G5 Sahel force licks wounds after HQ attack

by Selim SAHEB ETTABA
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Debris lies scattered in front of the headquarters of the G5 Sahel anti-terror force at Sevare in central Mali, after a sucide bomber tried to get on to the base on June 29

On June 29, a suicide attack shook the headquarters of the Sahel's five-nation anti-terror force, failing to inflict major damage but exposing the fragility of the much-trumpeted scheme.

Countries in the G5 Sahel -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger -- joined with France, the big international backer of the force, in vowing not to surrender to fear.

The attack killed three people, two of them soldiers, and wrecked the entrance to the base, located in the central Malian town of Sevare.

"Despite the striking visual damage, its impact was limited," France's military HQ said. "It did not affect the capacity and determination of the joint force."

But Nicolas Desgrais, a researcher on military cooperation in the Sahel at Britain's University of Kent, argued that the brazen attack delivered "a huge symbolic message."

"Even if it is not where the force's soldiers are based, it is the central command base, where operations are planned and carried out," he said.

The consequences for deployment of the force, launched last September. could be significant, Desgrais warned.

"How do you ask a partner for help when you can't even keep your own central command base safe?" said Desgrais, referring to G5 efforts to raise financial support.

- Assessment -

The main figures behind the G5 Sahel project have signalled the need for a cold-blooded evaluation.

"If the base was attacked, it means there are many failures we need to take care of," Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said on the day after the raid.

After an African Union summit in Nouakchott early in July, the force's military chief, Malian General Didier Dacko, and his Burkinabe deputy were replaced by a Mauritanian and a Chadian general.

Dacko's successor is General Hanena Ould Sidi, who ran military intelligence in Mauritania, a field where G5 has been found to be sorely lacking, the UN and experts say.

His deputy is Chadian general Oumar Bikimo, who led his country's forces to fight jihadists in Mali in 2013.

The reshuffle "shows the heads of state of the other G5 countries and the French president insisted on real changes being made", Desgrais told AFP.

But he said leaders also seem aware that they may have been over-ambitious in their initial plans.

In March, the G5 Sahel was supposed to have reached its full strength of 5,000 troops, pooled from the five Sahel nations.

But this goal is still 1,000 men short of being reached, and the group's few operations have had to rely heavily on French help and had little real impact against the jihadists.

"The will to deploy the force and ramp it up very quickly" did not match the limited capacity of African armies belonging to some of the world's poorest states, Desgrais said.

The G5 armies serve countries that are "relatively poor, which therefore don't have the technical means, our material means, our training," said General Bruno Guibert, commander of Operation Barkhane, France's military mission in the Sahel.

On Thursday, French Defence Minister Florence Parly arrived in Niger for talks with her Nigerien counterpart Kalla Moutari and President Mahamadou Issoufou about boosting the force's "operational dynamics."

She also met soldiers in Operation Barkhane and visited the central region command headquarters of the G5 force in Niamey.

- 'Human intelligence' -

The G5 Sahel initiative has raised pledges of 420 million euros ($490 million) at international donors' meetings, but the funds are slow to arrive.

French support is significant. Paris plans to provide Operation Barkhane with additional resources next year including helicopters, drones, missiles and tanks, according to the French defence ministry.

Saudi Arabia has promised 100 million euros to buy equipment for G5 Sahel from the French military industry, according to a source from the French ministry of the armed forces.

Beyond these geo-strategic questions, though, are the crucial issues of effectiveness on the ground.

Any human rights abuses, such as the arbitrary killing of 12 civilians in May by a G5 unit in central Mali -- which was denounced by the United Nations -- risk turning the population against it.

"Unfortunately, in all these regions, residents are increasingly hostages to the jihadists," said Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who heads the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

According to Desgrais, without the population's support, "you cannot have human intelligence, and you can hardly carry out operations in these areas without risking information being given to the groups you are trying to fight."

Debris lies scattered in front of the headquarters of the G5 Sahel anti-terror force at Sevare in central Mali, after a sucide bomber tried to get on to the base on June 29.

UN, French and African forces in the G5 Sahel region

A Malian army soldier attached to G5 Sahel on guard duty at the command post.