African military juntas take advantage of anti-French sentiment to gain support for a coup

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NIAMEY, Niger – Months after a military coup ousted Niger’s elected president, who many here saw as too close to France, Nigeriens were still celebrating their break with their colonial power. before.

Abdoulaye Doule, a 46-year-old hospital worker lying on the side of the road, said the coup was “liberation.” Amadou Issa, a 51-year-old tailor in his shop, said it meant that “Niger finally has complete independence.” ” And Abdoulaziz Issaka, a 48-year-old business consultant who had traveled back to Niger from his home in Germany, said the moment was about “total sovereignty. “

“Everyone is here to fight for our freedom,” Issaka said late last month as he stood outside the Niamey military base, where nightly protests have recently begun to subside. “It is just what is called independence from France.”

Although the July coup that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum began over a dispute with the head of his presidential guard, Western officials and analysts say, junta leaders have taken advantage of growing resentment towards France among the people to strengthen their popularity. Taking a page from recent coups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger’s new military leaders have blasted the country’s democratic leaders as too close to France and promoted a populist message asking the French military and diplomats to leave the area.

“You need an enemy, and the juntas have said from the beginning that their enemy is France,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a Nigerien political scientist based in the Netherlands. “They are almost in a mood where they are high on nationalism. And so they accept everything now in the name of nationalism.”

Anti-French sentiment has long existed in France’s former African colonies but in recent years has become an increasingly powerful factor in the Sahel region, which ‘ cut across the continent below the Sahara desert and including Niger. West Africans have become frustrated that France’s military presence has not stopped violent attacks by Islamic terrorist groups and have been exposed to widespread criticism and demonization of France on social media.

Issaka, who also lived for years in the United States, said that he believes in democracy. But he said Bazoum and his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who was also democratically elected, had become corrupt, ineffective and too closely tied to France to be considered legitimate.

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Within days of the July coup, a junta spokesman publicly warned of a “plan of aggression” by France. Thousands of Nigeriens marched towards the French embassy, ​​chanting “down with France” and waving Russian flags before smashing windows and setting the embassy door on fire. A few weeks later, the junta gave the French ambassador a 48-hour deadline to leave and ended military cooperation between the two countries. The French army says that its 1,500 soldiers, who have already begun to leave Niger, will be completely out of the country by the end of the year.

A senior French official said that “the Nigerien regime has had bad results in terms of security and the economy, so they are focusing their position on asking the French to leave.” The official said that France , at the request of Niger’s leaders before the coup, has been working with the Nigerien army as a partner, with the Nigeriens leading the operation. It remains a “very open question” how France, the European Union and the The United States now fight against terrorism in the region, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Andrew Lebovich, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands, said that the speed with which the partnership ended reflected the suspicions of the Nigerien military about French intentions. He also expressed displeasure with French President Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to recognize the coup leaders and demanded that Bazoum remain head of state.

“European and American officials saw Niger as this last bastion of cooperation and rational, well-thought-out policies on security issues,” he said. “That’s why this coup hit them particularly hard.”

France’s foreign ministry and Macron’s office did not respond to requests for comment. A senior French official previously said that France, at the request of Niger’s leaders before the coup, had been working with Niger’s army as a partner with the Nigeriens in charge of operations.

Hannah Rae Armstrong, a Sahel expert based in Dakar, said that Nigerien support for the cup spoke to the different opinions at home and abroad. In Europe and the United States, Bazoum and Issoufou were largely celebrated as rare democratic leaders in the region. In Niger, Armstrong said, they were often seen as leaders of an ineffective, corrupt political system.

“The coup could be read as a declaration of independence,” she said. “It means rejecting a political model that Nigeriens saw as linked to French interests with their own corrupt leadership. To do things differently, they would have to sweep both away.”

As a result of the coup, Niger’s other Western partners, including the United States, are being forced to chart a new strategy as they try to combat groups linked to al- Qaeda and the Islamic State and Russia’s growing influence in the region. The United States, which has about 1,000 troops in Niger and a large drone base, has suspended all operations not related to the defense of its own forces. Already, the country has seen a spike in attacks by extremists since the coup.

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Since the coup, the first question foreigners often get in Niger’s capital is a version of: “Vous venez d’où?” The question – “Where are you from?” in French – he was asked in markets and on the roadside, by activists, by regular people and by government officials alike.

“Good,” said Birgui Abat Ahmad, a 50-year-old cook sitting in the shade of a neem tree the other day, when he learned a journalist from the United States. “Because we hate the French.”

Sitting on a bamboo chair by the side of the road between afternoon prayers and lunch, Ahmad furrowed his brow and extended a finger: “If someone tells you there’s a good French,” he said, “they’re wrong. “

Ahmad and his friends, facing conspiracy theories, accused France of having cut off Niger’s natural supply of uranium and of working behind the scenes to destabilize the region. They cast Bazoum and Issoufou as “puppets” of France.

Researchers noted that Bazoum broke with some French-backed policies, including negotiating with local terrorist groups and supporting efforts to suppress Islamist militants. to send away.

Activist Abdoulaye Seydou, the national coordinator for the M62 coalition of civil society groups, said the list of protests against France is long. Seydou, whose group largely supports the new leaders, accused French politicians of trying to control past efforts at military cooperation among countries. West Africa. He said that Nigerien soldiers told him that French counterparts were not transparent or respectful, even towards their Nigerien superiors.

Seydou said the final straw came when the French military opened fire on civilians in 2021 after they surrounded a convoy heading to Mali to protest the presence of the French military, and did not take they responsibility. The Nigerien government said at the time that two civilians were killed that day. A spokesman for the French army said at the time that troops had “used force in an appropriate and appropriate manner” in the face of crowd violence and said the “confused situation” made it possible to find out if there was a connection between the French scenes. and the death of the demonstrators.

Seydou said the door is never closed for working with foreigners, as long as they “respect our sovereignty.”

But he said: “As far as France is concerned, we don’t see cooperation with them today. “

Omar Hama Saley in Niamey contributed to this report.

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