The UK has been redeploying diplomatic, defence and development capabilities towards the Sahel since 2018 – a strategic pivot intended to deliver development impact, address long term security threats to UK interests and support alliances with international partners.
The Sahel is one of Africa’s poorest and most fragile regions and has witnessed an escalation in jihadist activity, illegal migration and trafficking since a security crisis erupted in Mali in 2012.
The crisis spread to Niger and Burkina Faso and may now spill over into Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal. With Nigeria also facing insurgency in the Lake Chad basin, all major regional security and economic anchors in the region are under threat including key UK partners.
Reviewing the Sahel pivot
This pivot has already resulted in the expanding of UK embassies in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali and public commitments to opening new ones in Chad and Niger.
Back in London, there has also been a large uplift of staff including the setting up of a cross-Whitehall Joint Sahel Department in late 2018 and plans for more UK civil servants to have placements with the French government on the Sahel.
Yet in light of looming economic shocks from Brexit and Covid-19, there has been a lively debate in Whitehall on whether this is stretching UK resources too thin in an area of Africa that does not have close ties with the UK.
UK ministers are this week reviewing the Sahel pivot and will decide if it continues or grinds to a standstill including whether full embassies are opened in Niger and Chad.
This debate is not new. The UK has opened and closed its diplomatic missions in the Sahel in fits and starts since the early 1960s. More recently, MI6 pushed the re-opening of the embassy in Bamako in 2010 foreseeing Mali’s fragility before the current crisis started.
Partnering with the French
But though the Sahel is likely to dominate the Africa peace and security agenda for decades to come, the UK’s serious engagement in the region is not just about strategic foresight.
It also fulfils two other objectives: of partnership with two key bilateral allies, particularly France, and authority and leverage in multilateral fora such as the United Nations, African Union and the EU.
Partnering with the French in the Sahel has become even more important due to Brexit and the need to reinforce relationships with key European partners.
In 2012, David Cameron concluded that the rapid French response to stop a jihadist advance on the Malian capital Bamako was 'in our interests' and authorized the deployment of 330 UK military personnel, two cargo aircraft and a surveillance plane.
In July 2018, the UK announced further support to French led Opération Barkhane sending three Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters – supported by almost 100 personnel – which remain in theatre to this day.
Demonstrating the UK’s commitment to UN peacekeeping has also resulted in the deployment of 250 troops to join a UN peacekeeping mission to Mali later this year.
Based in Gao, these troops will form a long-range reconnaissance capability providing threat awareness, contributing to the protection of civilians and helping to prevent conflict from spilling over to neighbouring states.
This represents one of the biggest British peacekeeping deployments since Bosnia and it will be the most dangerous mission for British forces since Afghanistan.
The UK is also one of the largest humanitarian donors to the region and has contributed over £500 million in bilateral development and humanitarian assistance since 2015.
With COVID-19 now an additional challenge in the Sahel, a significant part of the UK’s £764 million contribution to the global COVID-19 effort will be channelled to the region.
New embassies are 'global Britain' strategy pillars
Keeping an eye on the impact of these initiatives requires a meaningful UK diplomatic network on the ground.
New embassies in the Sahel cost a fraction of maintaining three Chinook helicopters in the region providing the government real time insight in the post-Brexit absence of a regular supply of country analysis from the European External Action Service and support for the UK’s international relationships.
It also underlines the UK’s commitment to UN peacekeeping and standing as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in light of regular discussions of the Sahel.
The tripartite ministerial review of the Sahel pivot by the secretaries of state for foreign affairs, international development and defence that is underway should not penny pinch by reversing the opening of small embassies in Niger and Chad nor threaten the overall strategic focus on the Sahel – most recently welcomed by the House of Lord’s Select Committee on International Relations and Defence in its July report on UK Africa policy.
Instead, UK ministers should focus on better defining what the UK’s specific objectives are in the Sahel and particularly what the UK plans to do about Burkina Faso whose rapidly deteriorating security threatens to over-spill into key UK partner Ghana.
This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph.