Security and Stability in the Sahel: The EU’s 2021 Integrated Strategy

27 May 2021 – Written by Joey Gurney

The Sahel is facing increasing instability. Violence has plagued the area for nearly a decade and, despite long term involvement from France and the European Union, it has continued to escalate. This is particularly true in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where violence has sharply increased over the last twelve to eighteen months. Furthermore, the Sahel region continues to experience severe and erratic weather caused by climate change, which has led to tens of millions of people being displaced, violations of human rights and growing political instability.

The Sahel is of strategic significance for the EU due to its location in North Africa, as Europe aims to contain the numbers of migrants from the continent, while the presence of jihadist groups in the region is a serious security concern for EU Member States. Moreover as Katherine Pye, an EU-Africa analyst at Centre for European Reform has argued, the investment and attention the EU has provided to the Sahel represents an opportunity for Brussels to demonstrate its ability to act as a meaningful external actor, and to prove it can effectively manage instability in its own neighbourhood. The importance of the region to Europe has long been acknowledged by the EU, as the implementation of the 2011 Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, the 2015 Sahel Regional Action Plan and, more recently, the 2021 Integrated Strategy in the Sahel, demonstrate.

The EU’s 2011 strategy for the Sahel has been heavily criticised and is widely considered unsuccessful. The bulk of the criticism tends to take aim at the lack of involvement of Sahel civilians and civil society in the development of the EU’s plan for the region. Other analysts have highlighted how the strategy was designed without any political consideration of the Sahel, for it prioritised European short term security objectives in attempts to control African migration levels and prevent terrorism in the region from spreading to Europe. Consequently, Brussels has found themselves cooperating with corrupt regional leaders whom have a poor record on human rights, notably Chad’s recently deceased President Idriss Déby. Overall, the EU’s push for the ‘return of the state’, as detailed in the 2011 strategy, has not had the desired effect, and has even made matters worse in some areas of the Sahel.

There was also criticism of the 2015 action plan for failing to provide meaningful improvements on the main concerns associated with the 2011 strategy, despite some positive developments. However, some of the critics of the 2011 and 2015 Sahel strategies have been encouraged by the EU’s latest plan for the region and have welcomed several aspects of it, particularly the conditionality of economic support to partners in the Sahel, and the reflection within the strategy of a shift of the EU’s focus to the political consequence of European policy decisions within the region.

Highlighted in the new action plan, which was released April this year, is the EU’s intention to develop a closer and more ambitious partnership with the Sahel area. Also within the integrated strategy’s is a strong focus on governance, as the EU aims to place “greater emphasis on the political dimension”. By doing so, Brussels is demonstrating a more nuanced approach compared to previous plans while showing a stronger consideration of non-security implications of policy in the Sahel. Another important inclusion in the latest Sahel strategy is the attention given to accountability. The action plan details how “mutual accountability” will allow the EU to promote respect for human rights among Sahelian partners whom Brussels engages in political dialogue with. This indicates EU leaders have learnt from some of the failures of previous approaches to the Sahel, and highlights an appetite to move away from problematic ‘strong men’ as allies in the region. 

While these aspects of the EU’s latest plan for the Sahel represent a positive step towards a more effective Sahel strategy, there remains significant room for improvement. For instance, the 2021 plan does not do enough to address the drivers of violence and instability in the region. Moreover, the strategy neglects to include input from Sahelian civil society, and fails to provide substantial attention to the impact of climate change in the area. Both are vital components in tackling the causes of instability and therefore any revised version of the EU’s plan should consider the following two recommendations:


1.     Civil Engagement

Experts on the region, along with civil society groups, have long called for European leaders to ensure Sahelian citizens are central to the EU’s approach to the Sahel. While the EU’s 2021 plan does recognise the need for engagement with the people of the Sahel, it fails to include Sahelian voices in the development of the strategy. This is counterintuitive as, without meaningful involvement of the Sahelian people in EU policy decisions concerning the region, then EU intervention will fail to deliver lasting results in the Sahel. As Bram Dijkstra, a Senior Associate Policy Officer at Open Society European Policy Institute argues, Brussels must expand the conversation beyond Sahelian state representatives, and make greater effort to include the views of the citizens within the Sahel region. The EU must also be more vocal when it comes to democracy and human rights advocacy in the Sahel in order to achieve long term regional stability. Shifting the focus of the approach away from corrupt and antidemocratic leaders, and towards the Sahelian people, is an important step in doing so.


2.     Climate Change

The EU’s new strategy briefly mentions factors associated with the climate challenges within the Sahel. However, there is a lack of a clear focus within the 2021 approach on addressing the increasing hardships associated with climate change that the people in the region face. Assuring this is rectified, and climate change is brought to the forefront of the EU’s strategy is critical. The Sahel is heating up more quickly than any other region on the planet. Climate change continues to worsen hunger and malnutrition levels while increasing the Sahelian’s susceptibility to disease and intensifying the economic and security crises they face. Worryingly, a record 13.4 million people from Sahel countries Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have been forced to leave their homes because of unprecedented levels of flooding (major flooding in the area has increased 180% since 2015). Moreover, competition for natural resources in rural areas is being exacerbated by the severe weather conditions which has contributed to the rise of violence in the Sahel. Therefore, in light of the worsening climate and its impact on accelerating instability and violence in the Sahel, the EU must give greater prioritisation to climate-related crises in their approach to Sahel, and this should be clearly reflected in EU strategy. And, if European leaders want to achieve long term stability in the Sahel, they should begin by working multilaterally with partners in the region to strengthen local-level resilience to future climate shocks, and ensure protections for Sahelians who find themselves displaced because of the changing environment. 

The EU’s latest strategy for the Sahel does offer some encouragement. It demonstrates Brussels has recognised some of its failures in recent approaches to the region, and the emphasis on accountability is an important development. However, failure to address the drivers of instability, particularly the impact of climate change is having within the region, and without real engagement with Sahelian citizens, the European approach will continue to fall short of achieving long term stability in the Sahel. It is critical the EU amends the new integrated strategy to include recommendations in this paper (and others) that will help to rectify these failures. Fixing this is essential for, as the new European strategy touches on, a stable Sahel is not only vital for the people within the region, but it is key for the EU to be able fully benefit from they have described as a “win-win partnership” with the Sahel.

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Recommended citation:

Gurney, J. (2021) Security and Stability in the Sahel: The EU’s 2021 Integrated Strategy, IDRN, 27 May. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].