27th Feb 2024

EU's lost influence in Sahel is 'a disaster', experts tell MEPs

  • Along with France, the former colonial ruler and main diplomatic presence in the region, the EU's diplomatic corps, was blindsided by the recent coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Gabon (Photo: pjotter05)
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The EU must accept the 'new realities' of military regimes in the Sahel region or risk losing what remains of its influence to Russia and China, experts have warned MEPs.

"It is a disaster to see how much the EU has lost influence in the Sahel region," said Ulf Laessing, the director of the regional Sahel programme at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Mali, at a hearing of the European Parliament's foreign affairs and development committees on Tuesday (23 January),

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French president Emmanuel Macron ended Operation Barkhane, the eight-year long deployment of French troops to tackle Islamic insurgents across the Sahel in November 2022 amid growing anti-French resentment among local people.

That, combined with a spate of recent coups in the Sahel — and the growing influence of Russian security outfits such as the restructured Wagner group — has seriously eroded Europe's influence in the region.

In the 10 years before 2023, the EU spent €600m on civilian and military missions in the Sahel and trained 30,000 members of the security forces in Mali and Niger.

The latest regime change saw Mohamed Bazoum ousted as Nigerien president last July by a military junta led by general Abdourahamane Tchiani.

Along with France, the former colonial ruler and main diplomatic presence in the region, the EU's diplomatic corps, known as the European External Action Service, was blindsided by the recent coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Gabon.

"Since Bazoum was removed the EU and France has found it difficult to accept the new realities," Laessing told MEPs.

EU officials initially hoped that the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a regional bloc, would return Bazoum to power by military intervention but Ecowas leaders have been divided on this and the question of imposing sanctions against the Tchiani-led junta.

"I don't like coups and I believe in elections. But if we don't engage others will," said Laessing, noting that Russia quickly developed political and defence policy ties with the junta despite not having prioritised relations with Niger until the coup and not having an embassy in its capital Niamey.

"We need a sense of realpolitik," he said.

"Just following the lead of Ecowas is not going to work either," said Laessing, adding that the organisation has lost credibility in the eyes of many Africans."

Iran, Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China have also sought to step up their diplomatic and economic ties with the Sahelian military leaders.

"These new actors are not just eating our breakfast, they are eating our lunch and dinner as well," Laessing added.

In her annual State of the Union speech to the European Parliament last September, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, told MEPs that the deteriorating political and security situation in the Sahel region was "of direct concern for Europe — for our security and prosperity".

Meanwhile, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell circulated a memorandum inviting ministers to consider how the EU should "adapt its approach to Niger".

The US has also struggled to respond to the new political situation in the region.

So far, Washington has managed to keep operating a US drone base in Nigerien city, Agadez, but that could be jeopardised by the Niamey junta's recent discussions with Russia about 'security cooperation'.

US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is making a four-country tour of West Africa this week and is likely to discuss alternative sites to Agadez with regional leaders.

"There has been an explicit rejection of France...and the EU has been perceived as supporting France," said Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, executive director of the West Africa Citizen Think Tank (WATHI).

An Afrobarometer survey in Niger conducted in 2022 found that China's political and economic role in the country was deemed to be positive by 60 percent of the people, with 47 percent for Japan and just 19 percent regarding the EU's role as positive.

"Cultural and historical ties between EU and Sahel do not guarantee a preference for Europe," said Yabi.

The EU set out a strategy for the Sahel region in 2021 but that has been quickly overtaken by events and is "badly outdated and irrelevant," said Élie Tenenbaum, of the French Institute for International Relations.

"Dialogue should be maintained but security co-operation should be based on governance," he argued.


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