Since Niger’s army under the command of General Abdourahamane Tchiani seized power on 26 July, an exponential increase in tensions between Niamey and its former colonial masters in Paris has manifested itself, reaching the point where France is now seriously considering invading the West African country.
By Maxime Doucrot
French President Emmanuel Macron, said he will not tolerate any attack on his country and its interests: “Anyone who attacks French citizens, the army, diplomats or French bases will see France retaliate immediately”.
But a French invasion of Niger could turn into an all-out Franco-African war. Several of its former colonies were a source of massive wealth extraction and, given the recent problems facing Paris, these resources could be more important than ever.
The new government warned that it would respond immediately to any “aggression or attempted aggression against the state of Niger”, and made clear that the threat was not directed at the “friendly countries” suspended from the African community, referring to Burkina Faso and Mali, which are also ruled by military insurgents. The two countries warned in a joint statement that “any military intervention against Niger would be considered a declaration of war”.
The military government withdrew from several defence agreements with France on Thursday, including those linked to the deployment of French troops in Niger and the “status” of military personnel involved in the fight against jihadism.
Meanwhile, recent geopolitical shifts in the area have left France largely powerless. After the defeat of its almost decade-long intervention in Chad last year, it has maintained bases in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Gabon, but none of these can be used as a staging ground for an invasion given the limited number of troops stationed there.
Leaders of West African countries threatened to attack the military takeover in Niger if it is not returned within a week. And France warned the coup plotters that there will be “immediate retaliation”, while Spain announced the suspension of bilateral cooperation after thousands of pro-coup Nigeriens demonstrated outside the French embassy and tore off the entrance plaque.
France now faces a strategic dilemma. If it lets Niger continue on its path to real independence, France will no longer be able to exploit the country’s natural resources. Several of its former colonies have served as a source of massive wealth extraction and, given the recent problems facing Paris, these resources could be more important than ever.
President Mohamed Bazoum, elected two years ago in Niger’s first non-violent transfer of power since independence from France in 1960, has been held since Wednesday at the Presidential Palace. And General Abdourahamane Tchiani proclaimed himself the new national leader. The coup drew international condemnation and backlash from France, which has 1,500 troops in the country and major economic interests in Niger’s uranium.
West African military chiefs defined a plan for a “possible intervention” against the junta that seized power in Niger after a failed mediation to restore ousted president Mohamed Bazoum to power.
“All the elements of a possible intervention were defined, including the necessary resources and how and when we are going to deploy that force,” said the commissioner for political and security affairs of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Abdel-Fatau Musah.
The warning from Ecowas comes after a failed mission by the bloc to reinstate Bazoum and the junta’s announcement that it was breaking off military cooperation agreements with France, deepening the crisis in a region facing strong jihadist groups.
The mission left Niamey on Thursday night without meeting Tchiani or Bazoum, the ousted leader who is under arrest.
Thousands of people demonstrated in Niamey on Sunday in support of the coup leaders, chanting the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week announced the cancellation of $90 million in debt and arms contracts with more than 40 African countries, as well as the delivery of free grain to six of them.
Bazoum – who is being held with his family – said in an opinion column published by The Washington Post that if the coup succeeds, it will have “devastating consequences for the region and the entire world” and urged the US government and the international community to “help restore constitutional order”.
“I am writing this as a hostage,” said the president, who was ousted by the military on 26 July. “Our government came to power in 20121 through a democratic election. Any attempt to overthrow a legal government must be confronted,” he wrote. Bazoum ventured that the assassination will bring the Sahel region under Russia’s influence through the Wagner group’s mercenaries.
Russia, for its part, said foreign intervention would not solve the crisis in Niger. “It is unlikely that an intervention by any extra-regional force will improve the situation,” said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who called for a “rapid restoration of constitutional order”.
