noise as he has the ability to build bridges between the alliance members and cement an agenda that rallies their support and the backing of foreign powers with influence in the region.”
“He has the vision to mobilise the common efforts towards the same target to restore security without neglecting economic and social development,” Ould Ahmednah added.
He cited Ould Ghazouani’s ties with France, which has the biggest military presence in the Sahel; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which provide funding for the fight against jihadism; and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who expressed solidarity with “our brothers in the Sahel.”
Ould Ghazouani said he hopes to see the deployment of “regional military forces comprising light and mobile units that know very well the ground of their operations.”
“Insecurity in the Sahel region is aggravating an already fragile climate in the region,” Ould Ghazouani said. “The situation of the region requires larger cooperation.”
“Libya’s conflict caused more deterioration to the situation in the Sahel through the smuggling of weapons and drugs trafficking,” he added.
UAE Minister of State Ahmed Ali al-Sayegh lent support to Ould Ghazouani, saying “Mauritania’s presidency... will bring about more success to the grouping.”
Sayegh, chairman of Abu Dhabi Global Market, attended the first General Assembly of the Sahel Alliance in Mauritania February 26. That alliance includes Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries backing the fight against jihadism by financing economic development.
“The urgency now is not more mobilising funds,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who led the meeting after the G5 secured more than $12 billion in funding from the World Bank and other institutions. “It is to achieve development projects in the region,” he said.
The G5 also secured military support for the first time from the African Union, which plans to deploy 15,000 soldiers in the Sahel.
“We urgently need to score victories against terrorism in the Sahel,” said African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also spoken of the need for urgent action, saying “we are not in the midst of winning the war in the Sahel.”
Niger’s troops killed 120 jihadists on February 1 in joint operations with French forces in the Tillaberi area. The French military killed more than 50 jihadists in central Mali where the Macina group is present.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.