On July 26, 2023, senior members of Niger’s presidential guard, normally tasked with protecting president Mohamed Bazoum, announced that they had ousted him from power, holding him hostage inside his official residence.
Subsequently, on July 28, General Abdourahamane Tiani, the commander of the presidential guard, declared himself the head of the military-run National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, and the former chief of army staff, General Salifou Mody, who was dismissed by president Bazoum in March, was appointed his deputy.
The military coup in one of the world’s poorest countries took many people by surprise, including Western experts who saw it as a key ally of the United States and France in the fight against the growing jihadist movement in the Sahel zone and believed that it was on a stable development trajectory. Moreover, US secretary of state Antony Blinken called Niger ‘a model of democracy’ in Africa at a press conference during a March visit. Therefore, according to the New York Times, this coup was a serious setback for the West’s interests, whose policy of imposing ‘liberal democracy’ in Africa suffered a crushing defeat. However, France, Niger’s former colonial power, took a particularly hard hit politically. According to former Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl, the military takeover in Niger, following similar events in Mali and Burkina Faso, marks the end of the so-called ‘France-Afrique’ policy. She also added that African countries are currently choosing China, Russia, India and Turkey as partners instead of France.
One of the fundamental reasons behind the coup was rivalry within the country’s ruling political elite. It should be noted that Mohamed Bazoum belongs to the Arab community, which accounts for a mere 1.5 per cent of the country’s population, while his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou is from the Hausa ethnic group is a majority in the Sahel zone. Therefore, when the elected President Bazoum, who promised to follow the political course of his predecessor, reshuffled the highest bodies of state power soon after coming to power, replacing the chief of the General Staff and the Gendarmerie and dismissing six army generals, this caused a split within the ruling elite and intensified the inter-clan struggle for power.
At the same time, he began an anti-corruption campaign directed chiefly against supporters of the previous president, who in his time made Abdourahamane Tiani the head of the presidential guard. During his ten years in office, the latter transformed the guard into a force structure equipped with modern weapons and equipment, exceeding the level of combat training of the regular army. However, President Bazoum significantly reduced its staff and funding in the final months before the coup. According to some sources, these measures taken by the President gave rise to Tiani’s suspicions that he could be the next on the list of candidates for dismissal. At the same time, he informed several army commanders about his plans to overthrow president Bazoum.
The military takeover was roundly condemned by the United States, the EU, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and several international organizations. However, France was one of the most vocal opponents of the new regime, declaring that it did not recognize the legitimacy of the military leaders and demanding the restoration of ousted president Bazoum to power.
The 15-nation ECOWAS has suspended all commercial transactions with Niger, freezing its assets in the community’s banks, and Nigeria, which supplies 70 per cent of Niger’s electricity needs, has cut off its supply. It also warned that if the ousted President is not reinstated within two weeks, the organization will take all necessary measures, including military ones, to restore constitutional order in the country. Meanwhile, some experts believe that the community leadership made this statement under pressure from Paris through its proxies in the ranks of this regional organization.
In response, Abdourahamane Tiani, Niger’s military leader, said that Niger was ready to defend itself against any military intervention and if it happened, ‘it would not be an easy ride for those involved.’
According to POLITICO, Bazoum’s overthrow was another Macron’s major policy setback in Africa. After the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and Burkina Faso, Paris stationed 1,500 of its military personnel in Niger to fight terrorism with Bazoum’s approval based on the concluded military agreement. It was assumed that this country would become a kind of ‘laboratory’ for testing a new model of Franco-African relations, based on equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation instead of the discredited so-called ‘France-Afrique’ policy.
Shortly after France suspended all its cooperation with the new authorities, Niger’s military leaders announced the introduction of retaliatory measures and denounced the military cooperation agreement between the two countries on August 3, demanding to withdraw French troops from the country, and then declared the French ambassador persona non grata, giving him 48 hours to leave the country. Paris, however, refused to meet these demands, arguing that they were not legitimate, and stated that it regarded the ousted President Bazoum as the country’s sole legitimate leader.
