Niger is on edge as a series of anti-French demonstrations are set to unfold over the weekend, reflecting escalating tensions between the nation’s new military leadership and its longstanding ally, France.
A coalition of civil society organizations united in their opposition to the continued presence of French military forces in Niger has called for a three-day sit-in commencing on Friday. The demonstration, orchestrated by the M62 alliance, is scheduled to take place in central Niamey with a resounding demand for the withdrawal of French troops.
France maintains approximately 1,500 troops in Niger, a significant portion stationed at an airbase near the capital, with the primary mission of aiding in the fight against a relentless jihadist insurgency.
Simultaneously, another civil society group, the Patriotic Front for the Sovereignty of Niger, has called for a “permanent” sit-in, commencing on Saturday, with the unequivocal objective of continuing until all French soldiers have left Niger.
Diplomatic relations between Niger and France have soured following the ousting of President Mohamed Bazoum, a close ally of France, in a coup on July 26. Paris has steadfastly supported Bazoum and has refused to recognize the new rulers of the Sahel state.
Tensions reached a boiling point this week when Niger’s military regime revoked diplomatic immunity for France’s ambassador and ordered the expulsion of the envoy, a move that had previously been demanded within a 48-hour timeframe the previous Friday. France, in response, rejected the demand, asserting the government’s lack of legal authority to issue such an order.
Colonel Pierre Gaudilliere, a French military spokesperson, issued a warning on Thursday, stating, “The French military forces are ready to respond to any escalation in tension that could jeopardize French diplomatic and military installations in Niger.” He reassured that measures were in place to safeguard these premises.
Residents in the vicinity of the French embassy in Niger reported that on Thursday, security forces systematically searched vehicles leaving the embassy.
Another looming issue between France and Niger is the pending expiration of military agreements, some dating back to 2012. These agreements have been disavowed by Niger’s new rulers since August 3, yet Paris has persisted in recognizing them as legally binding.
The timeframes and provisions of these agreements vary, with one set to expire within a month, according to military leaders. Niger’s new military leadership is facing mounting calls for a swift transition back to civilian rule, with different proposals, including a nine-month period suggested by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu and a six-month transition proposed by neighbouring Algeria.
Notably, the military rulers have yet to respond to these suggestions, having previously indicated a preference for a three-year handover period. The regional bloc ECOWAS has issued a warning that it may resort to military intervention to restore civilian rule if diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis prove unsuccessful. Furthermore, ECOWAS has imposed sanctions on Niger following the coup.
Around 20 human rights organizations have collectively appealed for the West African bloc to lift these economic measures, arguing that they would exacerbate the vulnerabilities of Niger’s populace. These sanctions, they contend, have been met with disappointment by a deprived population that had anticipated more solidarity and empathy.
Niger is grappling with two concurrent jihadist insurgencies: one stemming from a spillover of violence in southeastern Niger from neighbouring Nigeria and the other involving an offensive by militants crossing from Mali and Burkina Faso into the southwest of the country.