France to begin pulling out troops from Niger this week

Paris says it is unable to work with puschtists, leaving efforts to counter Islamists in Sahel in disarray

France will begin withdrawing troops from Niger this week following a coup in the west African country, in what marks a turning point in western nations’ efforts to counter a decade-long Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region.

“We will begin our disengagement operation this week, in good order, safely and in coordination with the Nigeriens,” the French military headquarters said.

The logistics operation to move 1,500 French troops and large amounts of military equipment out of Niger by the end of this year comes a week after the French ambassador left Niger under pressure from the new military regime, which ousted the pro-Paris president, Mohamed Bazoum, on 26 July.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said on 24 September that France would pull out troops because it would not be “held hostage by puschists”. The former colonial power in Niger continues to support Bazoum, and officials in Paris said it was not possible to continue joint operations with Niger forces against insurgents when puschtists were running the country. Macron has called the junta “the allies of disorder”.

French troops have been in Niger as part of a wider fight against jihadists across the Sahel region, with Paris at the forefront of operations against Islamist insurgents in the region for a decade.

The withdrawing troops now face the organisational challenge of a rapid retreat. They would need cover to leave their exposed forward positions, the military headquarters said, possibly including air support from a larger force at an airbase outside the capital, Niamey.

French troops in Niger been living with uncertainty since the junta began demanding they leave, with irregular food supplies and repeated anti-French demonstrations outside the Niamey base.

The decision to pull out leaves a hole in western efforts to counter an Islamist insurgency in the region and deals a blow to French influence in that could allow Russia to expand its sway in the area. Until the coup, Niger had been the west’s last key ally in the central Sahel region south of the Sahara.

The coup is seen as the latest serious threat to French strategy in the Sahel, after several military coups in other countries had already forced Paris to rethink its military presence and anti-jihadist mission.

France first deployed troops against jihadists in Mali in 2013 under the Socialist president François Hollande, but in the past three years several military coups in the region, as well as a continued jihadist presence, have exposed the limitations of the military strategy and forced France to scale back its presence and focus its efforts in Niger, with Bazoum as a firm ally.

In Mali a coup in 2020 led to a diplomatic standoff with France, which withdrew its troops last year. France also quit Burkina Faso after two coups last year brought in a junta that adopted a nationalist line. Both countries are former French colonies, where for years French troops years had worked with the authorities to counter jihadists.

Last month, Macron said he was “very worried” about the region, saying that jihadist attacks were causing dozens of deaths a day in Mali and such assaults had resumed in Niger.

Earlier this year, Macron announced that France would reduce and reorganise its military footprint in Africa. He has promised to break away from its former post-colonial policies on the continent and criticised the “crimes of European colonisation”, pledging a “truly new relationship” between Africa and Europe.

After the African independence movements in the 1950s and 60s, Paris still intervened regularly in the domestic affairs of its former colonies and for decades retained sway through business and political ties under an unofficial policy known as “Françafrique”.

Macron has said that era is over but acknowledged there was more to be done to boost Paris’s relationship with African countries.

Source: The Guardian