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EXPLAINED | Why Niger citizens are protesting against France and why countries are supporting the coup?

After the recent attack on the French embassy in Niamey, European nationals have launched evacuation efforts amid fears of a growing crisis in Niger following the sudden military coup.

Written By: Aveek Banerjee Niamey (Niger) Published on: August 02, 2023 22:30 IST
Evacuation efforts have begun in Niger
Image Source : AP Evacuation efforts have begun in Niger

A massive unrest gripped Niger on Sunday when hundreds of pro-military protesters attacked the French embassy in Niamey, setting it on fire, waving Russian flags in support of Vladimir Putin and denouncing former coloniser France. This comes days after the military abruptly ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and assumed power in the country.

The deposing and detainment of Bazoum, who was elected in 2021 in Niger's first peaceful and democratic transfer of power, was met with strong condemnation from Western countries, including member states of the European Union (EU) and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS. The latter has even threatened to use force if Bazoum is not reinstated.

France, Italy and Spain have now announced evacuations of their citizens from the capital Niamey, amid concerns of civilians becoming trapped after the takeover. A decision is yet to come from the US about evacuating its citizens. Looking at the current political scenario of Niger, there is acute hostility towards the West and the country is likely to further come under the influence of Russia and its private militia Wagner, which already has soldiers in other African countries.

Additionally, the military coup in Niger has received support from three other West African countries, who have refused to comply with sanctions announced by the ECOWAS. This has further complicated Western efforts to reinstate democracy in the crisis-hit country.

About the military coup in Niger

In the fifth coup attempt in Niger, the military announced the disintegration of the country's constitution, suspension of organisations, and conclusion of lines. President Mohamed Bazoum was removed from power and detained by the presidential guard.

Tending to the people, Col Maj Amadou Abdramane, with nine other formally dressed fighters behind him, said, "We, the protection and security powers... have chosen to stop the system you know." 

Shortly after that, the head of the Presidential Guard General Abdourahmane Tchiani on Friday named himself as the new head of state after calling for national and international support. Tchlani said that his junta took over the government in lieu of several problems in the nation, such as economic crises, corruption and insecurity. He also promised to respect all of the country's international commitments and human rights. 

Notably, Niger was an essential ally of Western powers to fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the West African region. Amid criticism from Western countries towards the coup, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russian private army Wagner, described the developments as part of Niger’s fight against the “colonisers.”

Why Nigeriens are protesting against France?

Notably, Niger is a major producer of uranium, a vital component of nuclear arsenals across the world. A majority of the uranium produced in Niger goes to European countries, especially former colonial power France. It is worth mentioning that French troops have had a considerable presence in Niger for a decade.

Many people in Niger still believe that despite their independence in 1960, France has continued to act as an imperial power by robbing its resources and dictating its economic policies. Niger is also grappling with widespread unemployment and poverty. Many citizens hold France to be responsible for the nation's current financial situation by exploiting their resources. 

President Bazoum was a staunch ally of France and approved the redeployment of French military forces in 2022, fuelling anti-French protests by civil society groups. This may have also served as one of the reasons for his ouster. Russia, on the other hand, has capitalised on the anti-French sentiment to increase its influence in the region by driving French troops out and providing arms to these countries.

Sentiment against France is apparent in other African nations as well. When the Burkina Faso government was ousted in September, similar anti-French protests had taken place during which the French embassy was attacked. The recent coup in Niger has proved to be a setback for French strategy in the West African region and may prompt it to rethink its military presence and its stance against Islamic State extremists. This pattern is apparent in other African nations like Mali and Burkina Faso, whose nationalist policies have led France to withdraw its security forces.

Why are countries supporting the military coup in Niger?

Three countries ruled by the junta that have toppled previous governments - Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso - have come out in support of the Niger military, the former two saying that foreign intervention would be considered a declaration of war towards their own countries. This show of support serves as yet another major impediment for Western nations to resolve the situation in Niger.

Democratic governments in these countries hardly last due to extensive pressure from Islamist militants from the IS and Al-Qaeda, which has forced the armies of Mali and Burkina Faso to seize power. Like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso had a significant presence of French troops, but the failure to quell Islamist attacks fuelled anti-French sentiment.

Citizens of these countries now have better hopes of a military government rather than a civilian government, while the military governments claim to do a better job themselves. This stems from growing frustration about poorly-managed economic and political systems, along with discontent over European and American intervention that has failed to curb the problems plaguing African nations.

In this scenario, Russia has become a viable alternative for African nations as the Wagner group has gained support in countries like Mali for apparently helping their security and economy. All this factors have created a shared sentiment that junta-ruled governments are best equipped to improve their country's economic, political and security situation and overcome the failures of the West.

Interestingly, after the French embassy was ousted from Mali and Burkina Faso, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit to Niger and called it "a model of democracy".

What now?

The ECOWAS has threatened to use military force if Bazoum was not reinstated in power. The regional body also suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger, the latter being the last Western ally against extremists in the region. 

All assets of Niger have been freezed in regional central banks. The sanctions are said to further impoverish the 25 million people in Niger, which heavily relies on foreign aid. The use of military force can lead to fresh tensions in the region, many analysts have said. 

Meanwhile, the coup in Niger is one of many latest military takeovers after similar seizure of powers in Mali and Burkina Faso, countries that are also grappling with a dire security situation. Mali has also turned to Wagner mercenaries for help, sparking concerns that Niger will follow suit.

ALSO READ | France prepares to evacuate citizens from Niger as military coup get support from other West African nations


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