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Coup leaders may target French companies in stand-off

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Picture: Mahamadou Hamidou/REUTERS/ Thousands of Nigeriens have been gathering since last weekend in front of the French army headquarters, in Niamey, in support of their coup leaders and to demand the exit of the French army from that country. Many have seen France’s enduring military presence in its former colonies as reinforcement of the much-maligned Francafrique hence the popular calls for the withdrawal of French troops, says the writer.

By Sizo Nkala

The relations between Niger and France have been on a downward spiral since the July 26 coup which ousted the Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum. Bazoum was widely perceived to be France’s point man in Niger and the wider Sahel region in its fight against extremist insurgency.

The Nigerien military assumed power, citing the Bazoum administration’s failure to deal with the security and socio-economic crises affecting the country. General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the former head of the presidential guard, was chosen as the new head of state. While Tchiani hoped for the understanding of what he called Niger’s “financial and technical partners”, France, Niger’s former colonial power and biggest aid provider, condemned the coup forthwith.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the coup was illegitimate and dangerous, and called for an immediate restoration of the constitutional order. The French Foreign Ministry further announced that France was immediately suspending its entire development and budget support for Niger. This has marked the beginning of a tense stand-off between France and Niger’s military leaders which threatens to disrupt one of the last vestiges of Francafrique.

A wave of anti-French demonstrations suspected to have been organised and sanctioned by the army erupted in the capital city of Niamey the day after the coup took place with protesters gathering around the French embassy demanding the departure of French soldiers from Niger. Some of the protesters reportedly attempted to force entry into the embassy, leading Macron to issue a stern warning that there would be an immediate and uncompromising response in the event that French citizens and interests were violated.

The coup leaders responded with accusations that Paris was organising a military intervention in an attempt to reinstate the deposed Bazoum which was denied by French officials. Things were moving at lightning speed.

Less than a week after the coup, the new leaders announced that they were revoking five military agreements that Niger had entered into with France between 1977 and 2020. Niger currently hosts about 1 500 French soldiers who are stationed at an airbase on the outskirts of Niamey. The base is used to plan and launch operations in the fight against terrorist insurgencies across the Sahel.

Some of the French soldiers based in Niger were redeployed after France was forced to withdraw its soldiers in Mali and Burkina Faso following a fallout emanating from military takeovers in those countries. Niger had become the centre point of the French security strategy in the Sahel region.

However, many have seen France’s enduring military presence in its former colonies as reinforcement of the much-maligned Francafrique hence the popular calls for the withdrawal of French troops in most of the former French colonies. The French government dismissed the supposed revocation of the military agreements insisting that “the legal framework of France’s defence agreement with Niger is based on accords that were signed with the legitimate Nigerien authorities”.

This implied that in France’s view, only a government it considered legitimate could cancel the agreements. The junta in Niger also suspended the operations of France’s government-funded media outlets namely the 24-hour news channel, France 24 and Radio France International (RFI). This is a familiar move in the aftermath of coups where the military wants to have total control of the information disseminated to the public to maintain public support.

The two news outlets have been broadcasting stories that are critical of the coup much to the new Niger leaders’ dismay. As the fallout kept unfolding, the military leaders gave the French Ambassador to Niger, Sylvain Itte, a 48-hour ultimatum to leave the country on August 25 for failing to attend a meeting with Niger’s foreign minister. However, Macron responded after the ultimatum had elapsed, saying that his ambassador was not going to leave on the orders of an illegitimate junta. There are reports that the junta ordered that the water, food, and electricity supplies to the ambassador’s residence be cut off after the expiry of the deadline.

On August 31, the military ordered the police to expel Itte from the country as his visa had been cancelled. The regime released a statement claiming that he “no longer enjoys the privileges and immunities attached to his status as a member of the diplomatic personnel in the French embassy”. The ambassador has stayed put with his government insisting that he can only be demoted by a legitimate government. Anti-French demonstrations have continued across the country.

Nonetheless, the end may be in sight for the stand-off as there have been reports that France and Niger are in talks about a partial withdrawal of French troops. If the two sides do not hold on to the hardline positioning that has characterised their interactions thus far, there might be a breakthrough. However, both sides will be careful not to appear weak and concede some of their positions. If the stand-off continues, the Niger coup leaders may start targeting the 30 or so French companies operating in the country for leverage.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies