At a roundtable discussion hosted by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington-based think tank, analysts focused on European engagement in the Sahel region in the aftermath of a military takeover in Niger in July.
The analysts, including top EU diplomats, expressed grave concern over Africa’s resolve to partner with Russia, despite Moscow’s limited material wealth or infrastructure to offer the continent. The panelists said Africa is becoming the center of global geopolitics.
Damien Cristofari, senior advisor on European Affairs at the French Embassy in Washington told VOA that the fluid situation in Niger leaves uncertainty in what the EU’s next line of action would be.
"Because we are still at the very (beginning) of the crisis and so we have to let the dust settle and see what we can or cannot do."
Cristofari said in light of rising anti-French sentiments in the Sahel region, parts of West Africa, like Mali and Burkina Faso, Paris is leaning toward a partnership with Africa. However, he said, such a partnership has to be "locally driven."
"We’re promoting a partnership approach and have already started to rethink our global relationship with Africa," Cristofari said. "This was the purpose of the EU-African Union Summit in 2022, where all of us — Europeans and Africans agreed to promote this partnership approach."
At the February 2022 summit held in Brussels, 40 heads of state met their European partners for what observers called a reset amid Russia and China’s growing influence on the continent.
The 27-nation bloc pledged $168 billion (150 billion Euros) worth of investments in the energy, transport, digital infrastructure, health and educational sectors over a seven-year span.
Cristofari said despite the instability in the Sahel, the EU continues to provide aid and money to countries in the Sahel region like Mali but did not give any figure.
"But given this development, we have to reflect on what these engagements will be and whether we can maintain this level of engagement in the future," he said.
Petr Tuma, visiting fellow at Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, told VOA that discussions on what happens in the Sahel region are still in the early stages, and that it would be "tough" to find a "common line" as some EU member states are rooting for an alternative approach to resolving the coup.
"Right now, we’re still considering the next line of action, because (the power grab) was quite a shock for Europeans. It will be difficult, but still possible," he said.
"There’s one buzzword we hear in Brussels, we need more of team spirit in Europe."
Tuma said the EU is looking to work with other countries in the Sahel to build their "defenses," but insisted it has no plan to abandon those facing political instability in the region. He told VOA he had no further details on what that plan will look like.
"There are certain countries like those in the Gulf of Guinea who are still ready to cooperate with us, and so I think we have to focus on working together with them on the economy and regional stability."
In 2014, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger established the "G5 Sahel" group to counter the main challenges they face — insecurity and political instability. However, Michael Shurkin, director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies told VOA that it seems efforts by the EU and France in the Sahel have not yielded stability.
"There are fundamental questions to be asked about whether or not it is even worth the while or does one simply walk away," he said. “Or if one stays engaged, does it mean having to work with these [military] juntas and figuring out how best to work with the juntas?”
He said the latter is not something the EU or the United States "would rather be doing," adding that "we really rather be working with democratic states."
Last month, military leaders in Gabon took power from long-time leader Ali Bongo-Ondimba, who was elected after an election that the opposition said was unfair.
Ondimba’s plea to the world to "make noise" fell on deaf ears, with some analysts telling VOA that it’s unlikely regional and the international community will call for his reinstatement. The Bongo family has ruled the Central African nation for nearly 56 years.
In July, members of Nigerien leader Mohamed Bazoum’s presidential guard toppled him and placed his family under house arrest. On Thursday, his lawyer Seydou Diagne said Bazoum has filed a lawsuit at the court of the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, in Abuja to free him.
"There’s an interest on the part of a lot of people in Washington to distance themselves from the French in the hope of trying to maintain lines of communication with these juntas and the population of these countries with the notion that there’ll be an opportunity to engage constructively for something," Shurkin told VOA.
"Although nobody actually knows what that something would be… what do we actually do and how do we improve things?" Shurkin said.
VOA's Anthony LaBruto Contributed to this story.