Niamey / Johannesburg (dpa) – Antje Pittelkau did it: the 53-year-old is the first German female police officer to lead an international police mission of the European Union (EU).
She is one of the few women to work in such a management position – it is still the exception rather than the rule, especially in missions of the European Union. “The appointment of Antje Pittelkau is one step too late – a signal for Germany and the EU,” said Hans-Georg Engelke, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior. It was a “milestone on the way to greater women’s participation in peace processes”.
Pittelkau sees itself as a bit of a trendsetter and more encouraging. “I often sit in large gatherings and don’t realize I’m the only woman until the end,” she admits. Her entire professional life she traveled in a male-dominated world. Things have changed since January 16 – now she even receives letters from the few women around her who describe her as role models. Pittelkau has been appointed head of the EU police mission in Niger – a high-risk job in the terrorist-ridden West African country. With Mali there is also a neighboring state that is also located in the Sahel zone – an area where the Bundeswehr is also actively involved in the fight against terrorism.
Niger is one of the main transit countries for African migrants who want to reach the EU via the Mediterranean. According to the latest estimates from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, about 2.9 million displaced people are fleeing terror in the Sahel zone – and there are likely to be more. “The Sahel region – with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger – includes some of the world’s least developed countries, and the communities hosting the displaced are reaching the end of their capabilities,” said UNHCR spokesman Boris Chechirkow.
A UNHCR statement said Wednesday, “Given ongoing displacement, poor living conditions in neighboring host countries, the economic impact of the Covid pandemic and the lack of viable alternatives, many will rely on risky sea voyages to Europe.” They are exposed to all kinds of attacks and abuse. The UN agency expressed deep concern about the situation.
The EU mission, established in 2012, aims to help prevent tensions in the region. It bears the inconvenient name of the European Union’s capacity-building mission in Niger (EUCAP SAHEl Niger) and, with its nearly 200 members, should help build Nigeria’s security forces – in addition to the police, it also includes the national guard and gendarmerie. It’s less about traffic offenses, says the former head of the Berlin Internal Authority, who has been deputy head in Niger since 2018.
“Of course we don’t train traffic cops on the street,” she says. So far it has been about access techniques, forgery of passports, self-security. Now the focus is more on training the trainer. “And we guide and advise the people of Niger, also on a strategic level,” explains Freiburg-born Freiburg, who applied for a job with the Berlin police at the age of 18. “I owe my career to Berlin,” she says thoughtfully. Why Berlin? Because she was once considered too small in her home state of Baden-Württemberg at 1.60 meters, she explains with a laugh.
Terrorist groups that have sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) are active in the countries of the Sahel region. The government has little say in the deserted sprawling areas outside the cities, which are used not only by jihadist groups but also by criminal networks. Along with Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso, Niger is part of the G5 Sahel group that aims to fight terrorist groups.
But she doesn’t feel unsafe in Niamey, the capital of Niger, Pittelkau says – even though she admits that terror is now increasingly spreading from neighboring countries to Niger. Serious attacks take place on a regular basis, especially in the border area with Mali – such as recently in the villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye, where more than 100 people have been killed and many injured.
“After four years in Kabul, I went through a crisis,” says Pittelkau. That was in 2004, during her first assignment abroad in Afghanistan. Although she occasionally experiences déjà vu in Niamey, she sees no parallels between the situation in Niger and that in Afghanistan. “The premise is different,” says the Berlin state official, who makes no secret of her appetite for good food – and has just discovered Niamey’s first Italian ice cream parlor. She is hardly homesick: “I am driven by wanderlust.” But she admits: “After four years in Kabul, I really enjoyed the cappuccino on Kurfürstendamm.”