APA – Niamey (Niger) In Niger, France has begun talks to withdraw its military forces after initially refusing to submit to the junta’s demands.
In an interview with APA, Florent Geel, a mediator in armed conflicts and former Africa Director of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), analyzes the negotiations underway between Paris and Niamey to define the contours of this departure and its consequences for the countries of the Sahel and their relations with France.
After refusing to recognize the junta in Niger, France has entered into negotiations with the ruling military to withdraw its forces from the country. How do you appreciate this decision by Paris?
The negotiations between the Nigerien and French authorities on the terms and conditions for the withdrawal of the French armed forces stationed in the country had been unavoidable for several weeks. The French authorities could not afford to leave their forces under threat of a possible blockade of French bases (rotations, supplies, traffic) or demonstrations in which French soldiers would be taken to task, risking an incident that could exacerbate tensions.
Given that the current authorities – even if not recognized by Paris – seem to be in a position to obtain a transition period of at least several months from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and that the junta has denounced the defense and cooperation agreements with France, it seemed clear that the future of the French forces in Niger was sealed in the short term. How could 1,200 troops be maintained in such conditions? It is now a question of withdrawing in an orderly fashion and avoiding as far as possible the security vacuum that benefits the armed jihadist groups on the ground.
Contacts have never really been broken off at operational level, but they have recently intensified between the commander of the French forces in the Sahel, General Bruno Baratz, and the chief of staff of the Niger army, Moussa Salaou Barmou.
However, Paris has been careful to imply that the current discussions are taking place between the military leaders of the two countries’ armed forces. Some see this as an attempt to maintain consistency, while others see it as an attempt to keep up appearances, in its political and diplomatic stance of not recognizing the ruling junta. In fact, contacts have never really been interrupted at operational level, but they have recently intensified between the commander of the French forces in the Sahel, General Bruno Baratz, and the chief of staff of the Niger army, Moussa Salaou Barmou. And since the end of August, discussions have focused on the outlines of a gradual withdrawal of French troops.
Do you think that the change in Paris’ position is the result of the flexibility shown by its American ally towards the new authorities in Niger?
The position of the United States and “certain European capital cities” – as Emmanuel Macron put it in his speech to ambassadors on 28 August – has certainly isolated France in its diplomatic and military stance towards the junta. Despite Paris’ alignment with the position of ECOWAS, many influential diplomats see France’s positions in Africa as “radioactive” – as one American analyst put it – and are therefore tempted to distance themselves from them.
But the change in Paris’s position is also due to operational realities on the ground: in the absence of authorization from the Nigerien armed forces, French forces can no longer operate. What is known as “Forces co-action” – operating jointly and solely at the request of the national authorities – was a mode of engagement that existed prior to the July 26, 2023 coup d’Etat. It was, moreover, the new form of engagement of the French forces in Niger that had been demanded by President Bazoum.
Today, it seems clear that the junta will no longer request the intervention of the 1,200 French troops present in the country. Their presence therefore becomes irrelevant and their return must be organized. The fact that the Americans are able to continue their cooperation with the Niger army in terms of intelligence (electronic, GEOSINT, etc.) and possibly supplement the withdrawal of the French in terms of air support and target elimination (using armed drones) may have convinced the junta to decide to do without the French forces for good. And this is above and beyond the obvious internal and regional political gain that demanding the departure of the French armed forces from Niger, like the Malian and Burkinabe juntas before them, would undoubtedly represent for the junta.
Does the withdrawal of French forces from Niger call into question the idea of armed intervention to reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum, given that France supports this threat waved by ECOWAS?
The discussions underway between ECOWAS and Niger now seem to favor a transition of several months – between 6 and 24 months depending on the options – which rules out the hypothesis of military intervention, the operational feasibility of which in any case seems very delicate and the political cost of which seems even higher.
