Some events are more memorable than others and serve as landmarks for a term in office. I will always remember attending a ceremony in Paris, in December 2019, to honor 13 French soldiers who had died in Mali. It was my first official act as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
I also will remember my visit to Niger in July. I witnessed the tangible results of EU-Niger cooperation with the inauguration of the Gorou Banda solar power plant near Niamey. In Agadez, I saw also hundreds of social housing units built with EU support. Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum’s ambitious vision and action offered real hope in a region that had fallen prey to authoritarian drift. That is why, the military coup on July 26, shortly after my visit, was a shock for me.
After a discussion with my European counterparts, in presence of the Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of the Commission of the Economic Community for West Africa (ECOWAS), I would like to share a few thoughts on the situation in Niger and the Sahel.
We must maintain unwavering support for the democratically elected President Bazoum for “as long as it takes”, demanding a return to constitutional order in Niger. The future of democracy across the region is at stake. The democracy that the people of Niger wants, the one that ECOWAS is promoting, and the one that the EU is defending around the world.
Our support for ECOWAS also must not waver. There is no room for secondary arrangements or parallel mediation channels. As Europeans, we have long supported the search for “African solutions to African problems.” At a time when ECOWAS is taking an unprecedently firm and consequential stand, we must put our actions where our mouth is.
In addition to defending its democratic values, the EU also has a major interest in seeing Niger return to the path of constitutional order. Another Sahelian country falling into the hands of a military junta would have far-reaching negative consequences for Europe in terms of security, migration flows, and geopolitical balance of power. It is mistaken to believe that military juntas could effectively combat terrorist movements or human trafficking. The best bulwarks against such threats are democratic states with the ambition, will, and means to create new opportunities for their people.
Certainly, EU policy toward the Sahel has not been as successful as we had hoped in recent years. We have sometimes been too focused on the security dimension alone and our efforts to help strengthen the rule of law and provide basic services have not been sufficient or visible enough. The “strategic patience” we have shown toward the military juntas in the region, have also not had any concrete results other than encouraging new vocations....
Despite this necessary self-criticism, we must not forget that Europe’s roadmap in the Sahel in recent years has been a Sahelian one. We have committed our soldiers, our money, and our political capital to the region because Sahelian countries asked us to do so.
What can we do now? Suspend our budgetary support for, and security cooperation with, Niger; work toward the adoption of sanctions; and show solidarity in response to the unjustified expulsion of the Ambassador of one of our member states. However, we also must go further. Since it would not be reasonable to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result, we must adopt a different approach.
Security cooperation, the issuing of visas, and economic development programs must be reconsidered, and we must move quickly in deciding what needs to change – both with respect to Niger and other countries across the Sahel. We will need to hold this showdown with the military juntas without falling into the traps set by regimes that rely principally on manipulation and disinformation. With little results to show for their anti-terrorism or economic-development efforts, the region’s juntas have found it to be their most effective tools.
The Sahel is a test for the entire EU. No one should be pleased by the difficulties that France is encountering in the region. It has become a convenient scapegoat for juntas to easily manufacture national cohesion while concealing their own failures and abuses. But France is not the problem in the Sahel; the military juntas are because they lack the means to really fight terrorism and the ambition to improve their people’s daily lives and future prospects.
Those who rejoice, in Europe or elsewhere, at the difficulties encountered by Europeans in the Sahel do not appreciate correctly what is at stake. We will all pay a high price if we fail to remain coherent and united. Only a united Europe can influence the course of events. The coming weeks will tell whether we are up to the task of responding to expectations in this strategic region.