Chancellor Angela Merkel is the first German head of government to travel to Mali. Niger and Ethiopia are also on the itinerary of her three-day tour, starting this weekend.
In a shock reminder of the volatility of the region, 22 soldiers were killed by suspected jihadists in Niger on Thursday. The attack was mounted against a camp housing Malian refugees who had fled Islamist militants in their home country.
In the run-up to this visit, the German leader stressed that the stability of the European Union was dependent on the pace of African development. Much more development aid was needed, a new development policy was essential, investment in the continent had to be stepped up and more emphasis placed on good governance, Merkel said. She was delivering a speech to the Federal Association of German Wholesalers and Exporters in Berlin. "In concrete terms, we will have to focus on Africa in a new and different way," the German chancellor said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Mali and Niger in May of this year. Both countries are points of transit for numerous refugees from other West African states seeking to reach Europe. Both Niger and Mali face the challenge of international terrorism. Terror networks, such as al Qaeda, finance their activities with revenue from kidnappings and drug smuggling in the Sahara. After the military coup in Mali in 2012, hundreds of thousands fled their homes because of the political instability, the lack of security and inadequate access to food and drinking water. In neighboring Niger, terrorists from Boko Haram, the militant group based in neighboring Nigeria, have been active, leading to a worsening of security in that country as well.
'Desire to migrate'
Denis Tull from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs told DW that migration from Africa across the Mediterranean was a subject of huge importance to Germany. "In countries such as Mali or Senegal, migration is routine, a sociocultural norm that is a part of one's identity and of growing up," he said. It is something that could only be stopped with great difficulty. The differences between the Sahel and Europe are so vast that the desire to migrate will never disappear," he said. Development aid won't lead to the eradication of migration. The best that can be achieved could be the intensification of existing cooperation between nation states.
This would appear to be what Angela Merkel has in mind. She wants to expand existing development projects, support infrastructure initiatives, training and job creation, according to a statement from the Chancellor's office. She will not be accompanied by a trade delegation. "As long as we have no economic interests [in Mali], we will be looking for another type of cooperation. The trade volume with Mali is very small," Merkel said. German military engagement could help stabilize the Sahel, Tull said. Germany intends to erect its own military base in Niger, which would offer support to MINUSMA, the UN military mission in Mali. German troops are already participating in MINUSMA and in the European Union's military training mission to Mali (EUTM). Merkel will be holding a meeting with German troops at the airport of the Malian capital, Bamako.
"The expansion of German military engagement in the Sahel is a step forward for Germany as it seeks to position itself anew in Africa," said Oswald Padonou from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. He is based at the German think tank's regional bureau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he runs programs on security and governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Germany has stayed on the sidelines for a very long time. But as Europe's leading economic power, with aspirations of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it can't afford such reticence any longer. "Germany must have the capability to state its position on global political issues, especially in Africa, where security issues are so important," Padonou said.
The last leg of Merkel's tour is Ethiopia. This is a country which has drawn severe criticism because of its human rights abuses. In Addis Ababa, Merkel will open a new African Union complex built with German funding. She also wants to get an impression of the situation in the country for herself by talking to government officials and civil society representatives.
At a demonstration by Ethiopian expatriates in the German capital, Berlin, one of the participants appealed to the Chancellor to take his message of protest to Ethiopia and put pressure on the government there. "People are dying there every day. But they are fighting back, with demonstrations and barricades. The days in which people would simply let themselves be shot are now over," he said. This is something that Europe should understand. "The Ethiopian regime can't be propped up any longer."
Yilma Haile Michael Hinz and Sandrine Blanchard contributed to this report