SAHEL SECURITY

Niger becomes France’s partner of last resort after Mali withdrawal

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Niger's President Mohammed Bazoum to the Élysée presidential palace in Paris on February 16, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Niger's President Mohammed Bazoum to the Élysée presidential palace in Paris on February 16, 2022. © AFP - Ludovic Marin

As France and its European allies prepare to leave Mali, Paris plans to increase its military cooperation with Niger in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel. But it’s a marriage of convenience as coups and rising anti-French sentiments in the region have left Paris with little choice. 

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Last year, at the end of a virtual G5 Sahel meeting in July, French President Emmanuel Macron held a press conference where the optics displayed the new security and diplomatic trend in a grouping that covers Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

While a screen in the Élysée presidential palace displayed the G5 Sahel logo, which includes the flags of the five West African nations, the only African leader invited to Paris – and physically present in the room with Macron – was Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum. 

The pivot to Niger was highlighted again this week, when Macron announced a French troop withdrawal from Mali following a breakdown in relations between Paris and the military junta in the Malian capital, Bamako. "Multiple obstructions" by the ruling junta meant that the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali, said a joint statement signed by France and its African and European allies.

On the sidelines of the two-day European Union-African Union summit on Thursday, Macron said the fight against Islamist insurgents would continue from Niger. 

"The heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali but in Niger...and perhaps in a more balanced way across all the countries of the region that want this [security help]," said Macron. 

The withdrawal from Mali includes around 2,400 French troops under Operation Barkhane as well as the French-led Takuba special forces mission of 14 mainly European nations. 

The next day, in his first comments since the withdrawal announcement, Bazoum said the objective now was to secure Niger’s western border with Mali. "We expect that after the departure of Barkhane and Takuba, this area will be even more infested and the terrorist groups will grow stronger," said Bazoum in a message posted early Friday on Twitter. 

With the new security arrangement, Niamey – Niger’s capital, which is closest to the flashpoint tri-border area where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge – is now a crucial support point for French military operations.  

But while Macron has a good relationship with Bazoum, Niger faces many of the challenges confronting the region – including poverty, institutional weakness and rising anti-French sentiment – raising questions over its role as France’s new key player in trying to secure the Sahel. 

Operation Barkhane outside Mali
Operation Barkhane outside Mali © Creative Department - France Médias Monde

Little choice in a difficult zone 

A landlocked nation which shares borders with seven countries – including some of the world’s least developed and most insecure nations, such as Chad and Libya – Niger belongs to the West African coalition, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). 

Over the past few months, the coalition has been gripped by a series of coups, including a military takeover in Burkina Faso earlier this year. An August 2020 coup in Mali was followed by a second one in May 2021 and a rapid deterioration of Franco-Malian relations, which saw the expulsion of the French ambassador in Bamako this month.

Thursday’s withdrawal announcement marked a bitter end to France's nearly decade-long military engagement in Mali, but the insecurity and violence persists in the region. 

As Bazoum was meeting leaders at the EU-AU summit in Brussels on Thursday, Niger’s defence ministry announced the toll of the latest attack to hit the country. Five Nigerien soldiers were killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) in Niger’s administrative Tillaberi region, which lies in the flashpoint tri-border zone. 

"Paris is worried about the jihadist threat moving down from Mali to the Gulf of Guinea," said Idrissa Abdourahmane from the African Studies Centre Leiden in the Netherlands in an interview with FRANCE 24. 

"Burkina Faso and Niger are both on the frontline, but Niger is so far less overwhelmed by the terrorist danger and therefore considered a safer ally by Paris," explained Abdourahmane. “With the rapid deterioration of relations between France and Mali, and the coup in Burkina Faso, Niamey has now become a crucial spot for a French military redeployment." 

In addition to its strategic position, Niger has another major advantage for France. In the critical tri-border region, Niger is now the only country to be led by a democratically elected president, making it an easier partner and regional example for the West.  

