The chancellor welcomed President Mohamed Bazoum to Berlin, praising the good things his country was doing while underscoring the difficult challenges it faced -- not least the terrorism that dominates the Sahel region.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger to Berlin on Thursday, promising continued support for the North African country.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference before an evening working session, the chancellor underscored the difficulties facing the country but also pointed to the progress being made.
"We know the challenges are growing by the day. Therefore, I can say here and now, that when it comes to regional security, we naturally want to remain by Niger's side -- either bilaterally, or in connection with the G5 Sahel (G5S) states [Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso]."
President Bazoum thanked the chancellor for Germany's support, saying that it had become one of his country's most important partners.
Merkel points to progress in Niger, Bazoum thanks Germany
Merkel said that Bazoum, who took office in early April after putting down an attempted coup, had won free and fair elections in late February. His swearing in was the first democratic transfer of power in the nation's history.
Merkel also praised Niger's new emphasis on educating young girls, while at the same time noting that women needed to have better access to health care.
Speaking with DW ahead of the evening session, Bazoum spoke of his motivation for coming to Berlin: "Above all, I came to thank Mrs. Merkel before her term ends. Because she has done so very much to strengthen cooperation between Niger and Germany over the past several years. At the same time, I have come to ask Mrs. Merkel and Germany not to let that cooperation lapse and to further strengthen our relations."
German assistance and Niger's challenges
Germany greatly increased aid to Niger in 2015, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis and at a time when the EU also increased aid to the Sahel region. Within that context, Berlin financed projects for the repatriation of refugees as well as training police and special forces.
Pointing to the "major challenges" facing Niger, especially regarding armed conflict in the region, Merkel noted a number of areas where the two countries were working together, from developmental cooperation and humanitarian assistance to the fight against human traffickers and Islamist militias.
Merkel singled out Germany's role in training naval amphibious special forces troops (known as "combat swimmers" in German) as part of the EU's European Training Mission (EUTM) as an example of security cooperation.
Niger, a main transit country for African migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, borders three conflict regions: Libya to the north, Chad to the east, and Mali and Burkina Faso to the west.
The Sahel region has become a hotbed of Islamist terrorism, with a number of groups there allied to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS). Stabilizing the region has been a priority for Europe, which sees this as key to stemming the flow of migrants coming to its shores.
Niger's high birth rates and poverty driving youth to join terrorists
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and also has the world's highest birth rate -- on average, each woman in the country bears nearly seven children as compared to just over 1.5 in Germany.
Speaking with DW, Bazoum acknowledged the problem of young people joining Islamist groups though he claimed most do not do so for ideological reasons but rather as a way to make enough money to eat.
Outlining the strain his country has experienced, Bazoum said: "The situation has gotten worse, especially in Mali. Terror groups have established their bases there and more young people have joined them. Naturally, that affects our country."
Bazoum told DW that his country did not need more foreign soldiers in the fight against terrorism but rather the "technical equipment that Europe has and Sahel countries cannot afford, specifically reconnaissance aircraft and other tools" that could aid Niger's intelligence services.
After leaving Berlin, Bazoum will travel to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, where the two will also take part in a virtual meeting of the G5S.