Between Ambition and Reality
Interview with Antonia Witt
Elisabeth Waczek: At the end of June, the UN Security Council decided to renew the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). A month before, the German Bundestag also extended Germany’s participation in that mission for another year. You are currently conducting research on German government action in Mali and Niger. Can you explain the importance of these West African countries to German foreign policy and the global security architecture?
Antonia Witt: The Sahel region is one of the hotspots of violence globally. Various Islamist groups have spread here, very successfully exploiting local conflict dynamics and creating a complex situation of violence in which a large number of violent actors are now involved. This is no longer limited to Mali. Rather, we see how this type of violence has expanded over the past decade and spread across the entire Sahel region and into the coastal areas. In fact, in terms of the number of violent incidents, Burkina Faso, not Mali, is the epicenter of violence today. The victims and targets of this violence are mainly civilians. In Niger, it has worked for a long time to keep the basis for Islamist violence small. But here, too, we see a clear increase in violence in recent years.
Elisabeth Waczek: Soon you will release a study that you conducted with partners in Mali and Burkina Faso, on behalf of the German Government and its Advisory Board for Civilian Crisis Prevention and Peacebuilding. Can you tell us what this study is about?
Antonia Witt: The aim of the study “Policy coherence for peace in practice” is to evaluate to what extent and why German government action in Mali and Niger aligns (or not) with the principles set out in the policy guidelines Preventing Crises, Managing Conflicts, Promoting Peace. “The guidelines”, as they are often called in German, were adopted in 2017 with the intention to define a strategic compass for Germany’s engagement in (post-)conflict and crises settings. So, the study examines in how far German government action in both countries follows these guidelines and which factors contribute to or inhibit policy coherence for peace. It also explores the perception of (in)coherence in German government action on the part of local civil society in Mali and Niger. I have been leading the preparation of this study, which is, however, a multi-sited team effort, including Simone Schnabel from PRIF, Dr. Abdoul Karim Saidou from the Centre pour la Gouvernance Démocratique (CGD) in Burkina Faso and Baba Dakono from the Observatoire citoyen sur la Gouvernance et la Sécurité (OCGS) in Mali. We are just about to submit the very final version of the study which will then be published in German, English and French.
“Engagement in (post-)conflict or crises contexts requires a clear strategy on how different ministerial departments can work together and contribute to the common goal of promoting sustainable peace. A lot more needs to be done in that regard.”
Elisabeth Waczek: Based on your research findings, what are aspects that should be regarded more by German and EU policy makers?
Antonia Witt: Since the study has not yet been published, I do not want to spoil too much. The study will come up with several concrete policy recommendations for the German government. But to share maybe one more general insight from our research: altogether, we found that in both countries the guidelines play an insufficient role in the substantive orientation of German cooperation in particular with regard to what actually contributes to the establishment of lasting peace. Engagement in (post-)conflict or crises contexts requires a clear strategy on how different ministerial departments can work together and contribute to the common goal of promoting sustainable peace. A lot more needs to be done in that regard.
Elisabeth Waczek: Does the current focus on Russia and Ukraine have an impact on Germany’s and the EU’s policies towards Mali and other African countries?
Antonia Witt: There is a fear that the war in Ukraine diverts two things away from the African continent: money and attention. Both are important for addressing the urgent peace and security related challenges on the continent. But also beyond ongoing conflicts, the global Covid19 pandemic has had very serious consequences for many African economies which are – under the current situation and with money and attention being drawn away from the African continent – even less likely to be buffered. I also see another negative impact of the current focus on Russia and Ukraine: the recurrence of the geopolitical lens of great power competition, spheres of influences, friend/foe logics. This lens comes with two dangerous consequences: it pushes African countries into a Cold War logic in which “neutrality” is the only choice and it prevents seeing African actors as (rightfully) having their own agency and interests. If Germany’s and the EU’s aim is to build a rules-based and inclusive global order, both consequences are definitely working against that aim.
“I would argue that the power of [the AU's] governance program might actually lie exactly in [its] ambition and not in it being realistically 'implemented' within a decade or two.”
Elisabeth Waczek: July 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the African Union, which replaced the Organization of African Unity. Another research focus of yours is the role that African regional organizations such as the AU and ECOWAS play on the continent, and how they are perceived by the people they are supposed to represent. Can you talk about the importance of these organizations and the challenges that they face?
Antonia Witt: Like many other international institutions globally, the African Union faces a number of challenges. It is important to say that 20 years ago, the AU was launched with a very ambitious program – to democratize the continent, to build peace, to become a “people-centred” organization, etc. I would argue that the power of this governance program might actually lie exactly in this ambition and not in it being realistically “implemented” within a decade or two. However, from our research in a DFG-funded project on local perceptions of interventions by the African Union and ECOWAS we can say that at least citizens in Burkina Faso and the Gambia have quite clear and sometimes far-reaching expectations towards these organizations, in particular in the area of building peace and promoting economic development. This is somehow puzzling since – on the other hand – many of these citizens are quite disappointed about what these organizations actually do for them at the moment. And for the organizations, of course, it means that there is a constant danger of creating a real deception if these expectations continue not to be met. So I think one of the key challenges for the AU for the next decade or so is to actually connect to the people the organization represents, a challenge that is all too familiar for citizens of an EU member state.
Elisabeth Waczek: Thank you very much for the conversation!
“[...] one of the key challenges for the AU for the next decade or so is to actually connect to the people the organization represents, a challenge that is all too familiar for citizens of an EU member state.”
Antonia Witt is a Senior Researcher at PRIF's Research Department “Glocal Junctions” and Head of the Research Group “African Intervention Politics”.
A conversation with
Witt, Antonia (2020): Understanding Societal Perspectives on African Interventions. A Methodological Agenda, PRIF Working Papers No. 50, Frankfurt/M.
Witt, Antonia (2022): Beyond formal powers: Understanding the African Union's authority on the ground, in: Review of International Studies, 1–20, DOI: 10.1017/S0260210522000067