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Aerial view of the desert in Tahoua, Niger

Françafrique Crumbles One Coup at a Time

As France departs Niger, the future of counterterrorism in the Sahel hangs in the balance.

Words: Obiora Ikoku
Pictures: Michel Isamuna
Date:

Two months after officers of the presidential guard removed French ally, President Mohamed Bazoum, leading to a series of tense standoffs that widened the gulf between Niamey and Paris, France has announced a diplomatic withdrawal and the end of its military cooperation with Niger. On Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron — in a dramatic reversal of his earlier stance — said that Paris would pull out its ambassador, several diplomats, and 1,500 troops from the West African country. “We are ending our military cooperation with the de facto authorities in Niger, because they no longer want to fight terrorism,” Macron told France 2

The withdrawal comes at a time when France’s footing in West Africa is threatened by a growing Russian and Chinese presence. Since 2022, French-led Operation Barkhane has been unraveling as French troops have had to leave Mali and Burkina Faso after soldiers took over amidst a wave of coups in the region. With the Aug. 30 coup in Gabon, at least eight successful coups have taken place in the region over the past three years alone — the majority of which occurred in France’s former colonies. Now from Sudan to Guinea, a coup belt stretches across the continent from coast to coast. 

À Bas Françafrique?

“The recent string of coups in Francophone Africa signals the rejection of France’s paternalistic policies,” Adeline Masquelier, a Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University told Inkstick. In essence, this is payback for nearly 200 years of French meddling in the political and economic affairs of its former colonies. “Unlike Britain and other European countries with colonial possessions in Africa, France never left — at least not in the sense of the traditional distance observed since independence by the other erstwhile colonial overlords,” Toyin Falola, a Nigerian historian and Professor of African Studies at the University of Texas at Austin wrote in a recent op-ed

In August, several French lawmakers published an open letter criticizing Macron’s Africa policy. This together with plans for a parliamentary debate on France’s Sahel strategy this autumn shows growing questioning in Paris of “Françafrique” as an effective foreign policy. A pejorative term derived from Ivory Coast’s first President, Félix-Houphouët Boigny’s description of the close ties between France and Africa, Françafrique refers to the post-colonial subjugation by France of its former colonies through economic, cultural, and military means. For instance, decades after independence, all 14 former French colonies still use the CFA Franc as a means of exchange. A colonial currency that was created in 1945, the CFA Franc which originally stood for “franc of the French Colonies of Africa” (later renamed “franc of the African Financial Community”) is still pegged to the Euro and guaranteed by the French treasury. Now as this neo-colonial system crumbles one coup at a time; many are worried about the impact on the weak security architecture in the Sahel. 

“The recent string of coups in Francophone Africa signals the rejection of France’s paternalistic policies.”

Adeline Masquelier

According to Paul Melly, France’s departure became inevitable as “it had become untenable to maintain the ambassador and the French troops in Niger indefinitely, with the new Nigerien regime able to cut off their supplies.” Paul Melly is a journalist and Consulting Fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. He believes other political considerations were behind the decision to withdraw. “As long as the French refused to comply with the demands of the Nigerien junta, this allowed the junta to stir up nationalistic feelings against the French — and that helped the putschists to maintain their base of popular support. Now the French are leaving the junta cannot play this anti-French card so easily,” he added. 

Spiking Violence

Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that in the wake of successive military coups promising to improve security across the region, political violence levels in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have altogether increased by 5% relative to the same period last year, and by 46% compared to 2021. Earlier in September, more than 60 people were killed in a suspected jihadist attack on a river boat in Mali’s northern Tombouctou region. So far in 2023, Mali has seen a 38% increase in attacks compared to the same period in 2022. In neighboring Burkina Faso, the situation has reached civil war-like proportions with conservative estimates putting the number of people killed within the first eight months of 2023 at more than 6,000 — the highest death toll since the country degenerated into crisis in 2015. 

For nearly a decade, France has deployed over 4,000 troops across West Africa to fight the jihadist groups responsible for the conflict in the region. A withdrawal from Niger, which became the last outpost following earlier withdrawals from Mali and Burkina Faso, means the complete absence of French military presence in any of the three key Central Sahel States at the center point of the insurgency in the region. There are still around 1,100 US troops stationed in the country and the US has carefully maneuvered to preserve diplomatic links with the junta which may prove vital in future talks to resolve the political crisis. “While giving diplomacy a chance, we will also continue to explore all future steps that will prioritize both our diplomatic and security goals,” US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin said while reacting to news of France’s withdrawal. Earlier in September, US troops shifted position from Airport 101 near the capital of Niamey to Airport 201 in Agadez. This was followed by an announcement on Sept. 13, saying that the US was resuming surveillance flights over Niger, which it had interrupted after the military coup in late July. 

Crippling Sanctions

Although Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso recently concluded a mutual defense pact, promising to assist each other in the event of rebellion or external aggression, there are doubts about their capacity to confront the security crisis plaguing the region. For instance, ACLED data shows that the first month of junta rule in Niger was marked by a 42% increase in political violence primarily due to the continued activity of different jihadist forces, inter-communal violence, and bandits in the southern Maradi and the western Tillaberi regions. At least 40 soldiers were killed in August when jihadists carried out attacks on military and security forces in the Tillaberi region. “Now the French have left, this will reduce Niger’s capacity to fight the jihadists. Offers of help from Mali and Burkina — which have their own huge internal security problems — are unlikely to be able to compensate for this” Melly told Inkstick.

