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What's next for the Bundeswehr in Mali?

Martina Schwikowski
December 28, 2022

The last year of the German military's Mali mission is approaching, with withdrawal due to end in May 2024. But the Sahel region remains dangerous — which is why troops are starting a new mission in neighboring Niger.

A soldier of the Bundeswehr is standing next to his machine gun at the airport near the base in Gao in northern Mali, with the German flag flying overhead
The mission for German blue helmet soldiers in Mali is scheduled to end in May 2024Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The German armed forces' mission in the West African country of Mali is becoming increasingly dangerous following a series of setbacks in the past year. With several partner nations announcing their withdrawal and the country's military government repeatedly banning permits for the Bundeswehr to fly in equipment such as transporters and drones, the future is looking increasingly grim.

During her visit to German troops in Bamako earlier this month, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht exchanged some unmistakably strong words with her Malian counterpart Sadio Camara; among other things, Lambrecht stressed that the German military would only remain in the country until 2024 if certain conditions were met, including Mali holding parliamentary elections which have been postponed several times and are now slated for February 2024.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht with her Malian counterpart Sadio Camara in Mali, flanked by Malian troops
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht met with her Malian counterpart Sadio Camara in DecemberImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture-alliance

The Bundeswehr mission in Mali is set to end in 18 months, by May 2024. But with the withdrawal of the German blue helmets scheduled to begin next summer already after their 10-year deployment to the Sahel state, the security situation in the region could soon deteriorate for all parties involved.

Up to 1,400 soldiers were part of the the United Nations' mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. The majority of the German contingent is still stationed in the northeast of the country at Camp Castor in Gao.

Election date not set in stone

The time frame for the troop withdrawal offers opportunities to re-engage with Mali, said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel Regional Program of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bamako, which is affiliated with Germany's center-right Christian Democrats party. He stressed that the Malian government had committed to holding elections within the framework of the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, adding that this is a promising signal.

"I wouldn't doubt that now," Laessing told DW, while criticizing the earlier comments made by Lambrecht. "It doesn't go down too well in Mali if you impose such conditions. That was rather unfortunate of the minister," he said, adding that Lambrecht's insistence on holding elections came from a righteous place. He highlighted, however, that such comments should not be made as part of public discourse.

Malians suffer under strain of economic sanctions

There is no consensus between the military and civil society in Mali on how to transition back to a civilian and democratically legitimized government after two military coups, said Seidik Abba, a journalist and author from Niger.

In contrast to Laessing, Abba doesn't believe the election date is set in stone. "It could be a long time before power is handed over to civilians in a democratic election," he said.

Abba added that under these conditions, the presence of German troops in the country until 2024 does not change the situation on the ground. In his view, Germany is merely trying to send a political message: "We will not leave the Sahel, but we cannot continue to cooperate with the Malian junta."

'Mali's population seems despondent': Laessing

Many locals in Mali say they view the debate about ending Germany's mission with great indifference. "The Malian population is very disappointed with MINUSMA. People believe the European troops are failing to protect the population," Abba told DW.

But Laessing, of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, sees things differently. He said the German armed forces have an important role to play in the stabilization of northern Mali, where thousands have fled an advance by jihadis. This, Laessing claimed, came as the result of the withdrawal of the French military, who left Mali in August at the insistence of the military junta in Bamako.

Several women and children are seen walking with their belongings to a refugee camp
Many Malians had to flee their homes due to Islamist terror in northern Mali, seeking refuge in neighboring Burkina FasoImage: imago images/Joerg Boethling

In Laessing's view, this power vacuum was swiftly filled by jihadis who now control large parts of the northeast. Many local people have since fled to Niger and Algeria, but also to the Malian city of Gao. "That in itself shows that the mission is still important. Without the presence of the Bundeswehr, [a jihadi advance to] Gao would be unstoppable," he told DW.

Mali says no to Europe, yes to Russia

Under the rule of the Malian junta, which came to power in a coup in August 2020, the conditions for the German mission in the country have visibly deteriorated. Among other things, flight permits for German A400M transport aircraft as well as for the Heron reconnaissance drone model have repeatedly been refused. Lambrecht stressed during her visit that the German forces must be able to fulfill their mission, "which includes drone flights."

But thus far, that message seems to have gone unheard.

The Malian military leadership under Colonel Assimi Goita is trying to reduce the influence of the former colonial power France — and of the West as a whole. Russia, meanwhile, is increasing its influence in the region, offering much-needed food, fertilizer and fuel in addition to arming the military.

Mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group have already been in Mali for about a year now — which has only intensified in Europe the resentment toward Mali's military regime.

"Some of the soldiers are already asking themselves what the mission is for. They are there in a country they don't know and where there are centuries-old conflicts. They are aware that little can be achieved," said Laessing.

He added, however, that he has gained the impression from conversations with locals that many regard Germany's contribution to the solidarity and stability of the Sahel region as an important mission.

Bundeswehr tanks in Malian desert
German forces in the Malian desert provide intelligence in support of national troops and their fight against terrorismImage: picture alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr

Lambrecht announces partner mission in Niger

In her follow-up visit to Niger in December, Defense Minister Lambrecht confirmed that the German military will participate in training military units for special force combat in that country in the future. The European Union's new partnership with Niger is intended to strengthen the fight against jihadis in the region, as well as to implicitly support the impoverished nation in stemming migration movements to the north of Africa and on to Europe.

The mission, called EUMPM Niger, will help build a training center and a communications and command support battalion, according to information provided by the EU. It is initially scheduled to last three years. The EU's joint investment in the initiative comes to €27.3 million (around $29 million).

However, analyst Abba sees a miscalculation in this focus on Niger in the fight against jihadism. "Without Mali, we can't succeed in the fight against terrorism," he said. He believes that even if German forces build capacities and conduct training in Niger, jihadi movements will continue to plague Mali — and become a problem over the border in Niger and Burkina Faso.

More military efficiency

Some analysts, meanwhile, think the approach to security taken by Germany and other international actors has simply failed. Olivier Guiryanan, director of BUCOFORE — a research institute based in Chad with a focus on Central and West African issues — said "the troops would have achieved better results if they had focused on building peace and strengthening basic services."

The biggest threat to Mali, he said, is terrorism, which he said is on the rise despite the presence of international forces.

The fact that the MINUSMA mission, to which the German contingent is also subordinate, can do little to counter this is no wonder to Guiryanan. "What can a force whose main task is not to use weapons do in such a context?"

This article was edited by Sertan Sanderson.