The military coup in the West African country of Niger that took place on 26 July was a critical blow to French military strategy in the Sahel region, especially considering that it occurred a year after the departure of the last French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in neighbouring Mali and six months after the withdrawal of French special forces from Burkina Faso.
These developments have cast a shadow over the future of the French military presence in the region, with nearly 1,500 French soldiers being stationed in Niger, mostly at the Niamey Airbase outside the capital, in addition to 1,000 French soldiers in Chad.
Following the earlier coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the new military councils in both countries hastened to condemn the agreements that had governed the French military presence, leading to its termination. This is now also the demand being voiced by the leaders of the Niger coup.
Whatever one might think of the attitudes towards the French presence signalled by the coup leaders, it is imperative to end the coup and restore President Mohamed Bazoum to power in Niger. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has put forward plans for military intervention in Niger if this does not happen and has set out a timeline for the coup authorities to reconsider their actions.
However, the situation is intricate as both Mali and Burkina Faso have endorsed the coup in Niger while opposing any military intervention by ECOWAS. Nigeria’s Senate also opposes granting approval for Nigerian forces to intervene in Niger. Significant segments of Niger’s population support the military coup, and outside observers have urged caution with regard to any military intervention due to the potential for destabilisation in the Sahel region.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani has emphasised that diplomacy must be the primary focus and has called on ECOWAS to reconsider its timeline for military intervention.
The developments in Niger show that there will be significant obstacles to plans to reinstate President Bazoum as well as tough choices ahead for France. After the withdrawal of French troops from Mali in 2022 and Burkina Faso in 2023, the same fate may now await the French military presence in Niger. Moreover, any halting of the uranium exports from Niger to France could impact the efficiency of French nuclear reactors, which rely on uranium for electricity generation, 18 per cent of which comes from Niger.
Despite the Western powers’ outward stance of condemning the coup and freezing aid programmes to Niger, their efforts may not extend to rescuing the French military presence in the country. The US is focusing on securing its own military presence in Niger, for example, where it has a force of 1,000 soldiers operating drone bases in Niamey and Agadez.
The Western powers may also be concerned about a complex situation arising from any military intervention by ECOWAS, as well as the possibility of terrorist groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State (IS) group, and Al-Qaeda gaining strength, as well as about a potential refugee crisis in the region.
Among the ten Sahel countries, four have witnessed military coups over the past three years, with Niger being the most recent. The Western powers have suffered losses due to these coups, and today only Nigeria, Senegal, Gabon, and Mauritania remain relatively stable. It is evident that the dynamics have changed significantly in West Africa, and that there has been a diversification of international partners that now include China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Israel as well as the Western countries. These new partners offer economic benefits that are distinct from the exploitative relations with the Western powers that focus on harnessing the region’s natural resources.
This shift is prompting the Western powers to rethink their approach to the region and to recognise the importance of supporting genuine development efforts in its societies. The display of Russian flags and images of Russian President Vladimir Putin recently in Niamey, along with worsening socioeconomic conditions and the rise of dangerous terrorist groups, should act as a warning to the Western capitals to reassess their strategies and prioritise support for meaningful societal development in the region.
* The writer is a senator and diplomat.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly