The 48-hour ultimatum Niger’s military leaders gave French Ambassador to Niger Sylvain Itte to leave the country ended on Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on the same day that Itte would remain in the capital Niamey.
As the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and France anticipated the response of Niger’s leaders to the French refusal, the capital’s streets did not lack substantial gatherings in favour of the country’s new military leadership.
The decision to expel the ambassador was a response to actions taken by the French government that were “contrary to the interests of Niger,” said a letter the Nigerien Foreign Ministry sent to Paris.
Niger’s military leaders, installed in their positions a few weeks earlier in the wake of a coup, said their decision was the result of Itte’s refusal to meet with them. However, it appears that other factors lie behind the military’s decision to oust Itte, including French criticisms of the coup in Niger.
France has aligned itself with the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS on Niger, and it is collaborating with the European Union to impose supplementary sanctions on the military council in Niamey.
Paris rejected the council’s decision to annul the military security treaty between Niger and France on 26 July, arguing that Niger’s post-coup leadership lacks the legitimacy required to nullify such agreements. The authority to expel foreign ambassadors also rests with the government led by former president Mohamed Bazoum, it said.
France is apprehensive about a situation similar to those in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the military also expelled French forces following coups. France refuses to withdraw its 1,500 soldiers from Niger who had been aiding the Bazoum administration in its counterterrorism efforts.
France’s Barkhane Operation, launched in African Sahel countries including Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, aimed to combat factions aligned with terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
However, the fight against these groups has not led to their disappearance, as they thrive on the widespread poverty, unemployment, and the consequences of climate change in these countries.
These African nations, among the world’s poorest, cannot face these terrorist groups on their own. Their activities intertwine with local and ethnic aspirations for autonomy, increasing the challenges faced by central governments, and for this reason France has historically intervened.
A prime example of such separatist movements occurred a decade ago in Mali when Tuareg factions collaborating with terrorist elements proclaimed the independence of the northern part of the country.
In response to the French assertion that Itte would remain in Niger, the military authorities in Niamey cut off water and electricity supplies to the embassy, saying that this would continue if Itte did not leave the country.
ECOWAS has failed to commit to a definite course of action involving a possible military intervention in Niger in order to reinstate its “constitutional government,” according to ECOWAS statements.
Head of the ECOWAS Commission Omar Alieu Touray said the deployment of ECOWAS forces with a view to intervening in Niger would only be as a “last resort” if diplomatic endeavours prove fruitless.
During a meeting in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, West African leaders affirmed that a military intervention in Niger would be “the final recourse.”
Their caution stems from the understanding that an intervention of the type earlier carried out in Gambia in 2017 during which former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh was forced to concede defeat in elections he had lost might not be feasible in Niger.
“Gambia is a small nation entirely encompassed by Senegal,” said Mohamed Youssef Wardi, a Sudanese journalist based in Washington. The “process of restoring democracy” in Gambia had succeeded due to Senegal’s substantial influence in the country, he said.
“But the dynamics differ in Niger, given the vast expanse of the country and its population exceeding 25 million. The dominant Hausa ethnic group also tends to align with the military leaders rather than the president of Arab descent,” he added.
However, additional factors also contribute to the hesitancy in resorting to the “final option” in Niger. Mali and Burkina Faso have pledged their support to Niger in the event of a West African military intervention.
Algeria, a potent player with robust alliances in Africa, also adamantly refuses to engage in any form of military intervention. “Algeria is apprehensive about a large-scale conflict that could ignite the African Sahel and potentially spill into southern Algeria,” Wardi noted.
There is little indication of any support in Chad for a military intervention in Niger, particularly following movements by the Libyan National Forces in eastern Libya to counter the Chadian opposition.
Chad remains focused on monitoring its northern border with Libya to quell opposition groups to President Mahamat Idriss Déby’s rule and on monitoring the east of the country following the dramatic developments in Darfur in neighbouring Sudan.
There is no unified stance on a possible military intervention in Nigeria. One parliamentary bloc is urging Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu not to use force in Niger. Tinubu had cautioned that if the military in Niger persists in rejecting ECOWAS proposals, external actors could be obliged to act, complicating matters further.
Northern Nigeria is grappling with a 40 per cent surge in the price of meat and grains following the border closure between Nigeria and Niger. In Niger, the threat of famine puts around 10 million people at risk of hunger, potentially escalating unrest across the African Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin.
Nigeria, Benin, and Burkina Faso rely on meat and grain imports from Niger. The closure of borders and economic sanctions against Niger have now lasted for over four weeks, making these largely impossible.
Niger also depends for 90 per cent of its electricity on Nigeria. It is a significant source of uranium (20 per cent) for the EU, particularly France, which heavily relies on nuclear reactors for power generation.
Relief organisations and UN agencies have reported a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the prices of imported medicines and food items in Niger. Some 6,000 tons of goods from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are currently stranded outside the country, including grains, cooking oil, and food for malnourished children, WFP regional spokesperson Djaounsede Madjiangar said.
Humanitarian needs are rising, potentially leaving up to 10 million people struggling to secure food, he added.
The ramifications of the crisis also impact growth projections in neighbouring countries like Benin, including the halting of work on an oil pipeline connecting Benin and Niger undertaken by the Chinese company PetroChina.
Other nations in the region have relied on Niger as a hub for goods destined for other countries in West and North Africa. The ongoing border closures pose the risk of financial losses potentially amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly