Democracy must prevail in the Sahel, by Josep Borrell

Democracy must prevail in the Sahel, by Josep Borrell
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Some events are more memorable than others and serve as milestones of a term. 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 will also 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 also saw hundreds of social housing built with EU help. The ambitious vision and action of Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum offered real hope in a region gripped by authoritarian drift. That is why I was shocked by the military coup on July 26, shortly after my visit.

Only a united Europe can influence events in this region

Following a debate with my European counterparts, in the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Niger and the President of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), I would like to share some reflections on the situation in Niger and the Sahel.

We must maintain unwavering support for democratically elected President Bazoum for “as long as it takes”, demanding a return to constitutional order in Niger. The future of democracy throughout the region is at stake. The democracy that the people of Niger want, that which ECOWAS promotes and that which the EU defends throughout the world.

Nigerien junta supporters raise Russian flag in Niamey

Sam Mednick/LaPresse

Our support for ECOWAS must not waver either. There is no room for secondary agreements 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 unprecedentedly strong and consistent stance, we must put our actions where our words are.

In addition to defending its democratic values, the EU also has a strong interest in Niger returning 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 the geopolitical balance of power. It is a mistake to believe that military junta could effectively combat terrorist movements or human trafficking. The best bulwarks against these threats are democratic states with the ambition, the will and the means to create new opportunities for their people.

Certainly, the EU policy towards the Sahel has not had the expected success in recent years. We have sometimes focused too much on the security dimension alone, and our efforts to help strengthen the rule of law and provide basic services have been neither sufficient nor visible enough. The “strategic patience” that we have shown towards the region's military junta has also not had concrete results beyond promoting new vocations....

Despite this necessary self-criticism, we must not forget that Europe's roadmap in the Sahel in recent years has been Sahelian. We have committed our soldiers, our money and our political capital to the region because the Sahelian countries asked us to.

What can we do now? Suspend our budget support and security cooperation with Niger; work for the adoption of sanctions; and show our solidarity in response to the unjustified expulsion of the ambassador of one of our member states. However, we must also go further. Since it would be unreasonable to continue doing the same thing and expect a different result, we must take a different approach.

Security cooperation, visa granting and economic development programs must be reconsidered, and we must act quickly to decide what needs to change, both with respect to Niger and other Sahel countries. We will have to maintain this pulse with the military junta without falling into the traps set by the regimes that are based mainly on manipulation and disinformation. With few results in their anti-terrorist or economic development efforts, the region's boards have found their most effective tools in these practices.

The Sahel is a test for the entire EU. Nobody should congratulate themselves on the difficulties that France is encountering in the region. It has become a convenient scapegoat for boards to easily manufacture national cohesion while hiding their own failures and abuses. But France is not the problem in the Sahel; military junta are, because they lack the means to really fight terrorism and the ambition to improve the daily life and future prospects of their population.

Those who rejoice, in Europe or elsewhere, at the difficulties encountered by Europeans in the Sahel do not correctly appreciate 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 if we live up to expectations in this strategic region.

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