Relations between the two countries soon became so tense that during a protest in front of the base hosting French military forces in Niamey, attended by a New York Times reporter, demonstrators carried a coffin they said was meant for the French president and brandished signs reading ‘Death to France’. As the newspaper notes, president Macron’s refusal to heed the calls of Niger’s new leaders to recall his ambassador and withdraw his troops from the country is considered untenable and unacceptable by most analysts and even some European and French diplomats.
On September 24, after two months of anti-French demonstrations in Niger, president Macron announced that France would withdraw its ambassador and its troops from the country. Many experts considered this a serious blow to France’s prestige. According to Al Jazeera, France’s withdrawal from Niger is ‘undoubtedly a victory’ for the country’s new rulers and ‘a disgrace for France’.
The Nigerian Vanguard Newspaper, describing the unsavoury role of the French president in resolving this conflict, notes that in this situation, being a statesman, he has sunk to the level of a petty swindler who distorts the true essence of the real events. Thus, after a two-month standoff, president Macron, having previously ordered his ambassador in Niamey not to leave his residence, despite the ultimatum to leave the country within 48 hours, accused the military rulers of holding his ambassador and his embassy staff hostages to the military regime. President Macron’s statement that his decision to withdraw French troops from Niger was motivated by the alleged reluctance on the part of the Nigerian troops to continue the fight against terrorism is also beneath all criticism.
However, the British weekly the Economist states that the real reason for this move by Macron is Paris’s understanding that despite all the threats from ECOWAS against Niger, these community countries will not be able to launch a military operation against the military regime in this country due to disagreements among its members and that it has no chance of restoring his former protégé Mohamed Bazoum to power. The Nigerian newspaper The Nation agrees with the British weekly and emphasizes that neither Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who is the head of ECOWAS, nor the community itself can do anything to resolve this crisis in the near future, since it is based on the serious economic problems of these states that cannot be ‘resolved overnight due to the plunderous activities perpetuated by the French metropolis for more than a hundred years’. Therefore, according to Dr François Heisbourg, (Foundation for Strategic Research, Paris) France, relying on the weakness of Niamey’s position, has largely bluffed its relations with the local military over the past two months rather than seeking mutually acceptable solutions.
The Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, assessed the vicissitudes of the Niger-French confrontation associated with the demands of the Nigerian military authorities to withdraw the French military contingent and the French ambassador, and also the refusal of France to do so, due to non-recognition of the ‘legitimacy’ of the military leaders, sees in Paris’s actions ‘lack of logic and a complete loss of sense of reality’, which could ultimately lead to new military coups in former French possessions, strengthen the position of terrorists on the continent and increase African migration to Europe, which will ultimately harm the interests of France itself.
The neocolonial nature of France’s policy in Africa is criticized not only outside its borders. Increasingly, its effectiveness is being questioned in the French media and research centres. For example, France 24 arrived at a conclusion, rather gloomy for French people, which sounds like a funeral prayer for Paris’s policy in Africa, admitting that Macron’s policy had brought the country to a state where its former colonies, expressing their dissatisfaction with the French military presence, kicked Paris out. After the Central African Republic, Mali and Burkina Faso, Paris ‘received this honour’ in Niger.
The European Union Institute for Security Studies believes that this kind of failure occurred due to Paris’s uncontrollable desire to play a leading role in the Sahel zone without taking into account the changes taking place in the region associated with the growth of anti-French sentiment, as well as due to excessive paternalism and open interference in the affairs of African states. Moreover, according to The New York Times, these failures of Paris policy in Africa, which is ‘tired of the ignorance and arrogance of president Emmanuel Macron’, are leading to increased Russian influence on the continent.
