Foreign news editor at daily Postimees, Martin Kutti writes in a comment for his paper why Estonia should continue to contribute to international efforts in Africa’s Sahel zone. Kutti accompanied Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) and Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) Gen. Riho Terras to Mali earlier in October.
In his opinion piece for Postimees (link in Estonian), Kutti calls the Sahel “one of the world’s forgotten corners” and describes the extreme poverty in the area as on a level that the average European couldn’t possibly imagine. It is also a hotbed for developments to occur in the near future that have the potential to significantly affect Europe as well.
Tuareg rebellion, coup, continued difficulties driving people away
The vast stretch of land across the African continent that is the transition zone from desert to a subtropical climate is called the Sahel, and includes five countries: Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger. Between these countries, international borders are but lines in the sand, with no authority enforcing government decisions or laws, and with little to no control over immigration and emigration.
As Kutti writes, several of these countries have recently managed to ever so slightly improve their position. Though Mali, where the French-led counterinsurgency operation Barkhane is stationed and where the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) have deployed troops as well, still faces plenty of difficulty.
Since the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country and a coup d’état that followed just months later, the country has struggled to find its way back to relative normalcy. President Amadou Toumani Touré as well as Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra were ousted, and in the north the Tuareg rebelled and declared the independent nation of Azawad. A French military intervention in 2013 helped the government to win back most of the territories in the north, and presidential elections that summer brought back some stability, with Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta taking over as head of state.
All of this begs the question why Estonia, a small country in Northeastern Europe, should be involved at all.
Efforts in Mali to be seen as part of European migration policy
The European Union has struggled with illegal immigration from Africa across the Mediterranean, recently peaking in the European refugee crisis. As people will always try to leave areas where they are doing badly or where they are in immediate danger, Mali with its €85 a month average income and ongoing conflicts is a typical emigration country, Kutti writes.
In summer 2018 alone, 1.5 million people in Mali needed rations in order not to starve. An estimated number of 200,000 people are living in conditions of outright slavery. The population is growing and getting younger, and according to forecasts expected from the current 19 million to 31.5 million by 2035. As Kutti argues in his comment, should the current desolate state of the country turn out to be permanent, Europe is looking at a ticking bomb, as Mali’s future generations will doubtlessly head north as well in search for a better life.
There is already a tendency that the start of migration routes has shifted from neighbouring Niger to Mali, Kutti points out.
Europe instrumental in stabilisation of whole Sahel region
Europe has all the more reason to be present in the Sahel as the recent billions sent into the area seem to have had little effect. It is in the interest of Europe’s countries to do something about the problems in the five countries of the area, seeing as they have recently become more urgent.
The clear objective in Mali is development, Kutti writes. Apart from military support, a lot of emphasis is put on building up a working state, without which the country’s descent into permanent chaos seems inevitable. Both of the EU’s current missions in the area, the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) as well as the EU capacity building mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali), are working to improve the country’s situation and avoid another collapse.
France’s 2013 intervention mission, Serval, was followed by the local issue of counterinsurgency mission Barkhane, also led by France. Barkhane is working to counteract the influence of islamist extremists as well as rebels in all five Sahel countries.
As Kutti writes, giving in to insurgents could light the fuse of a powder keg that has the potential to blow up the whole region. And if this happens, the consequences would be of a scale that would scare even the most ardent proponent of African immigration into Europe—which is why the continued Estonian contribution to European efforts in the Sahel makes sense.