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What Will France’s Troop Withdrawal Mean for Niger?

France has said that it will begin to withdraw its troops from Niger this week in light of ongoing tensions with the West African country’s post-coup regime.

Niger’s military junta confirmed late on Thursday that 400 French soldiers stationed in the southwestern town of Ouallam would be the first to leave.

Another 1,000 French soldiers are deployed at an air base in the capital of Niger, Niamey, which according to a statement that was read out on national radio will be dismantled by the end of the year.

The junta said that the departure of French troops would be orderly, safe and carried out “in respect of our interests and conditions.” It also called on citizens to be vigilant during the “transition period.” 

‘This is a clear victory’ 

An announcement last month by French President Emmanuel Macronthat France would withdraw its ambassador  and its military contingent from Niger had been met with satisfaction by the country’s new leaders, who said it was a significant step towards achieving sovereignty.

 Ali Idrissa, the Nigerien coordinator of “Publish What you Pay,” a coalition of civil society organizations that advocates for financial transparency in the extractive industries sector, hailed the withdrawal as a “victory for the Nigerien people who fought for this.”

Nigerien activist Maikoul Zodi was keen to point out Macron’s volte-face. “For us this is a clear victory because, a week ago, he [Macron] was saying that only deposed President Mohamed Bazoum had the right to order the withdrawal of French troops. Now the Nigerien people have shown that Niger belongs to Nigeriens,” he told DW.

A word of caution

While there have been several military coups in West Africa in the past couple of years, for many, the situation in Niger carries higher stakes because of the impact not only on the country itself, but on the Sahel regionand West Africa more generally, as well as for transcontinental geopolitics.

Ghanaian political analyst Mutaru Mumuni Muqthtar, executive director for the West Africa Center for Counter Extremism (WACCE), warned that there were many challenges ahead for Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.

“The jubilation will be short-lived because the country, at the moment, does not have the capacity to propel itself to prosperity, to stability, to ensure the sustained gains against the threats that it is currently dealing with,” he told DW.

Volatile security situation

Under Bazoum, Niger was a key player in the fight against jihadist terrorism, alongside France, which still has approximately 1,500 soldiers stationed in the country as part of efforts to pacify the Sahel region. According to Macron, the post-coup authorities “no longer want to fight terrorism.”

Muqthtar said that France’s departure from Niger would greatly undermine counter-terrorism efforts. “The official disengagement of France would mean dire consequences for the region in terms of dealing with violent extremism.”

Kabir Adamu, a Nigerian security and policy analyst specialized in Sahel-related matters, told DW that the current security situation in the region was “dire,” and warned that the international community should pay more attention to the unfolding crisis.

“We could potentially see a repetition of what happened in Afghanistan. There are large swaths of land that are being dominated by these non-state armed groups. It’s extremely worrisome,” he said.

Taking their chances

Many Nigeriens are aware of the challenges ahead but they insist that they are willing and able to meet them themselves.

Abdoulkari Hassane Maikano, a Niamey resident said that the French presence in Niger had not yielded significant benefits. On the contrary: “It’s been too long since France brought its army here to Niger, but they haven’t been able to eradicate terrorism, so they have ulterior motives… We know very well that they are slowly destroying us,” he told DW.

Marzouk Doulla, also from Niamey, agreed: “The French military must leave immediately because we really don’t need them,” he said.

Also dismissing the pessimism of certain experts, civil society activists such as Idrissa have said that the actions of the people of Niger show that they are determined to reclaim their country and make it work. “We will remain vigilant and ensure that a clear withdrawal plan is developed to do justice to our task,” Idrissa said.

Niger faces serious challenges beyond security issues, including youth unemployment and widespread frustration with the country’s economic situation.

Muqthtar said that insufficient domestic revenue would make it hard for the junta to finance development ideas or projects currently under discussion. Reducing reliance on foreign aid would further hamper progress, with potentially dire results, he warned.

“We estimate that within the next year we will begin to see internal dissent and frustration within the local population against the military junta in place, because they will not have enough steam to carry on and because they do not have enough financial muscle to sustain the current situation,” he said.

Geopolitical stakes

One of the biggest fallouts from the French withdrawal from Niger will be a shift of international alliances. The refusal by Niger’s leaders to back down following threats of intervention from the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and their new alliances with military juntas in other states which have recently undergone coups, as well as their insistence on a French withdrawal are having a significantly impact on geopolitics in the Sahel.

“The French exit from Niger will push Western troops further away,” said Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk firm based in London, who explained that there was growing concern among the public regarding the presence of Western military forces in Africa.

The situation is unlikely to change soon, as all international and diplomatic efforts to get the coup leaders to back down have failed.

“The military leadership is increasingly defiant and increasingly seeking to establish itself as an independent entity operating of its own accord without international dictates or regional partners’ direction,” Muqthtar explained.

Because of growing anti-French sentiment, experts believe that Niger will likely replace its Western partners with others. Adamu said that this could benefit the country: “It is possible that in the negotiations to bring in [other] partners, equity and fairness will be better,” he told DW.

Muqthtar agreed that other powers would probably increase their presence in Niger. “There is enough space that allows Russia and China and other non-Western partners to establish a strong foothold in West Africa,” he said.

Source : DW

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