A ‘presentable’ government for France’  

Niger’s recent democratic status upgrade follows Bazoum’s victory in the February 2021 presidential election after his predecessor, Mahamadou Issafou, stepped down after serving the constitutionally mandated two five-year terms.

A former interior minister and candidate from Issafou’s ruling party, Bazoum was declared the winner by the country’s constitutional court after the opposition candidate, Mahamane Ousmane – who ran on a platform for change – contested the results. On the campaign trail, Bazoum was portrayed as the candidate for stability and continuity – he even hired Issoufou's son as his campaign manager.  

Bazoum’s poll victory marked Niger’s first-ever democratic transition, earning him Macron’s "best wishes" as the French president welcomed the "peaceful transfer of power", despite the opposition's accusations of widespread fraud.  

"The good relationship between Paris and Niamey precedes the arrival in power of Mohamed Bazoum," explained Abdourahmane. "It was his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who during his term of office, had positioned himself as an ally of the West, particularly on the security front. In succeeding him, his successor, Mohamed Bazoum, has followed the same policy, consolidating this relationship of trust." 

Governance is an important issue for Macron as France heads the EU’s rotating presidency in the run-up to the April-May French presidential election, explained Jean-Vincent Brisset, a former air brigade general and expert on defence issues at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).  

"Niger has the advantage of having a presentable government for France," said Brisset in an interview with FRANCE 24. "In the current context, with the presidency of the European Union and the approaching French presidential election, this aspect is very important. It is easier for Emmanuel Macron to show a retreat to Niger than to Burkina Faso or even to his other major regional ally, Chad, both of which are run by the military." 

Tensions between government and military 

While Niger is less affected by terrorism than Mali and Burkina Faso, its army faces similar challenges in the fight against jihadist groups. An Amnesty International report published in September highlighted the worsening security situation and its impact on children – who are being killed and targeted for recruitment by armed groups – in the Tillabéri tri-border region.

Bazoum, a former interior minister, has promised to make the fight against terrorism the priority of his mandate.  

Faced with a deteriorating security situation, the spectre of a coup worries authorities in Niger – a country that has experienced four military putsches since its independence in 1958. 

"Like many countries in the region familiar with coups, Niger is suffering from persistent tensions between its government and its army," said Abdourahmane. "This mutual distrust prevents the necessary reforms within the military institution. Soldiers are confined to camps, which are often poorly protected, and they become targets for jihadists who are highly mobile. It is true that the current government has increased the number of troops and invested in equipment, but the army will not be able to be effective on the ground until it is rethought to adapt to the current conflict."  

The dangers of being France’s ‘privileged ally’  

Another concern for Paris, is that Niger has not been spared the rising anti-French sentiment gripping the region.  

On November 27, 2021, protesters blocked a French military convoy in the town of Tera, in western Niger. On the same day, Bazoum denounced "the campaign waged" against Operation Barkhane in the region, before "demanding" a few weeks later that Paris investigate the circumstances of the death of three civilians during this incident. 

"The position of Niger’s president, who is currently considered France’s privileged ally, is very delicate in the current context, because the jihadists could decide to make him pay for his commitment to Paris," noted Brisset. "A resurgence of attacks could contribute to increasing anti-French sentiment and therefore potentially, the risk of a coup." 

Logistical issues also pose a challenge for the Takuba command transfer to Niamey. More than seven months after Macron’s July 2021 announcement, the transfer has still not taken place.  

"The Niamey base is certainly important for air support, but it does not allow for large-scale operations on the ground. And Niger is sorely lacking in operational capacity," explained Brisset. "This withdrawal [from Mali] is a far from ideal solution, but the reality is that France no longer has a real choice in choosing its partners."  

On Thursday during his press conference, Emmanuel Macron said that the withdrawal of French forces from Mali would be effective within six months. The French president also said that military support to countries in the region would be defined soon "according to the needs they have expressed." 

(This article has been translated from the original in French)

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