The German Bundeswehr mission in Mali ends in May 2024 – but the economic aid and partner programs in the Sahel zone are not only to be continued, but even expanded. This is what the so-called Sahel-Plus initiative of the Federal Development Ministry (BMZ) provides for, which the ministry recently presented. A paper on it states that the initiative is “oriented towards the needs of the population”. Accordingly, more partners from different areas should be brought together. “We are more successful when we act together with international partners than when we act on our own,” said Development Minister Svenja Schulze in a statement.
Germany has long been a key player in stabilization and development efforts in the predominantly Francophone Sahel region. The hope is that Germany will assume a leading role as a “soft power” in the long term through increased engagement in a region that it considers central to European security.
Development Minister Svenja Schulze (left) in conversation with women farmers during a visit to Mali in April
According to the BMZ, as an expression of this commitment, Schulze will apply to chair the Sahel Alliance, a cooperation between countries in the Sahel zone and Western nations and organizations. The alliance, which says it supports almost 1,200 projects with a total volume of 26.5 billion euros, will elect the chair at a meeting next month in Mauritania.
Troops out, help remains
The Plus Initiative is a sign from the German government that it will remain connected to the region – despite the end of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. The United Nations first approved the multi-nation operation in 2013 with the aim of paving the way for a peaceful and democratic transfer of political power. However, despite the presence of more than 12,000 troops and a separate French combat mission, jihadist violence has ramped up. A coup in 2021 installed a leadership that opposes the UN mandate.
The new leadership has instead turned to Russia, welcoming the Wagner paramilitary group. Western nations accuse Wagner mercenaries of undermining security in the country and killing civilians. Officials from Russia and Mali say the Wagner Group provided support, as did the United Nations.
The disagreements in Mali boiled up even more than they are in line with the hasty and failed end of the Afghanistan mission in 2021. Both events led to Germany’s military operations being thoroughly reconsidered.
Prosperity on the one hand, security on the other
With the withdrawal of its troop contingent of up to 1,100 soldiers, Germany is all but giving up Mali but maintaining a security presence in neighboring Niger. Unlike in Mali, according to official information, the Nigerien government is still open to cooperation with German and other international actors. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Development Minister Schulze traveled to the region together in April.
The Sahel and its neighboring countries are not only one of the poorest regions in Africa, but also one of the youngest. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. An official from Germany, citing UN reports, says that extremist groups are filling the vacuum that has created a lack of jobs and economic opportunities. Young people, especially young men, are being drawn into a cycle of violence for practical rather than ideological reasons. They just have to earn a living.
“The BMZ is strengthening the economic prospects there and the population’s resilience to crises – through new job opportunities, for example in the processing of agricultural products, in crop protection, in the construction trade or in the development of infrastructure such as water pumps,” says the paper on the Sahel Plus initiative .
danger from many quarters
The “Plus” initiative views extremism and its underlying economic causes as a regional threat that transcends a country and seeks to stay one step ahead of its spread. Cooperation at the regional level corresponds to the long-standing demands of local people.
“The crisis in the Sahel is coming to the coastal countries,” said Robert Dussey, Togo’s foreign minister, at the Munich Security Conference in February. “For example, if you think for a minute that we can be left alone to solve the security issue in the Sahel, that would be a mistake for everyone.”
Many people have fled the insecurities in the region. The UN refugee agency counted almost three million displaced people in 2022 and expects a similar number this year, given the complex interplay of conflict, climate change, food insecurity and widespread lack of socio-economic opportunities.
This interaction also connects the Sahel with Germany and Europe in a broader sense. While most of the displaced remain in the region, some make the perilous journey across North Africa, across the Mediterranean and into Europe. In 2022 alone, more than 2,400 people died crossing the sea – a number that the International Organization for Migration also assumes is a large number of unreported cases.
Terrorism and refugees are putting pressure on domestic politics and fueling xenophobic backlash. The “Plus” initiative is an attempt to combat both – in the hope that improving living conditions in the region can dampen political tensions outside the region.