Africa: EU Reckons With Africa Policy After Wave of Coups

Europe seems to have ever fewer options as it watches West Africa experience widespread military coups. Ministers meeting in Toledo, Spain had no quick answers to tough questions about the EU’s role in the region.

EU foreign and defense ministers meeting in Spain after the European summer break were preoccupied with a wave of coups in western African countries, notably in Niger but most recently in Gabon, that underline the bloc’s waning influence and policy failures in the Sahel region and beyond.

“It’s clear that the coup in Niger is opening a new era of instability in a region that was already very fragile,” top EU diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters in Toledo on Wednesday, the first day of the two-day gathering.

While military coups were never a solution, the case of Gabon differed from that of Niger, the former Spanish foreign minister noted. In Gabon, which is not part of the Sahel and has been led by two members of the same family for over 50 years, there were doubts about the validity of the recent election, Borrell stressed.

By contrast, the military putsch in Niger, a close EU ally and a key base for its efforts to stop the regional expansion of militant Islamist groups, poses a more fundamental problem for the bloc. Elected President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed by military officers in July, in a move celebrated by some in the streets of the capital, Niamey.

No clear support for ECOWAS military intervention

The meetings in Toledo offered an “occasion for us to review our African policy,” Borrell said Thursday. The 27 countries agreed at the talks to set up the necessary legal framework to sanction those involved in the coup in Niger, similar to those already imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

ECOWAS has also raised the possibility of military intervention in Niger if coup leaders do not restore constitutional order. Representatives from the West African bloc and Niger’s Foreign Minister Bakary Yaou Sangare were in attendance in Toledo.

Asked whether the EU would support such a move, Borrell said the EU would have to wait and see what the 15-member African community proposed.

“African solutions to African problems,” he stressed. “We are in listening mode”. ECOWAS is still pushing for a diplomatic solution at present, according to Borrell.

However, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani was among those stressing the need to focus on diplomacy. “Our position is [for] a diplomatic solution, not military action against Niger,” he said.

Lots of reflection, no easy answers

Having seemingly lost its last remaining major partner in the Sahel — since 2020, there have also been coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali — the EU must now ponder its next steps as it hemorrhages influence in the region.

The bloc is reckoning with a significant spike in anti-French sentiment in formerly colonized countries. At the same time, the Russian mercenary Wagner Group is expanding its presence, now on the ground in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, to name a few.

“The Russians are not behind the putsch in Niger, but they will use the situation, the instability, for a new colonization,” said Tajani. “China will do the same, but the Russians at this moment are very dangerous because of Wagner,” he added, referring to the Russian mercenary group.

So what can the EU do? No one in Toledo offered immediate answers. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of the importance of democracies standing by other democracies when threatened.

Her Irish counterpart, Micheal Martin, said there was “a lot of room for reflection” on what was happening in the Sahel, calling for a continued, sustained “investment in people in Africa, from the humanitarian dimension, the development dimension, in addition to the security dimension.”

French future in Niger hangs in the balance

A question that must be answered in the shorter term is whether France should stay on the ground in Niger. French anti-insurgency forces, part of the regional Operation Barkhane, recently withdrew from Mali after relations soured with Bamako.

For now, France is retaining its military presence in Niger. The ruling junta has called for the French troops stationed there with the permission of the deposed government to leave.

Staying might be unwise, Martin Ronceray of the European Centre for Development Policy Management told DW in Brussels. “A lot of voices are saying now France should be just leaving entirely and sort of cutting its losses and withdrawing from all the interests it has in Africa,” he said. In the case of Niger, they might have a point, according to Ronceray.

On a regional level, the analyst also cautioned against dismissing such anti-French sentiment as simply the rhetoric of military juntas rather than real public feeling. “Simply expanding their horizons and not relying on France, I think, is fair enough.”

Jack Parrock contributed to reporting for this article from Brussels.


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