The European Union and its Western partners are grappling with how to maintain diplomatic relations in the Sahel region following recent putsches in Africa.
At a round-table discussion Thursday hosted by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington think tank, analysts focused on European engagement in the Sahel in the aftermath of a military takeover in Niger in July.
The analysts, including top EU diplomats, expressed grave concern about Africa’s resolve to partner with Russia, despite Moscow’s limited material wealth or infrastructure to offer the continent. The panelists said Africa is becoming the center of global geopolitics.
Damien Cristofari, senior adviser on European Affairs at the French Embassy in Washington, told VOA that the fluid situation in Niger leaves uncertainty for the EU’s next line of action.
“We are still at the very [beginning] of the crisis, and so we have to let the dust settle and see what we can or cannot do,” he said.
Cristofari said in light of rising anti-French sentiment in the Sahel and parts of West Africa, like Mali and Burkina Faso, Paris is leaning toward developing more of a partnership with Africa. However, he said, such a partnership has to be “locally driven.”
“We’re promoting a partnership approach and have already started to rethink our global relationship with Africa,” Cristofari said. “This was the purpose of the EU-African Union Summit in 2022, where all of us, Europeans and Africans, agreed to promote this partnership approach.”
At the February 2022 summit in Brussels, 40 African heads of state met their European partners for what observers called a reset amid Russia’s and China’s growing influence on the continent.
The 27-nation bloc pledged $168 billion (150 billion Euros) in investments in the energy, transport, digital infrastructure, health and educational sectors over seven years.
Cristofari said despite the instability in the Sahel, the EU continues to provide aid and money to countries in the region, like Mali, but did not give any figures.
“But given this development, we have to reflect on what these engagements will be and whether we can maintain this level of engagement in the future,” he said.
Petr Tuma, visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, told VOA that discussions about what happens in the Sahel are still in the early stages, and that it would be “tough” to find a “common line,” as some EU member states are rooting for an alternative approach to resolving the Niger coup.
“Right now, we’re still considering the next line of action, because [the power grab] was quite a shock for Europeans. It will be difficult, but still possible,” he said.
“There’s one buzzword we hear in Brussels: We need more of team spirit in Europe.”
Tuma said the EU is looking to work with other countries in the Sahel to build their “defenses,” but insisted it has no plan to abandon those facing political instability. He told VOA he had no further details on what that plan would look like.
“There are certain countries like those in the Gulf of Guinea who are still ready to cooperate with us, and so I think we have to focus on working together with them on the economy and regional stability,” he said.
In 2014, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger established the G5 Sahel group to counter the main challenges they face: insecurity and political instability. However, Michael Shurkin, director of global programs at the consulting firm 14 North Strategies, which focuses on Africa, told VOA that efforts by the EU and France in the Sahel have not yielded stability.
“There are fundamental questions to be asked about whether or not it is even worth the while or does one simply walk away,” he said. “Or if one stays engaged, does it mean having to work with these [military] juntas and figuring out how best to work with the juntas?”
He said the latter is not something the EU or the United States “would rather be doing,” adding that they would “really rather be working with democratic states.”
Last month, military leaders in Gabon took power from longtime leader Ali Bongo Ondimba, who was elected in a vote that the opposition said was unfair.
Bongo’s plea to the world to “make noise” fell on deaf ears, with some analysts telling VOA that it’s unlikely regional countries and the international community will call for his reinstatement. The Bongo family has ruled the Central African nation for nearly 56 years.
In July, members of Nigerien leader Mohamed Bazoum’s presidential guard toppled him and placed his family under house arrest. On Thursday, his lawyer, Seydou Diagne, said Bazoum has filed a lawsuit at the court of the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, to free him.
“There’s an interest on the part of a lot of people in Washington to distance themselves from the French in the hope of trying to maintain lines of communication with these juntas and the population of these countries with the notion that there’ll be an opportunity to engage constructively for something,” Shurkin told VOA.
“Although nobody actually knows what that something would be … what do we actually do and how do we improve things?” Shurkin said.
Anthony LaBruto contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s English to Africa Service.