1.0 So what?
The involvement of the European Union (EU) across the Western Sahel has increased substantially during the last decade. Since the early 2010s, the EU has published three strategic documents dedicated to the area. These aimed to both widen and deepen its engagement. Besides the significant economic relationship, the Union is deploying three civilian and two military Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions.
Although originally the EU directed its focus towards Mali, the progressive relationship deterioration between Bamako’s junta and Western states led to a progressive shift toward Niger. The suspension of the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali last April, and the inauguration of the European Union Military Partnership Mission (EUPMP) in Niger in February 2023 well illustrates this tendency.
Nevertheless, while Niamey remains until now a solid partner for the Europeans, the Sahel’s current multidimensional crisis renders this relationship particularly fragile. If the Nigerien population does not perceive the benefits of hosting foreign troops on their soil, the country could highly likely retrace the same dangerous footprints of Mali and Burkina Faso.
At least since the early 2010s, the western Sahel has been experiencing an intense deterioration of the security situation. Initially, the crisis concerned mainly central and northern Mali. Nevertheless, the crisis has expanded, engulfing Burkina Faso and Niger. Especially after 2017, the tri-border area among Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the Liptako-Gourma region, entered in a vicious circle of exponential violence.
In the meanwhile, the Lake Chad basin suffered a deterioration of the security environment. With its epicentre in Nigeria’s northeastern state Borno, a galaxy of terrorist groups has proven highly resilient to counterinsurgency attempts. Despite the consistent decrease over the last year, terrorist organisations have remained active mainly in frontier areas around the lake.
Finally, over the last years, the frontier zone among Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin is becoming another violence hotspot. Notably the implantation of terrorist groups near JNIM in the transboundary natural Parc W around 2018.
Due to its geographical location, Niger is undergoing all these emergencies. Specifically, the north-western area of the Tillabéry region has been repeatedly struck by the activities of the Islamic State Sahel Province and the competition with the al-Qaeda affiliated coalition, JNIM. The southwestern areas of Tillabery and Dosso regions have been recently transformed into a violence hotspot by terrorist Katibas under JNIM’s umbrella, primarily operating in Burkina Faso. Ultimately, the southeastern zone of the Diffa region is the action field of the Islamic State Western African Province and JAS, constituted by Boko Haram leftovers after the 2021’s Shekau death.
The growing Russian ambitions in the region further aggravated this worrisome picture. As the case of Mali reveals, the reinforced Kremlin activism in the Sahel directly challenges the partnerships with European countries, proposing an in-combat collaboration that often results in abuses against the civilian population.
3.0 Rationale of the EU Engagement in Niger
Several factors lead the EU to engage in Niger.
3.1 Security crisis
In the first place, all the biggest security crises directly involve Niger. In fact, its geographic location renders it an attractive expansion frontier for the terrorist groups operating in the three areas analysed. A hypothetical collapse of Niger stability would generate an insecurity belt of more than 2000 kilometres bordering the “EU’s neighbourhood”. Highly likely to result in massive displacement and increased emigration toward wealthier countries.
3.2 Relation deterioration with Mali and Burkina Faso
Additionally, the relationship deterioration with Mali and Burkina Faso has significantly catalysed the EU’s strengthened collaboration with Niger. Indeed, in the last two years, Mali and Burkina Faso experienced two coups d’état each. Progressively, the new military juntas become less inclined to cooperate with European states. Specifically, the military juntas have widely instrumentalised the presence of the former colonial power, France. This attitude, sustained by the rising anti-french sentiment across the population, caused the end of French operations (Op. Barkhane; Op. Sabre) and hindered the European deployments (Takuba Task Force; EUTM Mali) in those countries. Besides, Wagner’s partnership with Mali and potential expansion to Burkina Faso render the Sahel even more relevant for the EU.
3.3 France pressures
French pressures for mutualisation partially explain the enhanced EU engagement. In fact, increasingly more vocally after 2017, Paris has consistently advocated for a Europeanisation of military engagement in the western Sahel. Thereby, l’Élysée aimed to share responsibilities and costs while attempting to mitigate the growing neo-colonial allegations.
Finally, the European countries have tangible interests in Niger. For instance, Niger constitutes one of the principal suppliers of uranium for France. Considering that approximately 70% of French electricity is produced through nuclear facilities, avoiding a violent escalation in Niger assumes a vital relevance.
4.0 EU deployments in Niger
The EU deploys with two civilian one military operations in the country:
4.1 EUCAP Niger
The European Union CAPacity building mission (EUCAP) in Niger was established in 2012. Its principal objective is to enhance the ability of Nigerien Internal Security Forces to tackle Transnational Organised Crime, terrorism and irregular migration. Approximately 120 experts compose EUCAP on-field personnel, mainly performing as advisers and trainers.
In 2016, the mission expanded outside the capital by opening a field office in Agadez, central Niger. This development is particularly significant. Considering that the city is a hotspot for Transnational Organised Crime (TOC), where human smuggling, human trafficking and cannabis trade represent the principal revenue sources.
Since 2012, more than 20 000 Nigerien internal security personnel have benefitted from EUCAP services. The deployment has a two-year mandate but it has already been renewed four times. For the biennium 2022-24, the budget is around 72 million euros.
The European Union Regional Advisory and Coordination Cell for the Sahel (EURACC) was established as an independent body in 2019. It is predominantly an advisory body that aims to support the G5 Sahel and coordinate EU initiatives in the region. While the command is located in Nouakchott (Mauritania), EURACC has a networked structure. In every G5 country, there is a delegation of security and defence experts. The mission alongside EUCAP Mali has a 2-year term and 73 million euros budget.
