Niger, a West African nation, ranks among the globe’s most lethal sites for jihadist assaults. The recent military coup in July had stoked the embers of unease, as the decision to dispel 1,500 French troops from the nation’s soil threatens to embolden radical insurgents further.
BBC’s Mayeni Jones had a rare opportunity to visit Niger and converse with the ruling regime, its advocates, and detractors.
Adama Zourkaleini Maiga, a soft-spoken woman with eyes burning with resolve, resides in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Originally hailing from Tillabéry, a region severely affected by bouts of violence, Adama seamlessly blends her quiet, middle-class life with an intimate history of terror. She mourns the brutal loss of her mother’s cousin, a village chief, at the hands of terrorists – a terrifying incident that sent shockwaves throughout her family.
Adama castigates France, a nation that had attempted to contain violent extremism through its 1,500-strong military presence, for its failure to stem the rising tide. She voiced her opinions over lunch, expressing critical questions regarding the deteriorating situation on the ground, despite the French army’s claims to oppose terrorism.
In the heart of the Sahara, Niger stood as the last bastion of Western influence, hosting French and American military bases, as well as the largest U.S. drone base. Simmering discontent, however, bubbled over when France declined to recognize Niger’s new military government—inviting accusations of unfounded interference in Niger’s internal affairs.
Amidst this strained politico-military landscape, Niger’s citizens perceive the military coup as an opportunity to reclaim the country’s sovereignty and extricate undue French influence. They ardently believe that the military will eventually cede power to a more effective civilian government, spearheading Niger towards a promising future. Adama insists that, given Niger’s history of five coup d’etats since its liberation from French rule in 1960, the army’s tenure at the helm of authority has always been ephemeral.
The junta’s dismissal of French troops and ambassadors elicited public anger, but surprisingly, also gained unexpected concurrence from the French President Emmanuel Macron. Citing a disinterest in combating terrorism from the Nigerien authorities, the French leadership acceded to the junta’s demands – and the ensuing fallout has resulted in complications, frustrations that paint the French as scapegoats for a host of problems.
In the dusty fever of Friday prayers, protesters have camped out for weeks outside a Niamey military base housing French personnel. Poignant sentiments of impatience fill the air as Imam Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye Amadou advises persistence, sharing wisdom on resilience and drawing comparisons with peeling off a tenacious bandage: a man and his wife divorce over time, and Niger’s separation from France will need patience. Despite the rising tension, many Nigeriens blame France for not abiding by Niger’s desires, regardless of its long-standing relationship with the region.
However, concerns linger about the ramifications of French troops’ hasty withdrawal. There’s a stark fear of an imminent security meltdown that could grip Niger, especially since essential intel aid from the French in the fight against terrorism would no longer be available. Despite resistance to French influence, even amid political turmoil, an abrupt exodus could destabilize more than just Niger. Other countries in the region, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, have already experienced significant security challenges due to a similar departure of French forces.
That said, the prospect of chaos remains speculative, as the French military’s role in Niger was primarily supportive – a fact acknowledged by Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Sahel project manager at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. According to Koné, Niger’s armed forces are more entrenched across the territory than their Malian counterparts were, allowing them to better control potential insurgencies.
In response to external pressure, several nations, including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, formed an alliance on 16 September. This collaborative venture could prove advantageous by sharing best practices, with Niger leading by its effective model of military strategy combined with community engagement and socio-economic development. This comprehensive approach accounted for a significant 79% drop in terror-related deaths in Niger last year, as recorded by the Global Terrorism Index.
Crafting a safe and sovereign nation in the face of political upheaval and ongoing threats of terrorism is an uphill battle, and Niger is firmly at its forefront. At this crossroads, the resulting ripple of effects of their decisions could determine the extent of future Islamist extremism spreading across the region.
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