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

As France and its European allies prepare to leave Mali, Paris plans to increase its military cooperation with Niger in the fight against Islamist rebels in the Sahel. But it is a marriage of convenience because the coups and the growing anti-French sentiment in the region did not leave Paris with much choice.

Last year, at the end of a virtual meeting of the G5 Sahel in July, French President Emmanuel Macron held a press conference at which Basra showed the new security and diplomatic direction at a gathering covering Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

While a screen at the Elysee 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 in the room with Macron – was Niger President Mohamed Bazoum.

The Niger axis was again highlighted this week, when Macron announced the withdrawal of French troops from Mali after relations between Paris and the junta in Mali’s capital, Bamako, collapsed. A joint statement signed by France and its African and European allies said the list was ready to operate in Mali.

On the sidelines of a two-day EU-African Union summit on Thursday, Macron said the fight against Islamist rebels 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 in all the countries in the region that want it. [security help]Macron said.

The withdrawal from Mali includes about 2,400 French soldiers under Operation Barkhane as well as the French-led Takoba Special Forces mission of 14 European countries.

The next day, in his first comments since the withdrawal was announced, Bazoum said the goal now was to secure Niger’s western border with Mali. “We expect that after the departure of Barkhane and Tukuba, this area will be more spread out and the strength of terrorist groups will increase,” Bazoum said in a message posted early Friday on Twitter.

Notre objectif est que notre frontière avec le Mali soit sécurisée. Nous prévoyons qu’après le départ de Barkhane et de Takuba, cette zone soit encore plus incestée et que les terrorist groups per se. or, nous savons qu’ils ont vocation atendre leur emprise.

– Mohamed Bazoum (@mohamedbazoum) February 18, 2022 With the new security arrangements, Niamey – the capital of Niger, closest to the tripartite border tension point where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger meet – is now an important support point for French military operations.

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

Operation Barkhane outside Mali © Creative Department – France Médias Monde A small option in a difficult region A landlocked country that shares its borders with seven countries – including some of the least developed and most insecure countries in the world, such as Chad and Libya – Niger belongs to a West African coalition of countries West Africa (ECOWAS).

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

Thursday’s withdrawal announcement marks a bitter end to France’s nearly decade-long military involvement in Mali, but insecurity and violence persist in the region.

As Bazoum was meeting leaders at the EU-African Union summit in Brussels on Thursday, Niger’s Defense Ministry announced the outcome of the latest attack on the country. Five Nigerian soldiers have been killed by an explosive device explosion in Niger’s Tillaberi administrative district, which is located in the restive Triple Border region.

“Paris is concerned about the jihadist threat that is moving from Mali to the Gulf of Guinea,” said Idrissa Abdel-Rahman of the Center for African Studies in Leiden in the Netherlands, in an interview with France 24.

Abdel Rahman explained that “Burkina Faso and Niger are both on the front line, but Niger is so far less inundated with the threat of terrorism, and therefore Paris is considered a safer ally.” “With the rapid deterioration of relations between France and Mali, and the coup in Burkina Faso, Niamey is now a crucial spot for the redeployment of the French army.”

In addition to its strategic location, Niger has another major advantage for France. In the crucial Triple Border region, Niger is now the only country led by a democratically elected president, making it an easier partner and a regional example to the West.

‘Wonderful’ government for France The recent update to Niger’s democratic status comes on the heels of Bazoum’s victory in the February 2021 presidential election after his predecessor, Mohamedou Issafou, stepped down after serving two five-year terms under the constitution.

The country’s Constitutional Court declared Bazoum, a former interior minister and candidate from the ruling Isafu party, the winner after the results were contested by the opposition candidate, Mahman Osman – who ran on a platform for change. The candidate for stability and continuity – he even appointed Issoufou’s son as his campaign manager.

Bazoum’s election victory marked Niger’s first democratic transition, earning him Macron’s “best wishes” as the French president welcomed the “peaceful transfer of power”, despite opposition accusations of widespread fraud.

Abdel Rahman explained that “the good relationship between Paris and Niamey precedes the arrival of Mohamed Bazoum to power.” “His predecessor Muhammed Issoufou, during his tenure, had positioned himself as an ally of the West, particularly on the security front. His successor, Muhammed Bazoum, followed the same policy, establishing this policy as a relationship of trust.”

Jean-Vincent Brisset, former general in the air brigade and expert on defense issues at the French International Institute, explained that governance is an important issue for Macron, as France holds the rotating presidency of the European Union in the run-up to the French presidential elections in April and May. and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

In an interview with France 24, Brisset said: “Niger has the advantage of having a good-looking government for France. In the current context, with the presidency of the European Union and the French presidential elections approaching, this aspect is very important. It is very important. It is easier for Emmanuel Macron to show his withdrawal to Niger from it to Burkina Faso or even to its other major regional ally, Chad, both of which are run by the military.”

Tensions between the government and the 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 deteriorating security situation and its impact on children – who are being killed and targeted for recruitment by armed groups – in the tri-border region of Tillaberi.

Bazoum, a former interior minister, has promised to make fighting terrorism a priority in his term.

Facing the deteriorating security situation, the specter of a coup worries the authorities in Niger – a country that has seen four military coups since its independence in 1958.

“Like many countries in the region that are familiar with coups, Niger suffers from constant tensions between its government and its army,” Abderrahmane said. “Mutual distrust prevents necessary reforms within the military. Soldiers are trapped in camps, which are often poorly protected, and become targets for highly mobile jihadists. It is true that the current government has increased the number of troops and personnel invested in equipment, but the military will not be able to be effective on the ground until it is rethought to adapt to the current conflict.”

The dangers of France’s “distinguished ally” being another concern for Paris, which is that Niger has not been spared the growing anti-French sentiment sweeping the region.

On November 27, 2021, protesters intercepted a French military convoy in the town of Tira, western Niger. On the same day, Bazoum denounced “the campaign launched against Operation Barkhane in the region, before” demanding “a few weeks later that Paris investigate the circumstances of the killing of three civilians during this incident.

Brissett noted that “the position of the president of Niger, who is currently considered a privileged ally of France, is very sensitive in the current context, because the jihadists may decide to pay him in exchange for his commitment to Paris.” “Renewed attacks could contribute to an increase in anti-French sentiment and thus the possibility of a coup d’état.”

Logistics issues also pose a challenge to relocating Takuba’s command to Niamey. More than seven months after Macron’s announcement in July 2021, the transfer has yet to take place.

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

Emmanuel Macron said, Thursday, during his press conference, that the withdrawal of French forces from Mali will be effective within six months. The French president also said that military support for countries in the region would soon be determined “in accordance with the needs they expressed.”

(This article was translated from the original into French)

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