Picture: AFP/Taken on August 3, 2023 – A protester wearing a t-shirt in support of the Niger, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso junta leaders gesture during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey. The commander of French forces in the Sahel has discussed disengagement from Niger, yet Macron has refused to withdraw troops, whose continued presence in Niger was deemed ‘illegal’, the writer says.
By Pavan Kulkarni
Questioning the “sincerity” of France’s comments about the withdrawal of its troops from Niger, the transitional military government, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), has accused the former coloniser of mobilising for war.
CNSP spokesperson Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane said on September 9 that a “hundred or so rotations of [French] military cargo planes unloaded large quantities of war material and equipment” in multiple member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
He added that “two A400M type military transport aircraft and a Dornier 328 were deployed as reinforcements in Ivory Coast”, and “two Super Puma type multi-role helicopters” and “around forty armoured vehicles” have been deployed “in Kandi and Malanville in Benin”.
He alleged that “France has continued to deploy its forces in several Ecowas countries, as part of the preparations for an aggression against Niger that it is planning in collaboration” with the sub-regional bloc.
The AFP quoted an unnamed French military source denying the accusation, saying, “None of this is in preparation or intention. There is no intervention, no attack planned against Niger”. France had earlier extended support to Ecowas, which has threatened to use military force if the CNSP does not restore France’s ally Mohamed Bazoum as Niger’s president.
Bazoum, whose regime had instituted a crackdown on the mass protest movement against the presence of French troops in their country, was removed from presidency on July 26 in a military coup that has received popular support.
French troops in Niger are “in a position of illegality”
Following the coup, on August 3, the CNSP, cancelled the agreements on the basis of which the French troops were present in the country. The one-month notice period in these agreements expired on September 3, following which the French troops in Niger are “in a position of illegality”, the CNSP-appointed Prime Minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, said at a press conference on September 4.
He added that the “ongoing exchanges should allow these forces to withdraw from our country very quickly”. According to Abdramane’s CNSP communique on Saturday, Niger’s Chief of Staff and the commander of French forces in the Sahel met on September 1 “to discuss a plan for the disengagement of French military capabilities from Niger”.
Earlier last week, the AFP quoted an unnamed source in the French defence ministry confirming that “discussions on the withdrawal of certain military elements have begun”. Le Monde had also reported that “Paris has discreetly opened discussions with the ruling military in Niamey on ‘the withdrawal of certain elements’, after initially refusing to comply with the junta’s demands”.
However, “no progress has been made in implementing an agreement”, Abdramane criticised on September 9, questioning “the sincerity of the announcement of the French withdrawal plan”. He explained the reasons for CNSP’s scepticism, saying that “this withdrawal announcement comes from an operational level”. “It was not made by the French armed forces general staff, not by the French government, nor was it the subject of any official, written, or declaratory press release as is always customary in such circumstances.”
During a press conference on Sunday, September 10, after the conclusion of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated that “We do not recognise any legitimacy in the statements” of the CNSP, which he referred to as “the putschists”.
“If we redeploy anything, I will only do it at the request of President Bazoum and in co-ordination with him, not with officials who today are taking a president hostage,” he said. “As for the rest, I have no intention as long as the situation is this. It sort of freezes everything, since the only person we have to legitimately talk to is President Bazoum.”
Anti-French protests continue
In the meantime, demonstrations which began soon after the coup in support of the CNSP, demanding withdrawal of French troops, have now become an almost daily event. Thousands continue to gather outside the French base in capital Niamey, in a protest against the former coloniser’s intransigence.
After threatening late month to storm the French bases if its troops did not leave the country, protesters sacrificed a goat dressed in the French tricolor and symbolically buried a coffin draped in its national flag outside its base in Niamey earlier this month. Up to 1,500 French troops are deployed in this base and two others in Ouallam and Ayorou.
US on the retreat while China offers to moderate
The US, which has another 1,200 of its own troops in two bases in the country, is taking a more cautious approach than France. Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said at a press briefing on September 7 that the US is “repositioning some of our personnel and some of our assets from Air Base 101 in Niamey to Air Base 201” further north in Agadez.
Reiterating that the US hopes “that the situation on the ground gets resolved diplomatically”, she added that although “there is no perceived threat … to US troops”, they are being relocated as “a precautionary measure”. Politico reported on September 8 that the US military is “preparing to cut its presence in Niger nearly in half in the next few weeks”, citing unnamed Defence Department officials.
In the meantime, the Chinese ambassador to Niger Jiang Feng, said at a meeting with Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine that the Chinese government “intends to play the role of good offices, a role of moderator, with full respect for the regional countries”. Feng added that China “stands with Nigeriens”.
Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch
This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch