Niger is ruining Macron’s plan for African resettlement
Six months ago, ahead of a four-country African tour, President Emmanuel Macron promised a “new era” for France’s ties with the continent, based on a “partnership” of equals. French military bases in Africa, he said, would henceforth be run by local armed forces, with a “visible reduction” of French troops on the ground. It was to be a new phase in the Franco-African resettlement that Mr Macron first outlined in a speech in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in 2017, promising that it was “of a generation that is not coming to tell Africans. what will you do.”
Last week’s military coup against Mohamed Bazoum, the elected president of Niger, has left hopes for a new relationship deeply dashed. On July 30 protesters in Niamey, the capital of Niger, chanted “Down with France!” and put Russian flags on it. A crowd attacked the French embassy, setting the door on fire and breaking windows. On August 1, France began evacuating its nationals and other European citizens from Niger.
For France, the putsch is particularly shameful. After French troops left neighboring Mali last year, they joined forces in Niger, then considered a point of relative stability in a volatile region. Under a bilateral defense agreement, France maintains a permanent base there, equipped with fighter jets, Reaper drones and, currently, 1,500 troops. The coup against Mr. Bazoum does not seem to have been mounted for strategic reasons against France as much as a narrow personal ambition. But the fact that strong anti-French sentiment can be mobilized so easily in support of it shows how deep the problem has become.
France’s departure from Mali was already a blow to its reputation. At one point the French had 2,500 troops in that country as part of Operation Barkhane, a regional anti-jihadist mission, which grew out of a French operation first launched in 2013, at the request of the Malian government, which successfully repulsed the jihadist march. on the capital, Bamako. When François Hollande, then president of France, visited shortly after, he was mobbed. But the overthrow of his government in 2020 and the second coup the following year, and the new junta’s decision to hire mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group, changed the calculation. By August 2022 all French troops had left Mali, taking with them around 4,000 pieces of equipment and 1,000 vehicles; Barkhane was shut down.
Two cups in Burkina Faso last year gave France another blow. The leaders of the second coup ordered all the French soldiers to leave, which they did this year.
What went wrong for France? On wider links, Mr Macron has moved France in the right direction. He has returned works of art from long-disgraced museums in Paris to Benin and Senegal; he promised to end it CFA franc, regional currency supported by France; and asked for forgiveness for his country’s role in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Mr Macron has urged investors to look at technology and start-ups in Africa, not just deals and concessions. Earlier this year he announced that it was the time of the Françafrique “It’s over”, referring to the brutal web of influence, military support and business deals that used to bind France to its former colonies.
Since leaving Mali, France has also been rethinking its activities on the continent. A review is expected later this year. The plan is to ensure a lighter footprint and a clearer presence. Indeed in Niger, France had already acted more as a partner, less as a leader. “France has been trying to apply the lessons from Mali, to be sensitive to Niger’s concerns,” said Michael Shurkin, an expert on the Sahel at the Atlantic Council, an established think-tank. in washington, DC.
The problem is that this reaction can, in fact, be too little too late. China, Russia and Turkey have been lending, investing or securing contracts in West Africa with little complaint; China has replaced France as the main source of imports for the region. Other European countries train forces in the Sahel; America runs a massive intelligence operation out of Niger.
Because of its colonial history, France is often characterized for policy inconsistencies that are sometimes overlooked in relation to other powers. Many democrats in the region were quick to criticize France when it (and the African Union) turned a blind eye in 2021 to the illegal seizure of power in Chad by Mahamat Idriss Déby after the death of his father, who was run a country for 30. years. But few protested when Mr Déby was welcomed to a summit of African leaders in Washington just months after his security forces shot more than 50 protesters calling for an end to military rule.
This is partly because France is a great scapegoat. It is the only former colonial power to maintain large permanent military bases on the continent; Belgium, Great Britain and Portugal have none. Post-independence France’s tight ties to local elites, and its eagerness to become a region gendarme to support leaders, they tied their fortunes in them. The failure of today’s unpopular rulers to reduce poverty or prevent violence is easily blamed on their proximity to France. In Mali, for example, many were frustrated that security had been deteriorating for several years before the first coup, despite thousands of French troops and UN keepers of the peace.
The French have not found a reliable way to counter the post-colonial narrative of occupation and exploitation that is effectively used against it, spread by Russian troll factories and disinfection units. It’s stuck today even against the evidence. In Mali in 2022, for example, the year France closed Barkhane, deaths due to political violence increased by a staggering 150%, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a research group. The arrival of Wagner, he notes, “is a major contributing factor to the increase in violence in 2022”. But this is not the way most Malians see things. This year 80% of them told the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German think tank, that the end of Barkhane had not adversely affected their security – and 69% said they were confident that Russia could provide it.
In addition, although the French approach may be changing, the demands of a younger generation, intolerant of anything that offends their father, are changing faster. In 2020 Mr Macron was widely denounced on social media in the region for calling government leaders G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to a summit on the security of the region in Pau, in the south-west of France. “It was a mistake to work through a narrow regional organization so weak that it was obvious that France was the country in charge,” says François Heisbourg, from the Foundation for Strategic Research in in Paris.
Above all, over the past ten years, France’s counter-jihadist operations have achieved tactical success, but the violence has still spread. This has fueled conspiracy theories about France’s “real” motives – to train its army, to protect a uranium mine in Niger that helps power its nuclear reactors – however. France now faces difficult and painful choices. Its top brass say a withdrawal from Niger is “not on the table”. However, if the junta is still in place, it may have to be. The main thing at stake in Niger is its democratic future and the stability of the Sahel. But for France it is also proof of its ability to regain influence and reshape its security approach on the continent. ■