After about two months of wrangling between France and the new military regime in Niger, President Emmanuel Macron finally decided, on 24 September, to withdraw the French ambassador and pull out French military forces from Niger.
This was a U-turn. Only four weeks earlier, Macron had refused to follow the instructions of the putschists who’d ordered the ambassador and French forces to leave the country. He argued that he did not recognise the new junta, which took power on 26 July, and insisted that his forces would remain in the country.
As a scholar of politics and international relations, I have been exploring the security situation and the rise of insurgency in the Sahel for over a decade. In my view, France’s actions have created unnecessary uncertainty in a region already beset by insecurity from increasing jihadist activities, as well as six successful coups in the last three years.
In my opinion, France has made a strategic mistake. Though it did not recognise the junta, it should have maintained communication, especially after falling out with other former colonies such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
The other prominent external actor in Niger was the US. The US decided to negotiate with the junta. Unlike France, it did not label the military takeover a coup d’etat. The US resumed operations in some of its bases in Niger, having secured agreement from the junta.
Macron’s actions could have three negative outcomes for the region. It will hurt the fight against terrorism. It also opens the door to greater influence of Wagner, the Russian-backed mercenary group. And finally it has implications for Europe’s migrant crisis.
The fight against terrorism
Niger plays a significant role in the security architecture of the Sahel. The country is actively involved in and contributes to security organisations such as the G5 Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force.
These organisations are involved in the fight against terrorism in the region. Apart from contributing funds to both organisations, especially the G5 Sahel, France is also involved in training Nigerien forces and flying reconnaissance and attack drones, actively combating terrorists in the region.
The decision by France to pull out of Niger will have an impact on counter terrorism operations in the region. France has been involved there for a long time and has soldiers who thoroughly understand the region. Losing these officers will create a gap that Niger might struggle to fill in the short term.
Like France, the US also has a large military presence in Niger, where it operates its largest drone base in Africa. I have previously analysed the importance and security implications of the drone base to the region.
For its part, the EU also contributes to the security of the region by providing funding for the G5 Sahel and Multinational Joint Task Force. This momentum must be sustained in order not to lose what has already been achieved in the form of an established security architecture.
The withdrawal of French forces will negatively affect the morale of the soldiers in the security alliance and embolden insurgent groups. An increase in terrorist attacks has been recorded since the coup.
Russia versus the US
The terms of the agreement between the US and the military junta were not published. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that one of Washington’s reasons for making sure it remained in Niger was the fear that it might lose the country to Russia.
In Mali, the military junta replaced French troops with Wagner forces. Since 2022, Russia has gained influence through the Wagner Group after the exit of France.
Washington would want to avoid losing further ground to Russian influence. With the Wagner group already present in Mali, there is suspicion that the recently signed military pact between the three countries (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) could expand the presence of the group.
In addition, the US has invested heavily in the Sahel, especially in Niger. In the last decade the US has invested hundreds of millions of dollars on security infrastructure, including a drone base in Agadez (central Niger).
The US understands the role “ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel could play in breeding terrorism. Such was the case of the regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda launched attacks against the US and its western allies.
What it means for migration
Other major players in Niger such as the European Union also cannot afford to follow the path of France. The EU needs stability in Niger to stem trafficking and avoid another humanitarian catastrophe as seen in 2015-16. Europe witnessed the highest number of migrants transiting through Niger and Libya into Europe during this period.
There is no doubt that the civilian regimes of presidents Mahamadou Issoufou and Mohamed Bazoum contributed to the reduction in the flow of migrants through Niger to Libya. While serving as interior minister, Bazoum was instrumental in passing a law against people smuggling through Niger. The law was championed by Bazoum but also believed to have contributed to his ousting by the military. The junta could threaten to cancel the agreement and look the other way as migrants again transition through Niger into the EU.
The EU needs to maintain a strong diplomatic channel with the junta to maintain stability, prevent an increase in smuggling and continue efforts towards the return of democratic order.
While I understand that increased diplomacy with the junta cements its authority, I think foreign powers should accept that there is a government in Niger that has some degree of popularity among the citizens. Frozen channels of diplomacy must be reactivated to prevent a total collapse of the Sahel’s security architecture and in order to achieve a quick transition to democracy.
Written by Olayinka Ajala, Senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Leeds Beckett University.