The situation in Niamey is compounded by crippling sanctions by regional bodies and Western governments. Niger has received a generous aid package from the World Bank, the US, Canada, and members of the EU most of which has now been suspended in the wake of the coup although the humanitarian aid continues. Despite refraining from calling the military takeover a coup, the United States has taken steps to put pressure on the Nigerien junta to restore democracy. These include restricting more than $600 million in security and development aid, and suspending Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compacts. Created in 2004, the Millennium Challenge Corporation is an independent US government agency working to reduce global poverty through economic growth by providing time-limited grants and assistance to poor countries that meet its rigorous standards. Since 2008, MCC has signed grant programs with Niger totaling over $750 million to improve public infrastructure, food production, and girl’s education in the country. The sanctions imposed by ECOWAS have been particularly crippling. The bloc has suspended all commercial transactions with Niger, which means that no merchandise currently crosses Niger’s borders in either direction. With the supply chain cut off, the price of basic foodstuff has soared, placing more Nigeriens in situations of precarity. Meanwhile, electricity shortages that followed the decision by Nigeria, a member of ECOWAS, to shut off its power supply to Niger to exert pressure on the junta have disrupted numerous businesses. Niger imports much of its electricity from Nigeria. In some cases, power cuts have led to further food waste. Generators, for those who own one, are costly to operate now that oil prices have risen. Households who cannot afford generators are impacted as well. 

“Sanctions are a double-edged sword. They are meant to persuade coup leaders to change course. But it is ordinary people who feel the pinch. In Niger, where over half the population survives with less than a dollar a day, the current crisis has exacerbated food insecurity. And with economic activities between Niger and neighboring countries slowing down to a trickle, many have lost their income and youth unemployment has soared. In fact, the fallout from the sanctions has been felt across the region, especially in border communities where livelihoods often depend on cross-border trade and movement” Masquelier explained. 

The first victims of the sweeping sanctions have been the truckers transporting goods across the region. Hundreds of trucks are currently stuck with their cargoes, in Illela, a Nigerian border town through which much of the commercial traffic between Niger and Nigeria normally passes. In Malanville, a Beninese border town, it is the same scenario. For drivers unable to deliver their perishable merchandise, which has by now spoiled, the prolonged closure of the border has been ruinous. Besides crippling businesses and wrecking household budgets, the sanctions have prevented critical humanitarian assistance from reaching the country. Several tons of food aid destined for Niger, including nutritional supplements for children, and vaccine equipment are stuck in transit because of border closures. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, a total of 3.3 million people (13% of Nigerien people) are suffering from acute food insecurity. 

So far, the sanctions have not brought coup leaders in line. The junta, which leveraged anti-French sentiment to consolidate its hold on power, continues to enjoy popular support. Yet Niger can ill afford to remain cut off from the world much longer. The sanctions levied on Niger are the harshest yet compared to ECOWAS’s response to the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. “ECOWAS has been accused in the past of being too lenient toward dictators. One could argue that the decision to severely punish Niger for this latest coup is meant as a deterrent; ECOWAS is sending a message to those in the region who might be tempted to depose their leaders” Masquelier noted. But whether or not this would stem the coup contagion is a different question altogether. Just a few days after the events in Libreville, Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema raised the alarm about a potential coup plot to depose him. 

An Exit Strategy

In the aftermath of the announcement, Nigeriens expressed a widespread sense of euphoria driven by the ousting of the French. But if the Malian and Burkinabe cases are any indication, this widespread support is unlikely to last. “Many Nigeriens are opposed to the coup and remain unconvinced by the arguments put forth by the putschists. Yet, the fact remains that far from turning Nigeriens against the coup leaders, the sanctions appear to have had the opposite effect. They have provoked a groundswell of patriotic fervor and strengthened popular support for General Tiani. People fear the possibility of war, but many men stand ready to defend the country, if necessary” Masquelier explained.

Targeted free food distribution by the government to vulnerable households has helped a little, so has the support from Mali and Burkina Faso, two ECOWAS members who have kept their borders with Niger open. But the situation is still dire, especially with the ECOWAS sanctions remaining in effect. ECOWAS’s recent decision to activate a “standby force” for a possible military intervention in Niger continues to raise fears of an escalation that could further destabilize the Sahel region.   

On Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, Algeria announced that the Nigerien junta has accepted its offer to mediate in the political crisis. Algeria, which borders Niger to the northwest, is a regional power which — alongside Egypt — opposed the ECOWAS threat of military intervention, favoring diplomacy instead. Algiers is proposing a six-month transition plan for a return to constitutional and democratic order. 

But for it to succeed, negotiators have to recognize that “the notion that Bazoum could get reinstated is no longer tenable, if it ever was” Masquelier warned.

Obiora Ikoku

Obiora Ikoku is a freelance journalist and activist from Lagos, Nigeria. He writes about social movements and the geopolitics of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

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