The European Union Military Partnership Mission is the first EU military mission in Niger. It was established in February 2022 with a three-year mandate and less than 30 million euros budget. EUMPM aims to strengthen the military capacities of the Nigirien Armed Forces through furnishing equipment, building infrastructures and military training. As well as EUCAP Niger, EUMPM is based in Niamey. In the first month of deployment, EUMPM established a formation centre for army technicians in the capital city and it is sustaining the creation of a new battalion.
5.0 Critical observations
In the last decade, the Union demonstrated an enhanced interest in the Sahel region. Nevertheless, the missions present several drawbacks.
5.1 Timid military engagement
The establishment of the EUMPM will contribute to reinforcing the Nigerien army. However, the EU’s military engagement seems oriented toward a minimum-effort approach. Indeed, even if the EUMPM constitutes the first military engagement in the country, training, infrastructure and equipment are the main focus.
Even If the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the primary strategic worry of the Union, the contrast to Russian revisionism also passes from the Sahel. As the Malian experience shows, through a complex blending of informational campaigns, security services (e.g. Wagner Group) and economic activities (‘Marco Mining’ SARL), the Kremlin is increasing its influence in the area. Therefore, considering the resources invested in cooperation with Sahel countries as subtracted to contrast Russia is misleading.
Therefore, for the Union needs to avoid Niger’s security collapse and the expansion of the Russian influence eastward. Nevertheless, EU mild military engagement risks not being sufficient to sustain Niamey amidst the vicious circle that has already engulfed Mali and Burkina Faso.
EU stance toward the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is another issue. Indeed, the EU strongly sponsored the creation of the G5 Sahel (G5S) in 2014, partially marginalising ECOWAS. This intergovernmental forum among Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad governments aimed to coordinate the development and security policies.
Nevertheless, this security architecture presents several difficulties. As Bergmann and Plank point out:
“The EU’s strong financial and operational support of the G5 Sahel was decisive for its evolution, in particular with regard to the organisation’s two flagship initiatives – the Joint Force and the pip – but it has created a strong dependency on the EU’s assistance, making the G5 Sahel a cooperation project at the mercy of international donors.”
Whereas the regionalisation of the security response could be seen as a virtuous strategy to reduce engagement and avoid neo-colonial criticisms, it constitutes a façade measure. In fact, G5S is economically dependent on donors and is having a limited impact. Thereby, the neglect of ECOWAS constitutes a relevant shortcoming. The West African economic community has demonstrated solidity regarding security issues, intervening in seven different countries over the last two decades.
Finally, Mali’s withdrawal in May 2022 led Bazoum, Niger’s president, to declare the death of the G5 Sahel.
“Le G5 est mort”Mohamed Bazoum
Although Bazoum’s declaration was premature, Mali’s decision has deprived the organisation of a pivotal member, further hindering the G5S effectiveness.
5.3 Wagner group
Russian influence in the region is a major concern of European countries, especially France. In particular, the progressive expansion of the Wagner Group is contemporarily the cause and the result of a growing anti-western sentiment not only in the Sahel.[source]
In this respect, the last two years have been particularly negative for Europe in the region of the Sahel. Specifically, In May 2021, Paris’s double standards’ condemnation of the Malian junta lead to its distancing and speeded up the end of Opération Barkhane. This relations degradation fostered Wagner’s engagement in the country which officially started in December 2021. Besides, Burkina Faso is following a similar pathway. Indeed, while General Traoré denies any involvement with the Wagner Group, the expulsion of French forces in January 2023, the continuous security deterioration and the increasing number of pro-Russian demonstrations constitute favourable factors to the Russian mercenaries’ deployment in the country.
Even if Niger remains aligned with Europe and France, its collaboration should not be taken for granted. Whereas Niamey is the least affected by insecurity, the Islamic State Sahel Province is consolidating its influence in the Tillabèri region [source]. Moreover, France’s uranium extraction in the Agadez region is causing widespread pollution of the water sources, negatively affecting the population. As happened into its neighbours, these grievances could be leveraged to push an anti-Western narrative, alienating Niger’s support to European missions.
5.4 Internal divergences
The fundamental inter-governmental nature of the decision-making regarding the CSDP missions renders them highly susceptible to divergences among EU member states. This characteristic generally does not allow the Union to take bold and long-term decisions concerning security operations. In fact, the different strategic priorities among EU member states and the de facto implementation of the unanimity rule often lengthens the bargaining phase, often cutting the deployments downwards to reach a compromise.
Besides, as general Vincenzo Coppola remarks, CSDPs are flawed in other aspects. Firstly, the operations’ mandate lasts two or three years before incurring a re-examination. This short-term horizon impedes the operation from fully dealing with the desired complex objectives, such as institution-building. Moreover, the operation on-field managers are separated from the financial managers. Therefore, the resource allocation process is burdened by an avoidable bureaucratic process that delays the decision implementation. Finally, despite some improvement in the last years, communicative engagement remains limited to certain social network platforms without adapting to context-based criteria.
Over the last decade, the multidimensional crisis in the Sahel lead the EU to increase its commitment in the region. In particular, also due to the relationship degradations with Mali and Burkina Faso, the Union’s focus has shifted toward Niger.
While the establishment of the EUMPM military mission in February 2023 constitutes a relevant step to sustain Niamey amidst the crisis, it could be insufficient. Indeed, the mild and constrained military engagement, the overreliance on the G5 Sahel and the priority divergences among the EU’s member states constitute significant shortcomings that could diminish the European effectiveness both in Niger and in the region.
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Intelligence Cut-Off Date: 22th April, 2022