The Middle East Monitor, published in London and financed by Qatar, notes that the current situation in Niger is another convincing evidence of the African population’s rejection of the French colonial legacy. Africans, especially young people who make up the vast majority of the population across the continent, with an average age of 14.8 in Niger, have become increasingly critical of French policies. This concerns the generation of Africans who were born after their countries gained independence and did not experience all the “charm” of French colonization, but today they suffer from the continued plundering of their countries’ natural resources.
Amid growing dissatisfaction among Africans with western policies, ECOWAS Parliament Speaker Sidi Tunis told the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times that ‘in our quest for democracy, we (ECOWAS) must reconsider our relations with the West, especially between the French-speaking countries and France’. According to him, the coup in Niger highlighted in stark detail the problem of neocolonialism in Africa, when the country’s mineral wealth is mercilessly exploited while its population barely makes ends meet.
Poverty is indeed one of the most pressing problems in modern Niger. More than 40 per cent of its twenty-five million population, roughly 10 million people, live below the poverty line with an income of less than $1.90 a day. About 50 per cent of school-age children have difficulties in gaining access to education due to the lack of schools or the inability to attend them due to the jihadist threat in many parts of the country. And this is even though Niger, in addition to copper, niobium, lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel, has the world’s largest uranium deposits, which have been developed by the French company Orano (formerly Arewa) over the past 50 years, receiving huge profits due to the low-income tax of the host country. However, the share of uranium in Niger’s GDP is only 5 per cent. As for the country’s budget, 40 per cent of it is financed by foreign aid in the amount of $2.2 billion per year. Therefore, apparently, the African online publication The Elephant, assessing the existing system of French-African relations, qualifies the coup in Niger as an indictment of French neocolonialism.
In the language of the American publication POLITICO, ‘the expulsion of France from Niger’ showed the need for Paris to urgently review its relations with African countries, primarily by reducing its military presence on the continent as a whole, which, according to experts from Queen Mary University of London, ‘has begun to have a counterproductive effect, and if Paris wants to preserve it, it must be integrated into the EU structures, which will enable France to free itself from the label of the gendarme of Africa.’
According to the American source, this solution is also supported by the French Foreign Ministry, where, in contrast to the presidential leadership, they have concluded that ‘our military presence is no longer accepted in African countries.’ According to one diplomat: ‘We have been kicked out of several African countries, and we do not need to wait to be shown the door in other African states.’
However, it should be understood that there are currently 6,700 French troops still stationed in Africa, particularly in Chad, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. But according to Kenyan newspaper The East African, anti-French sentiment is also on the rise in these countries. In Senegal, for example, Ousmane Sonko, the opposition contender in next February’s presidential elections, has made criticism of France’s neocolonial policy a central part of his campaign platform, which is particularly supported by young people. The Economist, citing public opinion polls, regarding France’s reputation in Côte d’Ivoire and the stronghold of French influence in Africa, notes that less than half of Ivorians trust the former colonial power. 65 percent of them believe that France can win them over if it withdraws all its troops from West Africa.
Despite the fact that Paris suffered a diplomatic setback in the confrontation with Niamey, we should not think that it will so easily accept the role of the victim and will not seek revenge. In this regard, president Macron’s statement at the annual French ambassador’s meeting held at the end of August in Paris particularly attracts attention, in which he promised to take measures to ‘defend democracy’ in Niger. But he did not say what exactly he intended to do. He apparently adopted this manner from president Joe Biden, who once grinned and declared that Nord Stream 2 would never take place. And there are grounds for this kind of reasoning. As recently as September 26, according to Reuters, a coup attempt was foiled in Burkina Faso. Several army officers and civilians were arrested. Earlier it was reported that the authorities expelled the military attaché of the French embassy, Emmanuel Pasquier, from the country on suspicion of subversive activities.
It is possible that the attempt at a new coup in Niger may be postponed to a later date, since with the current intensity of anti-French sentiment, this could cause an uncontrollable wave of anger in response to the actions taken by Paris with unpredictable consequences throughout Africa. But after some time, it will be easier for the French intelligence services to justify the next coup by internal squabbles in military circles, which, unfortunately, is very common in Africa.
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