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France completes military withdrawal from Niger in major blow to counterterrorism ops in West Africa

The military junta in Niger seized power in July and ousted democratically-elected Mohamed Bazoum, and made France's military withdrawal one of their key demands. The military coup and the subsequent military withdrawal is a major setback for the terror fight against Islamist insurgents.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Niamey (Niger) Published on: December 23, 2023 17:51 IST
French troops completing the withdrawal from Niger.
Image Source : REUTERS French troops completing the withdrawal from Niger.

The last of French military personnel deployed to junta-ruled Niger to combat the decade-old Islamist insurgency and terrorism in West Africa's Sahel region left the country on Friday, completing the military withdrawal that dealt a heavy blow to France's influence in the area, along with the counterterrorism operations.

The military junta in Niger seized power in July and ousted democratically-elected Mohamed Bazoum, and made France's military withdrawal one of their key demands, echoing similar actions by juntas in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali who severed long-standing security ties with France in coups in 2020-22.

After putting up a defiant face to the military regime in Niger for several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron finally relented and announced the withdrawal of around 1,500 French troops from the country, along with his ambassador to Niamey. This followed a full withdrawal from Mali in 2022 and the end of military cooperation with Burkina Faso in February even as they faced worsening attacks from Islamist insurgents.

A document marking the official end of France's military engagement with Niger was signed by both parties in the capital Niamey on Friday and the last group of soldiers in fatigues and backpacks boarded a military plane that took off shortly after.

The military coup and the subsequent military withdrawal is a major setback for Western countries in West Africa. Under Bazoum, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States and was considered the last ally in Sahel to combat Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that have killed and displaced thousands.

Ties between France and Niger

Relations between France and Niger soured dramatically after the July military coup, beginning with several protests around the French military base and an attack on the French embassy in Niamey. Niger severed military ties with the latter and closer the Nigerien airspace for French commercial and military planes.

France had repeatedly refused an order from the junta regime in Niger for its ambassador Sylvain Itte to leave the country, saying it does not recognise the coup leaders as legitimate and called for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. Macron also alleged that French diplomats were surviving on military rations as they were 'held hostage' in the embassy.

Diplomatic sources said this week that France had decided to close its embassy in Niamey as it was unable to carry out diplomatic tasks due to restrictions imposed by the junta. After Macron decided to withdraw the military following a conversation with the deposed Bazoum, the Nigerien junta aid that the announcement signals a “new step towards the sovereignty” of the country. 

The military junta ordered the French envoy to leave the country and gave him a 48-hour deadline, revoking his visa and instructing the police to expel him. However, Itte defied the order and chose to remain, as French authorities reiterated that they didn't recognise the authority of the military regime.

Why are Nigeriens hostile towards France?

The Nigerien military has exploited grievances against former coloniser France and has also turned to Russia's mercenary group Wagner for help after severing connections with the European country. One of the major reasons for Niger's hostile stance towards France can be alluded to the failure of security forces to eradicate the threat of Islamic terrorism in the region.

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 France. 

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. Many citizens hold France to be responsible for the nation's current financial situation by exploiting their resources.

(with inputs from Reuters, AP)

ALSO READ | Niger's ousted President Bazoum attempts to escape detainment, ruling junta thwarts effort

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