Two senior German ministers have been visiting West Africa. Taken together with ministerial discussions about Mali in Berlin, some analysts perceive a new German strategy for West Africa in the making.
Modern Germany has never had a policy on West Africa. That is the view of Professor Ulf Engel, African expert at the University of Leipzig. "There hasn't ever been any coherent policy towards individual countries in the region," he told DW. Separate German ministries or development aid organizations have been active in various West African countries, but, in some instances, they have even ended up in competition with one another, Engel added.
"I see the emergence of a specific German foreign policy on West Africa as unlikely as one on East Africa, " the professor said.
Yet on examining the flight routes taken by the German foreign and development ministers on their recent trips, one has the impression that West Africa is gaining in significance for the German government.
Dirk Niebel minister for economic cooperation and development flew to Cameroon on Sunday (28.10.12) and spent a whole week there in talks. During the same week Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle headed off to Mali and then on to Senegal and Nigeria, where he met his Nigerian counterpart Olugbengas Ashiru. Westerwelle's itinerary also included a visit to ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, where the 15 member countries are preparing for their military mission to Mali.
Military intervention in Mali
Mali may well be the reason for Germany's heightened interest in West Africa. Since April 2012, Mali has been in turmoil. In the north of the country, militant Islamists are intent on setting up an Islamic state. They took advantage of a power vacuum in the wake of military coup in the south to seize power together with Tuareg separatist rebels. The Islamists then expelled the separatists from the bigger cities. Along with drugs and arms smugglers, the Islamists now control two thirds of Mali.
After some delay, ECOWAS, the Malian government in Bamako and the UN Security Council are now calling for the deployment of military intervention force to liberate northern Mali.
Mali's neighbors are expected to have their plans for the force drawn up by mid-November. Their consultations were certainly on the agenda of Westerwelle's Nigerian visit, according to Cornelius Vogt from the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The purpose of the visit is to gauge the mood among the various regional players and then put across Germany's assessment of the situation," he said in an interview with DW. "The German view is that military intervention will only work if one is really prepared to help the Malian government," he added. The European Union is planning to give the Malian army logistical support and military training, but will not send in any troops to participate in the fighting.
Terrorism, drugs and kidnapping
As Mali's former colonial power, France, which still has strong political and economic ties with West Africa, is placing great emphasis on the need for military intervention. "One cannot say, that there are no German interests involved here," Vogt said. "The real danger is that a regime could become entrenched in northern Mali which provides sanctuary to terrorists from all over the world," he added. It is not only terrorists who are a threat to Germany and the rest of Europe. Drug smugglers and kidnappers also pose a risk. West Africa is increasingly turning into a hub for the trade in illicit drugs from South America. Kidnappings in the Sahel are a tangible hazard for German development aid workers who are trying to combat hunger and drought.
During his visit to Bamako, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle announced that Germany could take on the role of mediator in the Mali conflict. So far Germany has been reluctant to get politically involved in the region, apart from individual initiatives in support of democratization in Togo, a former German colony.
Kisma Gagou is an advisor to the Malian defense ministry. He believes Germany could play a bigger role in West Africa. "There is not the same old whiff of imperialism," he told DW. Development aid for West Africa from Germany had so far not been linked to political pressure or tied to business interests.
Focus on fragile states
Professor Engel says that even if Germany lacks a unified policy strategy for West Africa, cooperation on Africa between the various German ministries was now functioning better than in the past.
In 2011, the German government drew up a set of Africa-related proposals, the implementation of which the ministries would decide among themselves. Many of those proposals have yet to be put into practice. They include German government support for the more sustainable use of raw materials on the continent. There is little evidence of this happening Nigeria.
In Berlin, the ministerial task force on Mali is made up of representatives from the foreign, defense and development ministries. It is chaired by the German government's commissioner for Africa, Egon Kochanke, and is charged with drawing up a common strategy for all ministries involved.
This is the first time the German government has put into practice its blueprint to help fragile states, such as Mali, which are unable to protect themselves from terrorism and organized crime.
The ministries only approved the blueprint in September. "This document contains an interesting shift in emphasis," said Julian Junk, expert on security policy at the University of Frankfurt. "The ministries will be referring to the "added value" acquired for Germany when they help fragile states." Junk said he believed this signaled German government was intent on pursuing its interests in the foreign policy arena more vigorously than in the past.
Yet in spite of the foreign minister's West Africa trip, Junk fears that the German government's interest in Mali could be short-lived. As in the case of the Arab Spring and independence for South Sudan, grand gestures are unlikely to be followed up by long-term strategy and support. "An extra million euros in aid for Bamako is just a gesture on the part of the foreign minister," Junk says. "What is needed is a strategy for West Africa that is resolutely pursued over several years.