I think, in the highly hypothetical case of a military intervention by ECOWAS, France would still be in a position to provide logistical support for such an operation insofar as the timetable for the departure of French forces is not yet known and, according to initial estimates by the French Ministry of Defense, will take at least three months. In the meantime, the French forces remain operational, at least on paper, as they have not been conducting any operations since 26 July. They can, however, be mobilized both logistically and in terms of intelligence, as it is unlikely and in no way desirable that French soldiers would be directly involved in such an operation. But, I repeat, such an intervention seems very unlikely and less and less likely. The fact that current discussions are focusing on the withdrawal of French elements seconded to the Nigerian anti-terrorist operation Almahaou, as well as on air assets (planes, helicopters and drones), are good indications of the highly unlikely nature of direct participation by French forces in an ECOWAS operation, and of the feasibility of the operation itself.
France remains inflexible on certain points, such as the junta’s demand for the departure of Ambassador Sylvain Itté. But do you feel that France has lost the plot in Niger and in the Sahel countries more generally?
It seems quite clear that, despite the illegality of the coup d’Etat, Paris’ highly legalistic stance and its support for President Bazoum and ECOWAS, this position is largely inaudible to the people of the region and has little support from its international and European partners. Despite all the arguments to the contrary, such a stance harks back to France’s colonial and post-colonial past, particularly when there is a military dimension to this commitment (in this case the presence of French troops in Niger).
In this case, it is less a question of France “winning or losing the game” than of making a positive and responsible contribution to a rapid end to the political crisis in Niger and organizing the orderly departure of the French forces. France cannot remain militarily present in a country unless there is a broad enough consensus in that country for its presence to be sustainable and productive. You cannot save people against their will. The French military presence in the Sahel is no longer desired, as it was in 2013 when northern Mali fell into the hands of armed groups. What’s more, such a presence is probably not an existential necessity for France insofar as the armed jihadist groups have never had the idea and have never been in a position to plan terrorist actions in France or Europe.
On the other hand, it is a pity that the departure of French and foreign armed forces has not been offset by a sufficient increase in the strength of national armed forces or regional or international peacekeeping forces (MINUSMA is in the process of being withdrawn at the request of the Malian junta) in order to provide more effective protection for civilians, who remain the main victims of the conflicts in the Sahel. On the contrary, the most credible figures available show that armed jihadist groups are making progress and are becoming ever more deadly (5.5 times more deadly in 2022 than in the previous four years, according to ACLED). But these same figures show that civilians were the main victims of the Sahelian national armed forces in 2022 and 2023, and that this trend is increasing. The presence and actions of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner have amplified this phenomenon since their arrival in Mali in 2022. All these abuses are also powerful recruitment tools for jihadist groups.
What future do you see for relations between France and the Sahel countries in the light of recent events?
It’s a future that needs to be reinvented. It will be hard because of the past, the present and the mutual disillusionment of the last ten years. It’s important to remember that before 2013 and Operation Serval, France had a light military footprint in the Sahel, with only the discreet presence of Sabre special forces in Burkina Faso. This shows how inadequate the concept of the war on terror is for fighting jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel, especially those led by foreign forces. Other concepts and means should have been mobilized to fight such groups.
France needs to introspect and make a conceptual revolution in its relationship and actions in the Sahel and, more broadly, in the African countries where it has intervened. I would like to see a common future rebuilt quickly. But over and above the personal relationships that will live on because of the presence of strong diasporas, at least in France, I fear that it will take decades to rebuild healthy state relations, free of the burdens of relations vitiated by the colonial and post-colonial heritage, mutual resentments and the “violence of the liberating struggle and its abuses,” as Frantz Fanon put it in his day. Appropriate processes should be developed in the Sahel and in Africa on this relationship. This is not the end of history, but rather the beginning of a new, hopefully more balanced, historical sequence.
However, while I can only hope that this decomposition that is taking shape before our very eyes is one of real empowerment, full independence and social progress, I fear that the immediate future in the Sahel will be marked by an increase in conflicts and atrocities, the establishment of authoritarian military and/or conservative religious regimes and their corollaries for public and individual freedoms. Let us hope that progressive forces will be able to reinvent forms of political and democratic government adapted to the specific characteristics of African nations in order to guarantee the growth and development of the region. Humbly supporting such alternatives while working to establish respectful and balanced political and economic exchanges could be part of a new French approach to French-speaking African countries. This could perhaps help to avoid a long desert crossing for relations between France and the countries of the Sahel.