The Last Stronghold in the War Zone

Berlin reorganizes the Bundeswehr’s assignment in the Sahel and prepares partial troop redeployment to Niger. Local protests against foreign miliary operations are increasing.

NIAMEY/PARIS/BERLIN (Own report) – The German Bundeswehr is preparing a partial troop withdrawal from Mali and a possible redeployment to Niger. Prior to today’s parliamentary debate on the continuation of the Sahel mission, it was reported that the German armed forces will terminate their European Union Training Mission (EUTM) participation in Mali. However, at the same time, there are plans to increase the German contingent in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) from 1,100 to 1,400 soldiers. The German government is also considering new measures in neighboring Niger. For years, Germany had supported Niger’s repressive and armed forces – initially to ward off refugees and now also to train Niger’s special forces. The Bundeswehr could possibly consolidate its activities in the framework of a “training mission Sahel,” according to German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht. Whereas Mali and, increasingly also Burkina Faso, turn their backs on the West and lean toward Russia, Niger is considered the last pro-western stronghold within the actual Sahel war zone. But protests are also increasing there.

From Mali to Niger

France will redeploy its remaining armed forces in Mali, at least partially, to Niger. Niger’s parliament had already approved these plans on April 22.[1] Paris seeks to maintain its military presence in the Sahel to continue its war on the jihadis and to prevent further loss of its regional influence. Mali, under its military government, is increasingly orienting toward Russia. Particularly since the putsch by Burkinabe officers on January 23, 2022, Russian influence is growing in Burkina Faso. Only Niger, under its President Mohamed Bazoum, is still considered a pro-western stronghold within the actual war zone. Military bases are currently being built in Niger’s Tillabéri region along the Malian border. The area is considered the center of the current jihadi insurgency. Details are not yet known and it is unclear how many French soldiers will be redeployed to Niger. 2,400 soldiers must be withdrawn from Opération Barkhane and 900 special forces from the Takuba Task Force, including troops from other European armed forces.[2]

Warding off Refugees in the Desert

Germany is also seeking a stronger foothold in Niger, following the cessation of EUTM Mali. Germany has been maintaining close relations to the country’s military and police for quite some time, initially focused on warding off migration. Niger is a key country of transit for refugees seeking to reach Europe from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya. Since 2013, the German Association for International Cooperation (GIZ) has been supporting Niger’s police – particularly in cordoning off the border.[3] With the support of the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) Sahel Niger, the EU has been training Nigerien repressive forces since 2012. Measures for apprehending refugees have also played an important role. Germany has recently provided EUCAP Sahel Niger with about 20 police officers. During incumbent President Bazoum’s mandate as Minister of Interior (2016 to 2020), the EU initiated the construction of camps in Niger to which refugees from Libya were returned to prevent them from pursuing their journey to Europe. Since 2018, Germany has been also supplying armament for cordoning off the border – particularly military trucks, surveillance systems and thermal cameras.

Air Transport Base in the Sahel

Aside from its efforts to reinforce its defense against refugees, the German Bundeswehr maintains an air transport base in Niger’s capital Niamey, because Niamey is much closer to the northern Malian theater of operations of the German UN MINUSMA contingent than Mali’s capital Bamako. Wounded soldiers can thus be evacuated easier via Niamey than via Bamako. Due to its greater proximity to the theater of operations, the Bundeswehr is also using Niger’s airport as a MINUSMA logistics hub. The French armed forces also use Niamey airport’s military section, the “base aérienne 101” as an airbase for France’s major combat operation, the Opération Barkhane. The US forces used the base aérienne 101, at least temporarily – most recently as a base for their drones. Washington has since established its own base for this purpose in Niger.

Training Special Forces

Since 2018, the Bundeswehr has been training Nigerien special forces in planning and conducting operations against jihadis within the framework of its Operation Gazelle. For this purpose, German combat swimmers are deployed in the country. Since last year, training programs have been carried out in Tillia located near the border to northern Mali. With significant German support, a training center for Nigerien special forces was inaugurated there last July.[4] Some Nigerien soldiers are trained as snipers and German special forces are also accompanying Nigerien soldiers on military patrols.[5] Operation Gazelle, classified by the German Defense Ministry as a “showcase project,” will officially end this year. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, however, is in favor of continuing Bundeswehr activities in Niger – possibly as “Training Mission Sahel.”[6]

Civilian Protest

During her visit to Niger on April 10, Lambrecht pointed out, that her Nigerien counterpart Alkassoum Indattou has “clearly decided against cooperation with Russian mercenaries,” unlike, for example, the Malian military.[7] However, President Bazoum’s government’s clearly pro-western orientation is no longer undisputed within that country. According to reports, the government’s foreign policy course is encountering sharp criticism, not only from the parliamentary opposition but also from civil society groups and the wider public.[8] A spokesperson for the “Committee Tillabéri pour la paix, la sécurité et la cohésion sociale” has warned that operations carried out by western armed forces in Mali have not improved the situation and there is no reason to assume that they would succeed in Niger.[9] Observers note that, in February, when he was announcing his plans to deploy European armed forces in Niger, Bazoum was obviously eager to involve the parliamentary opposition, civil society organizations as well as religious authorities to undermine any criticism and secure his approach as best as he could.[10]

Coup Attempts

Whether this will succeed, remains uncertain. Aside from the growing civil unrest over the expansion of French or European military intervention in Niger, there is growing discontent in the country’s armed forces. Attempted coups against Bazoum were undertaken – first in March of last year, then again in March of 2022. Both were put down. However, it remains to be seen, whether Niger’s government will be capable, in the long run, to suppress civil and military protests, to ensure a stable environment for the European troops. It had not been possible in Mali and Burkina Faso.


For more on this theme: Colonial Reflexes (II).


[1] Sahel : le redéploiement de forces spéciales européennes autorisé au Niger. l’ 23.04.2022.

[2] Mathieu Olivier: Niger : Les plans de Mohamed Bazoum après le retrait de Barkhane du Mali. 25.02.2022.

[3] See also Europas Wüstengrenze

[4] Marturin Atcha: Le Niger se dote d’un centre d’entraînement de forces spéciales antijihadistes. 16.07.2021.

[5] Matthias Lehna: Mitten in der Wüste.

[6], [7] Amina Vieth: Ministerin für weiteres Engagement im Sahel – unter bestimmten Bedingungen. 11.04.2022.

[8], [9] Mucahid Durmaz: Analysis: Can Niger become the main Western ally in the Sahel? 09.05.2022.

[10] Mathieu Olivier: Niger : Les plans de Mohamed Bazoum après le retrait de Barkhane du Mali. 25.02.2022.