PARIS: France will withdraw its soldiers from Niger following the July coup in the West African country, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, dealing a blow to French influence and operations counter-insurgency in the Sahel region.
Macron said 1,500 troops would withdraw by the end of the year and that France, Niger’s former colonial power, refused “to be taken hostage by the putchists.”
Niger’s military leaders welcomed the announcement as “a new step towards sovereignty.”
France’s departure, which comes after weeks of pressure from the junta and popular protests, risks exacerbating Western concerns about Russia’s growing influence in Africa. The Russian mercenary force Wagner is already present in Mali, neighboring Niger.
“This Sunday, we celebrate a new step towards the sovereignty of Niger,” said a statement from the country’s military leaders, who took power at the end of July by overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
“French troops and the French ambassador will leave Nigerien soil by the end of the year.”
The press release, read on national television, added: “This is a historic moment which testifies to the determination and will of the Nigerien people. »
Earlier on Sunday, ahead of Macron’s announcement, Africa’s air safety regulator (ASECNA) announced that Niger’s military leaders had banned “French planes” from flying over the country’s airspace.
The French president refused to recognize the junta as Niger’s legitimate authority, but said Paris would coordinate troop withdrawals with the putschists. “We will consult the putschists because we want things to be in order,” Macron said in an interview with TF1 and France 2 television channels.
The French ambassador has also been withdrawn and will return to the country in the coming hours, Macron added.
French influence over its former colonies has waned in West Africa in recent years, just as popular vitriol has increased. Its forces have been driven out of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso since coups there, reducing its role in the region-wide fight against deadly Islamist insurgencies.
Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which used it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region of West Africa and central.
Russia’s growing presence
The French military base in Niamey, Niger’s capital, has become the epicenter of anti-French protests since the July 26 coup.
Groups regularly gathered in the streets to call for troops stationed in the capital to leave. One Saturday this month, tens of thousands of people rallied against France, slaughtering a goat dressed in French colors and carrying coffins draped in French flags.
Pro-coup protesters in Niamey waved Russian flags, reinforcing Western fears that Niger could follow Mali’s example and replace its troops with Wagner fighters.
Before his death in a plane crash last month, Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin spoke in a social media clip about his desire to make Russia greater on all continents and Africa freer. Wagner’s future has been uncertain since his death.
Wagner is also active in the Central African Republic and Libya. Western countries claim it is also present in Sudan, while denying it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a return to constitutional order in Niger.
French nuclear power plants source uranium in small quantities – less than 10 percent – from Niger, with the French state-owned company Orano operating a mine in northern Niger.
Macron said he still considered democratically elected President Mohammed Bazoum, currently held prisoner by coup plotters, to be Niger’s legitimate leader and had informed him of his decision.