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Should Germany expand strategic partnerships in the Sahel?

Nikolas Fischer
January 25, 2024

Africa's Sahel region has presented Germany with unexpected challenges as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso become military regimes. Why should Berlin continue ist involvement, and what are its strategic options?

Boris Pistorius, Svenja Schulze, Bundeswehr soldiers and a Bundeswehr plane in Gao
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Development Aid Minister Svenja Schulze traveled to the Sahel region in April 2023Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

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

Germany in July 2023 took over the rotating one-year presidency of the Sahel Alliance, a key development body for the region.

The alliance was founded in 2017 to assist Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — collectively known as the G5 Sahel Group — in their struggle against poverty and terrorism.  

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock last year pointed out the region's significance to Berlin when she said that, "Whether we like it or not, whatever happens in the Sahel is of great importance to us all."

Two German soldiers are seen taking the German flag down from a flagpole at a military installation in Mali's Gao
Germany's last contingent of MINUSMA peacekeeping troops in Mali left the country in December 2023Image: Nana Ehlers/Bundeswehr/dpa/picture alliance

Mali: Russia's new focus in the Sahel

Germany needs to counterbalance Russia's growing influence in the Sahel region, however.

For example, Mali's military regime, which since seizing power in a May 2021 coup, has increasingly turned to Moscow for aid and cooperation instead of relying on European partners such as Germany.

Russian Wagner mercenaries are seen standing side by side with the Malian military, fighting against Islamists and separatists in the West African country.

Against this backdrop, Mali's junta forced former colonial power France to leave Mali , along with the entire staff of the UN's MINUSMA peacekeeping mission.

And at the end of 2023, the last few remaining German Bundeswehr soldiers returned home after more than 10 years in Mali.

Niger: Another failed project?

Following the escalation in Mali, Germany turned its focus to working with a new partner in the Sahel region — Niger.

In May 2023, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius referred to Niger as a "reliable partner" — words that he was soon toregret, as two months later, the military took over power there as well.

Niger: Sanctions, insecurity hamper aid efforts — UN

In response to the unexpected developments, Germany, alongside other Western powers, froze its aid payments to Niger.

In December, Niger's junta announced that the EU's military as well as civilian mission to the country was to end.

The same day, junta leader Abdourahamane Tiani welcomed Russian military partners to chart the path toward future cooperation.

Germany shifts focus in the Sahel

"Europe's initial security strategy in the Sahel has failed," Malte Lierl, a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg, told DW.

However, Lierl stressed that the current situation is not one of total withdrawal but rather a new orientation of Europe's engagement in the region.

One way of establishing that new direction could be by shifting the focus away from cooperating with governments and instead serving people directly, said Julian Bergmann, an expert on EU-Africa relations at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) in Bonn.

Picture of Julian Bergmann, expert in EU-Africa relations at IDOS
Julian Bergmann thinks Germany will have to flex its soft power in the Sahel as it did in the pastImage: Julian Bergmann

Bergmann told DW that since the 1960s, this had been the primary modus operandi of Germany's development cooperation in the Sahel region and beyond, with an emphasis on dealing with local and civil society actors.

According to Bergmann, there's plenty of leeway to continue this method of engagement with the region. He cited aid projects serving the aim of job creation in agriculture, construction and infrastructure as a prime tool of this kind of policy to establish informal social security networks that serve the needs of the people.

"We already have partners we work with in this manner in the region, and we also know how to step up those relationships," Bergmann said.

Maintaining pragmatic ties with governments

Lierl added that Germany's more recent policy had relied "too much on partnerships with the kinds of governments that did not enjoy broad support by their own citizens."

This, he said, should serve a lesson for Germany's future foreign policy in the region, making sure in advance that its political objectives in the Sahel are also supported by local societies.

Picture of Malte Lierl of the GIGA Institute for Africa Studies in Hamburg
Malte Lierl believes that Germany and the EU have to focus on long-term goals in the SahelImage: Malte Lierl

"This also means that Germany will have to justify its motivations for these policies, which will require a certain degree of acceptance of inadvertent criticism," said Lierl. "In the past, this did not exactly use to be the case."

But how can Germany circumvent entire governments, especially those led by military juntas in the Sahel?

"When it comes to Mali, you have to bear in mind that the military regime is not in total control of every last thing that takes place in the country," said Bergmann.

Germany has to maintain a sense of dialogue with the junta, he added, since Germany's involvement in the Sahel region cannot be of a sustainable nature without the support of those in power.

Bergmann referred to this principle as "pragmatic methods of cooperation," characterized by the fact that they serve the interest of all parties involved.

This is why Pistorius visited Niger last month, he said: Amid growing rejection toward Western intervention, Pistorius entered negotiations to discuss the outlook for the German air force base in Niger's capital, Niamey.

Both sides are now considering a new kind of cooperation deal that would see parts of the military structure in the city transformed into a hospital.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is seen shaking the hand of Niger's military leader Salifou Modi
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius did not expect his initial Sahel policy to fail, and is now changing his strategyImage: Prawos/BMVG/dpa/picture alliance

Sahel Plus: A wider perspective on the region

This recalibration of Germany's policies in the Sahel region also require a wider perspective on the entire region, said Bergmann.

"The 'Sahel Plus' initiative is designed to boost Germany's cooperation plans with neighboring countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin," he told DW.

To this effect, a joint declaration issued by Germany's Defense, Foreign and Developmental Aid Ministries in May 2023 says that "(a)fter all, terrorist groups in that region don't stop at national borders."

This is one of the reasons why Germany's Developmental Aid Minister Svenja Schulze was appointed president of Germany's Sahel Alliance initiative.

According to Bergmann, this implies that cooperation initiatives and agreements with the African Union and West African regional bloc ECOWAS will therefore also have to play a bigger role in the future.

This article has been adapted from German by Sertan Sanderson. 

Edited by: Keith Walker

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