Anxiety Rises Over Niger’s New Regime

The two countries are at odds over how to respond to the ouster of the West African country’s president in July. France is refusing to diplomatically engage with the junta and strongly supports a regional body that has threatened military

The coup in Niger is injecting fresh tension into the France-U.S. alliance.

The two countries are at odds over how to respond to the ouster of the West African country’s president in July. France is refusing to diplomatically engage with the junta and strongly supports a regional body that has threatened military intervention. The U.S. has dispatched an envoy to meet with the junta leadership and held back from officially declaring the takeover a coup — insisting there’s still a negotiated way to restore democracy.

French officials also support a peaceful resolution, but they are bristling at the U.S. approach, saying engaging the junta empowers it.

“Perhaps in order to avoid bloodshed, the U.S. was quickly keen to talk to the putschists. Maybe the better reaction should’ve been to put some conditions or guarantees before opening those channels,” said a French official familiar with the situation in Niger. The official, like others who spoke for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter.

The situation suggests a shifting balance of power in the region and underscores the differences between Paris and Washington’s interests in the country. The U.S., which uses Niger as a base for

counterterrorism operations, may also believe it has more leverage than France, not least due to Paris’ baggage as its former colonizer.

Some former U.S. officials argue that France’s unhappiness with the U.S. approach is due in part to its agitation at losing one of its last strategic footholds in the West African Sahel, where other coups have already forced it to withdraw troops elsewhere. France has refused a request by the junta in Niger that it withdraw troops from the country.

“The stakes for France in Niger are much higher than for Washington … It’s a psychological and strategic defeat for France,” said Cameron Hudson, a former White House National Security Council official focused on Africa.

In West Africa, France is accustomed to seeing other world powers follow its lead, or at least its guidance. That’s not happening in this case.

 “The window of opportunity is closing,” the U.S. official said. “Do you let that window seal shut? Or inject some degree of flexibility?”

Ali El Husseini, an American with connections to the junta, said Niger’s new military rulers do not trust the French, not least because French officials are acting like they “don’t exist.”

French officials maintain they are not engaging with the coup leaders to show their support for Bazoum. He is under house arrest but has managed to speak with foreign officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and publish appeals for help from the international community.

“There is no popular support for the junta,” a senior French diplomat said. “We don’t see a new regime that is gaining legitimacy. And we have a legitimate president who is fighting for survival.”

France has pledged its full support to the West African body ECOWAS, which in meetings Thursday and Friday reiterated its threat of force if all else fails to restore democracy in Niger. The regional bloc has imposed sanctions on Niger and had earlier agreed to put a military force on stand-by.

France has 1,500 troops in Niger. Its refusal to quit the country militarily is partly about showing its support for the elected government, with which it struck the agreements for basing its troops.

The coup in Niger puts an end to one of the few solid partnerships Paris still enjoyed in the region, after it was forced to pull out troops involved in anti-terrorism operations in Mali and Burkina Faso.

It would also signal a failure of Macron’s revamped Africa strategy as France faces a wave of anti-French sentiment across West Africa, fueled by post-colonial grievances, failures to defeat an Islamist insurgency, and encouraged by propaganda campaigns from the Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenary group.

“If Niger falls, it’s not just France’s Africa policy that will be knocked down, but Europe’s entire policy in Africa because it will give terrorists a free rein in the region” with deep impacts on “migration routes” to Europe, said Michèle Peyron, head of the French parliament’s friendship group with Niger and a French lawmaker from Macron’s Renaissance party.

The United States has 1,100 troops in Niger, where it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars training security forces to battle terrorist organizations. Niger is a critical part of America’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, especially given the rise of Islamist extremist groups in Africa.

Some former U.S. officials said the United States should weigh its own interests before heeding French calls to shun the junta, and not just because of America’s counterterrorism interest in the country.

There’s also the possibility that U.S. rivals China, Russia or networks like Wagner could fill a vacuum in Niger as they have elsewhere in Africa.

“What good does it do to abandon the field to Russia, Wagner, or any other malign outside actor?” asked Peter Pham, a former senior State Department official with long experience on the continent.


On Key

Related Posts

African American man surrounded by sweets and pastries
Many Black Americans are at risk of developing diabetes and need to pay more attention to their diet in order to avoid consuming excessive amounts of added sugars. Here are a few tips to help you stop sugar cravings.