Meanwhile, France said that “only the legitimate Nigerien authorities” can break military cooperation agreements, not the coup perpetrators. “France recalls that the legal framework of its defence cooperation with Niger is based on agreements concluded with the legitimate Nigerien authorities,” the French foreign ministry said.
France has 1,500 troops deployed in the country under the pretext of fighting jihadism and this week evacuated 1,079 people from the country, more than half of them French.
On Friday, the curfew imposed by the coup leaders was lifted. The curfew, along with the closure of borders and the suspension of all state institutions “until further notice” had been announced by the military junta. In several cities in Niger, thousands of people marched on Thursday in support of the coup plotters, coinciding with the commemoration of the country’s independence from France in 1960.
The exploitation of the “former” French colonies has continued unabated for more than half a century, even after they were granted “independence”, but France is the main beneficiary of this one-sided relationship. This pure neo-colonial theft, coupled with France’s inability to deal with various terrorist insurgencies in the region, has been the main reason behind a series of popular uprisings in the Sahel, notes geopolitical analyst Drago Bosnic.
A possible alternative for Paris could be to use its neo-colonial influence in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), which leaves its members at risk of having more anti-Western uprisings, as the belligerent power pole is deeply unpopular in the area.
Some ECOWAS members, such as Nigeria, might be the best geographical option, but given that Paris has little or no influence in Abuja, this is highly unlikely. And Nigeria has more than enough problems of its own to serve as a staging ground for a neo-colonial invasion. Logically, this leaves Chad as the only option, but it is also a very remote possibility.
To make matters worse for France, Algeria has joined the chorus of Niger’s allies. The country that spearheaded the independence of many of its colonies in the 1960s is today an African superpower, heavily armed and highly motivated never to allow Paris or any other Western (neo-)colonial power to establish a firm foothold in the region.
This still leaves Chad as the only viable option for an invasion, as the country was a key staging ground for virtually all French military operations in the area, including the illegal invasion of Libya.
Niamey, Niger’s capital, is located in the south-western corner of the country, close to the border with Burkina Faso. Even in the unlikely event that a neighbour intervenes, Niger still has a comfortable chance to resist the invasion, which could well end in disaster for France, as another military defeat in the area would inevitably lead to the total collapse of its neo-colonial system.
Leaving things as they are could also encourage other countries to revolt against Western neo-colonialism in other parts of Africa – and possibly beyond.
So far, France’s NATO allies have remained silent and neutral, including the US, which has a military base in the central part of the country, Niger Air Base 201, run by its African Command, but its operational capabilities are mainly limited to drone strikes, with troops deployed there largely composed of a skeleton crew providing basic security services.
Coupled with the recent cooling of US-French relations, this makes it highly unlikely that the Pentagon would approve of any US involvement in a possible French invasion, even though it is in Washington’s interest to maintain Western neo-colonialism in Africa for as long as possible.
Concerns are growing in Europe concerning uranium exports from Africa, one of the world’s leading uranium producers. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Niger is the seventh largest producer of uranium in the world, a metal used mainly in nuclear energy, but also in cancer treatments and the marine industry.
Niger produced 2,020 metric tonnes of uranium in 2022 alone, representing between 4% and 5% of global mine production. The previous year, 2021, production was even higher, reaching 2,991 tonnes.
Within Europe, France stands out for its presence in several mines in the country, such as those located near the city of Arlit. The French company Orano, which specialises in uranium mining, is one of the main international companies operating in the country. Despite the announcement by the new Nigerian authorities to suspend uranium exports to France, Orano denied that supply had been frozen after the coup.
Despite Niger’s position as France’s third largest uranium supplier between 2005 and 2020 and the European Union’s second largest, the French and European authorities claim that the latest developments will not have an immediate impact on uranium needs, even if they are considering an invasion of their former colony to secure the supply.
A week after the uprising, the military junta led by Abdourahamane Tchiani has announced the reopening of land and air borders with Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and Chad.
Maxime Doucrot, French academic and analyst, associated with the Latin American Centre for Strategic Analysis (CLAE).