1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sahel: Navigating Germany's development cooperation

June 27, 2024

Faced with military-led governments across Africa's Sahel region, grassroots organizations and their partners in Germany are seeking new foundations for continued cooperation.

A Nigerien soldier drinks water from a water pipe in Niamey, Niger
Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are former colonies of France and are all ruled by military juntas following coupsImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Africa's Sahel region is considered a strategic location for Germany, which has long been a significant player in stabilization and development efforts in the largely francophone region.

Following military coups in the Sahel nations of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in recent years, the ruling juntas have expelled French forces and instead turned to Russia's mercenary units for security assistance. The putches have also shaken cooperation with Berlin.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have for over a decade battled an insurgency fought by armed groups, including some allied with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.

Germany was part of the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali, but its last contingent of troops left the country in December 2023.

Berlin shifted its focus to Niger after the situation escalated in Mali. In May 2023, German's Defense Minister Boris Pistorius referred to Niger as a "reliable partner." However, two months later, the military took over power in Niger as well.

Germany's commitment to the Sahel region

"These were not military coups, these were upheavals initiated by the population," Aminata Toure Barry, chairperson of the Malian Association for Family Welfare (AMASBIF), told German partners at a meeting in June. German organizations were surprised by her perspective on the events in her homeland of Mali. Activists from the Sahel countries themselves also protested against Toure's point of view.

Even independent development and human rights organizations find it difficult to continue as they did before the coups in the Sahel.

Marcel Maiga, who belongs to the steering committee of the German NGO network Focus Sahel, acknowledges that significant differences of opinion exist within civil society groups in the Sahel itself. But almost everyone is of the opinion that ties to international aid organizations should remain intact.

"There is still great interest on the Sahel side in Germany's engagement. And on the German side, despite all the difficulties, there is a desire to continue working with these countries," said Maiga.

Ulrich Thum from the Africa department of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), which has maintained an office in Mali's capital, Bamako, since the 1960s, confirmed that official German entities also want to remain present in the Sahel.

Explainer: What the German troop withdrawal from Mali means

However, Thum also emphasized that the situation, particularly in Mali, which is increasingly cooperating with Russia, is politically difficult. The FES surveys the mood there with its annual Mali Meter survey.

"There, one sees that on the one hand, there is quite high support for the government," said Thum, summarizing the latest results.

"At the same time, these surveys show that the greatest demand is for security in the country. These are indeed two trends that somewhat contradict each other." 

Perspectives on Mali: Governance, challenges and change

Barry sees no contradiction in this. The previously elected governments had simply not been able to solve the problems of the people.

"If partners like Germany do not want to work with Mali now, then they have not understood the problem," she lamented.

Ousmane Maiga from the Youth Association for Civic Engagement and Democracy (AJCAD) in Mali comes to a different conclusion.

"We are experiencing major setbacks in democracy and politics. The continuous postponement of free and transparent elections makes many dissatisfied, especially among us activists for civic engagement," Maiga told DW.

Although there are currently attempts to promote reconciliation and peaceful coexistence, Maiga acknowledged, the country's many problems did not require a coup to be solved.

Germany pledges to expand military cooperation with Niger

"This shows that change can be achieved without completely overturning the system," Maiga added, referring to the democratic transition in neighboring Senegal.

Empowering Sahel youth 

Their frustration and lack of prospects shape the situation in all Sahel countries. This is also the case in the Sahel nation of Chad, which ended a nearly three-year transitional phase after the sudden death of President Idriss Deby, who ruled for over 30 years after taking power by leading a coup in 1990. His officially confirmed successor was his 40-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno.

However, women's rights activist Epiphanie Dionrang pointed out that this does not change the dire situation facing Chad's young people.

"There are so many restrictions, especially for the youth," Dionrang said. "Then there is the hatred between ethnic groups. Young people are frustrated because they don't see any change."

This leads to radicalization, which is then suppressed in the worst ways, Dionrang emphasized.

How can German partners help in such a situation? Dionrang believes that constantly making new demands is not the answer.

"We must first start with ourselves," she said. Above all, the rule of law must be enforced so that laws, for example for the protection of women, are not only on paper and violations are punished.

"Partners could help us to end this impunity and enforce our rights as citizens," Dionrang said.

Building bridges: Grassroots Berlin-Sahel collaboration

All partners of the German network Focus Sahel agree that it is now more important than ever to listen to each other and take each other's needs seriously. Maiga, from the organization's steering committee, concurs. 

"At the grassroots level, different conclusions are reached," said Maiga. "There are sometimes different views. That is quite normal."

Nonetheless, collaboration can still improve people's lives. Maiga experiences this in his work within the city partnership between the eastern German city of Chemnitz and Timbuktu in central Mali. 

"We are currently working at a low level, but we can still implement projects with our partners that meet the needs of the people," said Maiga.

This article was adapted from German by Antonio Cascais.

Edited by: Keith Walker

While you're here: Every weekday, we host AfricaLink, a podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts

Germany pays a visit to Burkina Faso's military junta

Moesch Thomas Kommentarbild App
Thomas Mösch DW editor with a special focus on West Africa, security and resource policy