Mali. The normalization of German security policy?

Germany’s recent decision to deploy soldiers in Mali is new in the course of its history. Indeed, so far Germany was reluctant to engage with security policy in Africa. Matthias Vogl analyses the reasons for this change of policy and its implications for both the European Union and the African continent.

After completing his PhD on European security policy in Africa, Matthias Vogl is now research fellow at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at the University of Bonn. His research focuses on the comparative approach of regional integration between European Union and West Africa.

There was recently a news report about the deployment of a German contingent of up to 650 soldiers – among them reconnaissance forces – to Mali within the framework of the UN Mission MINUSMA. This contingent is about to replace Dutch forces during the next few months. Given the widely known German reluctance to send soldiers into risky scenarios in Africa, one could ask if this attitude is changing now, as MINUSMA is dubbed one of the most dangerous UN missions worldwide. Is German military engagement in Africa, apart from training and logistics, becoming something normal?

No doubt, with the ambitious speeches of German Federal President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014, it has become more difficult for Germany to escape its international responsibilities. Nevertheless, what followed in the aftermath of the Security Conference was first and foremost no more than hot air. Germany increased its engagement with the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) in a limited way and continued its presence with EUTM Somalia, although it had already been decided to withdraw German soldiers before the mission moved from Uganda to Mogadishu. For the EUFOR mission in the Central African Republic, Germany merely provided some logistical support as it had done for the French operation Serval and the AU mission that preceded MINUSMA in Mali.

Germany´s reservations with regard to the deployment of soldiers into high-intensity scenarios in Africa relate to three main areas: 1. Even though Germany had a short intermezzo of colonial history in Africa until the end of World War I, there is no African political tradition in Germany nowadays. In the heads of the majority of German citizens and of the German political elite, Africa remains the unknown neighbour to the South. Although Germany is very much welcomed as a political and economic partner in many parts of Africa, this has only led to a slow change of perception regarding Africa and regarding its own engagement on the continent. Insofar as security policy is concerned, the German political class was and continues to be suspicious of France tying Germany into adventures in places where it neither has concrete interests nor enough knowledge and experience, while at the same time pursuing its own post-colonial interests. This attitude could be witnessed from Operation Artemis 2003 to EUFOR Tchad 2008. When Germany actively took part in the EUFOR Congo Operation to protect the elections in the DRC in 2006, one desk officer in the EU military staff commented that the complaints from Berlin were so loud that you could even hear them in the offices in Brussels. Hence, Germany has so far never used its potential to take on a leadership role with regard to EU Africa policy. 2. Another reason for German timidity is that the German basic law, its parliamentary decision-making processes as well as German national history after World War II put constraints on large-scale military engagement. Germany has been particularly cautious to deploy troops to high-risk scenarios. Afghanistan was an exception, which resulted in 54 dead soldiers. This has not at all made the decision for future troop contributions easier. 3. Finally, taking into account that there are also regular reports about an overstretch and insufficient equipment in the third biggest army of the EU, the German government has concentrated on a structural approach in the field of crisis management since the end of the last decade and particularly in Africa, including training, advice and civilian measures.

Notwithstanding this problematic constellation, Africa actually has climbed up the German foreign policy ladder since the Malian uprisings in the first half of 2012. Africa is present as never before in the discussion, although admittedly not as present as other scenarios like Ukraine or the Middle East. Furthermore, regarding Mali the historic relationship with Germany has always been friendly. Germany was the first country to recognize Mali after independence.

Beyond this rather soft argument, it was even more important that after the Malian crisis, the German government started to change its threat assessment regarding islamist terrorism in Africa. The fact that islamists almost conquered the Malian capital in 2012/2013 left a mark. A more concrete interest could now be noticed. At the same time, France has been pushing hard for burden-sharing at the EU level in recent years. These issues have made participation first in EUTM and now the discussed engagement in the framework of MINUSMA possible. German Federal President said in Munich in 2014: “We would be deceiving ourselves if we were to believe that Germany was an island and thus protected from the vicissitudes of our age. […] We cannot hope to be spared from the conflicts of this world. But if we contribute to solving them, we can take a hand at least in shaping the future.“ These words speak a clear language, even more so since the withdrawal from Afghanistan has freed up new resources.

Nevertheless, even with all of the current crisis hot spots in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, Germany remains torn between the need to show responsibility as one of the big players in the EU, the obvious menace of terrorism and the fear of negative repercussions of external engagement on the domestic political sphere – be it elections or, worse, terrorist attacks in Germany. German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was fast in mentioning Mali when France called for solidarity after the Paris attacks on 13 November, activating article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty for the first time. However, the German deployment to Mali had been discussed even before. Against this background, it would be dangerous to see a German engagement in Mali only as the – less risky and less important – part of the military solidarity package that Berlin offered to France after the Paris attacks. The attacks on MINUSMA and on the Radisson Blue Hotel in Bamako have shown that this plan would not work out. Africa in general and Mali in particular have to be perceived as genuine and ambitious challenges. Therefore, the German government should not repeat the mistake of not debating Germany´s role in the region as it did with Afghanistan. To the contrary, an active communication policy would encompass information about the goals and problems of MINUSMA early on, but also a more general discussion about what more Germany could do in the political and cooperation sphere to stabilize Mali and the Sahel region. It is obvious that the root causes of the Malian conflict cannot be confronted with a military or security approach alone. The Malian peace agreement, signed in June 2015, remains fragile. Against this background, its implementation requires protection and the training and establishment of a legitimate Malian security and justice sector. Equally or even more important are, however, a decentralized and inclusive political system, fair and active participation of the different ethnic groups and not least, opportunity creation regarding jobs, education and the management of natural resources, especially for those who felt disadvantaged for a long time. A comprehensive German approach would dedicate visible effort to all of these challenges, by investing more capacities and by trying to coordinate EU member state engagement in Mali and in the region. Germany could use its credit to increase the overall legitimacy of the European approach and balance the sometimes negative attitude towards France. Such a strategy would be in Germany´s enlightened self-interest as the military engagement could thus be sold as an affordable burden in the framework of a holistic approach – something that is being done out of conviction and not as evasive action. This might also help to facilitate acceptance at home and pave the way to the perception of an active German security policy in Africa as something normal and reasonable.


This post is co-published with the blog West Africa Peace and Security Network and can be found here.


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