Is Niger’s coup a sign that France’s influence in the Sahel is over?
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Niger and France have been mutually dependent on each other for decades. But the coup in Niger has shaken their relationship, as well as French ties with the broader Sahel region.
But just as France benefits from its security presence in Niger as well as Niger’s natural resources and immigration policies, Niger continues to enjoy profitable trade relations with France and – until the coup – a hefty development aid package. As the current crisis threatens the future of democracy in Niger and across the Sahel, it has also created a moment of reflection for France about the effectiveness of its policies as well as its future influence in the region. Is there still a place for France in Niger?
“In truth, [France] has been re-examining its involvement in the region for some time now. How could it not?” says Ebenezer Obadare, Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. “It has contributed significant technical, humanitarian, and military aid to the country over the years, in addition to its involvement in various counterterrorism measures.
“On the other hand, Niger reportedly has one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium, which France needs to power its nuclear plants. For these reasons, it’s going to be difficult for France to simply up sticks and walk away.”
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A long-lasting legacy?
Niger and France have held close ties since Niger became independent from France in 1960, but Niger remains economically dependent on its former colonizer. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world – with 42% of its population living in poverty in 2021, according to the World Bank – and is one of the largest recipients of French aid. Two years ago, the French Development Agency committed a €97 million ($106 million) development package there.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has since suspended the aid post-coup, calling for “an immediate return to constitutional order in Niger” and the release of President Mohamed Bazoum, who remains under house arrest. But Mr. Macron needs Niger’s support in a region that has increasingly rejected a French presence.
In 2014, France rolled out military support to countries across the Sahel region to fight jihadist militants. At its peak, the mission counted over 5,000 troops across Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. But the effort proved ineffective and in 2022, France began withdrawing its troops from the region.
Niger and its democratically elected president were seen as the last French-allied bastion in the Sahel, after Mali and France fell out in 2021 when a coup d’etat drove President Bah N’daw from power. French relations with Burkina Faso have also worsened after a similar coup in September 2022.
France still has 1,500 soldiers in Niger and around 1,000 troops in neighboring Chad, but the coup in Niger has raised further questions about France’s military presence in the Sahel and across Africa. Since the 1990s, 78% of the 27 coups in sub-Saharan Africa have taken place in Francophone countries.
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“When this wave of coups started, Niger was seen as an island. But when the coup [there] began, we realized it wasn’t,” says Douglas Yates, a specialist in African politics at the American Graduate School in Paris. “Like the Roman Empire, there has been [the idea of] a long-lasting legacy of France in the Sahel, but Macron’s influence there has been completely reduced.”
Until now, Mr. Yates says, France has used military solutions to deal with development and national problems in the Sahel. But “France needs to reflect on whether military [intervention] in the Sahel is the answer.”
Paris’s military presence has been at the heart of anti-French sentiment across the region. Mali has seen protests against the former empire since 2013, and after putschists took power in Mali and Burkina Faso, they turned to new partners like Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, who launched an intense anti-France propaganda campaign.
Locked in a relationship
Russia has attempted to court African leaders and expand its political and business ties on the continent, evidenced by the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg at the end of July, where Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to include African countries in a grain deal to avert food crises.
But some observers say African countries should be wary of Mr. Putin’s charm offensive. While Russia has the money to provide security or arms to the continent, Mr. Yates claims that relying on Russia would be a “gamble” for Africa. And Russia’s trade relations with Africa are small compared to the European Union’s, just 5% of the larger bloc’s.
That is important for Niger, which has one of the largest reserves of uranium in the world. France has operated uranium mining companies in Niger for over 50 years, and gets between 10 and 15% of the natural resource from its former colony. France counts on nuclear energy to power around 70% of its energy needs.
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Despite Niger’s control of such a rare resource, uranium only contributes about 5% to the national GDP. That has created frustration within the Nigerien population, in addition to health and environmental concerns related to three French-owned uranium mines. Niger’s northern town of Arlit was reportedly left with 20 million tons of radioactive waste after one of the three mines closed in 2021.
Still, both sides are set up to lose if uranium exports fail. “It’s like that old [French] saying: ‘I’ve got you, you’ve got me, by the chin hairs,’” says Paul Vallet, a researcher of foreign policy and military history at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “The two are locked in a relationship where neither are free to move without the other reacting.”
Ordinary Nigeriens could find themselves the unintentional victims if France’s relations with Niger go sour and if the military junta prevails. Despite “the essential ambivalence in attitude to French or Western countries among people in the ex-colonies,” Mr. Obadare of the Council of Foreign Relations says, “[they] continue to be seen as the most desirable places to live, hence the flood of young African migrants to them.”
Niger has been integral to helping the European Union stem illegal sub-Saharan migrants from arriving in North Africa. It holds a strategic position within Africa’s migration routes, and after a 2015 summit in Malta, it implemented a series of measures to curb access to its northern border with Libya – a jumping-off point to Italy.
If political instability continues, in addition to a halt to Niger’s development aid or trade revenue, it could push Nigeriens to leave the country, putting pressure on neighboring countries and Europe.
As Niger’s military junta attempts to settle into power, West African regional bloc Ecowas has said that military intervention is not off the table. France, though it has temporarily suspended development and military aid, does not appear ready to make any sudden moves or cut ties entirely with its former colony.
“The putschists’ aim will be to get France and Ecowas to move towards recognizing their de facto regime,” says Mr. Vallet. “[But] France and Ecowas will need to figure out how they can support the Bazoum loyalists if the putschists remain in power and manage to get them reintegrated in any future political process. … This is going to be the condition for their future relationship.”
Editor’s note: The original story misidentified Mr. Yates’ current place of work.