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Germany seeks new path in Sahel

April 13, 2022

Germany's top envoy Annalena Baerbock is visiting Bamako as Berlin prepares to decide whether to extend the Bundeswehr mission in Mali. France already said it would end its Barkhane and Takuba military operations.

German Foreign Ministers Annalena Baerbock in a flak jacket is accompanied by German troops in the Malian city of Gao
German Foreign Ministers Annalena Baerbock visits German troops in MaliImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

After visiting Mali on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's second stop on her visit to West Africa takes her to Niger on Wednesday. The tour comes as both states face crises of instability and terrorist activity.

On the minister's agenda are government talks in the capitals of Bamako and Niamey, as well as visits to soldiers of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM).

The main topic of the talks is whether the deployment of German troops in Mali will be continued as part of these missions.

About 300 German soldiers participate in the EUTM in Mali. In addition, around 1,000 soldiers are stationed in the country as part of MINUSMA. Both mandates expire in the coming weeks if the Bundestag does not choose to extend them.

In recent months, the relations between the military junta in Mali, which took power in a coup in 2020, and the European Union have noticeably deteriorated, largely because of the repeatedly delayed elections in the country, and the cooperation of the Malian rulers with Russian mercenaries and military advisers.

"The government in Bamako has lost a great deal of international trust in recent months, not least by delaying the democratic transition and by intensifying military cooperation with Moscow," Baerbock said shortly before her departure for Bamako. "To simply say 'keep it up' would be wrong in my view."

Withdrawal from Mali?

In mid-March, France had already announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali, ending its Barkhane and Takuba anti-terrorist operations.

In Germany, fierce debates continue about whether it makes sense to continue the MINUSMA blue helmet mission in Mali in Germany, which has been in place since 2013, and the EUTM, of which the German Bundeswehr is part.

"It is certainly legitimate to discuss how long we want to stay in Mali, whether our instruments are working and where we can improve," says Ulf Laessing, Sahel expert at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's office in Bamako.

"But I would warn against abruptly getting out and withdrawing, as we did in Afghanistan," Laessing told DW.

"A withdrawal would only worsen the security situation in Mali and play into Russia's hands."

German Foreign Minister Baerbock sits in the cockpit of a German Airbus A400 and talks to a German soldier in Bamako, Mali
Annalena Bearbock is seeking to chart a new path for the Bundeswehr in MaliImage: picture alliance/dpa

Russian mercenaries in Mali

Despite such concerns, the European Union halted parts of the EUTM on Monday. After a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, EU High Representative Josep Borrell said units of Mali's armed forces and the National Guard would be affected by the stoppage.

"There are no sufficient security guarantees from the Malian authorities for non-interference by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group," Borrell said, referring to the Putin-linked private military company summoned by the Malian military junta.

Germany's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht defended the EU's decision, which she called "consistent and correct."

"In view of human rights violations by the Malian troops and Russian forces, possibly even mercenaries, one must ask oneself who we are actually training," she said.

Repercussions of the Ukraine war

But it is not only terrorist groups that threaten to further destabilize the region. The war in Ukraine, more than 4,500 km (2796 miles) away, could also have serious repercussions in West Africa.

The reason is an imminent halt in the supply of wheat flour. Baerbock announced that she would pay particular attention to the food supply problems during her visit to the Sahel region.

"The Russian regime's war of aggression in Ukraine has consequences that extend far beyond the region," she said. Ukraine has until now functioned as a granary for the world, ranking as the world's fifth largest exporter of wheat.

"As part of our G7 presidency, we have therefore made the issue of food security one of our top priorities," the minister said.

In many other countries of the world, which are already struggling with terror or the climate crisis, a lack of food security is now an existential question.

"The Sahel region is a sad example of this," Baerbock said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock talks to  local women, representatives of civil society who are clad in colourful traditional clothing
Germany's top envoy Annalena Baerbock wants to strengthen Mali's civil society Image: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

From Mali to Niger

What happens next in the international fight against terrorism in the Sahel? Europeans do not want to withdraw entirely from the strategically important region.

France has already said that the center of future military operations in the Sahel will be moved to neighboring Niger, directly into the border area with Burkina Faso.

There are now discussions about transferring the Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in Mali to Niger.

The German troops already have a logistical hub in that country. The Niamey air transport base is part of the MINUSMA mission and ensures a large part of the logistical supply for the German forces in Mali.

The possibility of transferring German soldiers to Niger is likely to be the main topic of the German foreign minister's talks with Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum.

Rooting out terror

"In the fight against terrorism, it is not enough to move foreign troops to a country or to deliver attack helicopters," sai Nigerian essayist Seidick Abba. "Above all, you have to go to the roots of the problem and dry out the breeding ground of terrorism."

In an interview with DW, Abba emphasized that frustration is also growing in Nigerian civil society because the international military presence has obviously not improved security.

"The fight cannot only be fought by the military. There is also a need for investment in improving people's living conditions and prospects, for example in the vocational training of young people," Abba added. A country like Germany could play a significant role in such training.

Sandrine Blanchard and Dirke Köpp contributed to this article.

This article was translated from German.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu