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Niger: A German foreign policy miscalculation?

August 7, 2023

The military coup in Niger is another setback for security in the Sahel region, also scuppering German government plans for the redeployment of armed forces and for development cooperation.

German soldiers and armored vehicles in Niger
Germany's Bundeswehr soldiers have been training Niger's armyImage: Carsten Hoffmann/dpa/picture alliance

After officers of the Presidential Guard in Niger ousted the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was quick to assure her Nigerien counterpart Hassoumi Massoudou of Germany's "full support" for democratic development in the West African country.

Since then, the Nigerien army has backed the coup, dashing the German government's hopes that Niger's democratic government could be an anchor of stability in the Sahel region. Since the end of July, most German nationals have left the country before the airspace was closed in early August.

Late last year, the European Union decided on the three-year military mission EUMPM for Niger. Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, is also involved in the mission, which is intended to combat terrorism in the Sahel.

Niger coup leaves EU partners 'very concerned'

Sahel region: Germany's special interest

In April 2023, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Development Minister Svenja Schulze visited Niger and neighboring Mali. The trip was timed ahead of the final extension of the Bundeswehr mandate for the UN mission MINUSMA in Mali and ahead of the start of the Bundeswehr participation in the EU military mission EUMPM in Niger.

"The focus of our future military engagement in the Sahel will be in Niger," Pistorius said at the time. Security in the Sahel region is in Germany's particular interest, he added.

But now it seems that the strategy of using Niger as an operational base for EU and UN missions was miscalculated. "It was an illusion," Ulf Laessing, Sahel office manager at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) in Mali's capital Bamako told DW. The KAS is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Germany's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

Laessing just returned from Niger last week. "The European Union, the US and nongovernmental organizations have started to expand. The hotels were fully booked," he says, but many aid programs are yet to be launched and it would take several years for their impact to be felt.

The European leaders, Laessing says, wrongly assumed that Niger is now more stable. "Actually, the state is even weaker than in Mali. In this respect, it was unrealistic to expect that Niger could be an anchor of stability," according to Laessing.

Boris Pistorius and Svenja Schulze talking to Bundeswehr soldier in Niamey
During a visit to Niger and Mali in April 2023, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that security in the Sahel region is in Germany's particular interestImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

One of the poorest countries in the world, Niger has seen four coups and countless attempts to take power since gaining independence from France in 1960. Bazoum's government came to power two years ago following democratic elections and the first peaceful transfer of power. Germany then pledged €120 million ($131 million) in development for a two-year time period.

In May 2023, the Bundestag decided that up to 60 soldiers should advise Niger's military and help with training. According to the Bundeswehr, a total of 100 soldiers are currently stationed in the capital Niamey.

At the airport there, the Bundeswehr has also been operating a logistics hub for the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA in neighboring Mali for ten years.

Bundeswehr's Mali withdrawal threatened by military coup?

Around 1,100 German soldiers are still stationed in Mali. Most of them near the northern city of Gao, where their main mission is to collect reconnaissance data for the ongoing UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA.

The MINUSMA mission was hampered by constant conflicts with Mali's ruling military junta and the increasing presence of Russian mercenaries, so Germany decided last November to withdraw its troops from Mali by May 2024.

"Although we are ending our military engagement with MINUSMA, we will remain engaged in the region," said Pistorius during his visit to the region in April.

Now the Niger coup could possibly jeopardize the withdrawal of soldiers from Mali, which was supposed to be handled via the base at the airport in Niamey. "You can't just drive a truck through Mali or Burkina Faso. It's too dangerous," Laessing explained. "That's why it was planned that everything would go through Niger."

The Bundeswehr hopes that authorities in Niger will still cooperate and the withdrawal will be able to go ahead.

"To what extent this could affect the transport of personnel and materiel by the German MINUSMA mission contingent is not yet foreseeable," a Bundeswehr Operations Command spokesperson told DW. "Of course, that depends on how long the current situation lasts, how it goes on."

More realism in cooperation and development aid

The Sahel director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation says the coup in Niger should be seen as an opportunity to plan future military cooperation and development cooperation more realistically.

"Sometimes less is more. In Niger, people wanted too much at once," says Ulf Laessing. "And if a lot is announced, then the population asks itself, where are the results? But the population hasn't really seen anything yet. Development cooperation or military cooperation was only just beginning. Maybe we should keep our expectations low from the start."

This article was originally written in German.

It was first published on July 28, 2023, and updated with new developments on August 7, 2023.

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