Europe

‘France takes us for idiots’ – Inside coup-hit Niger

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The West African country of Niger is among the world’s most deadly for attacks by jihadists. Following a military coup in July, there are fears a decision to order 1,500 French troops in the country to leave may further embolden insurgents.

The BBC’s Mayeni Jones gained rare access to Niger and spoke to the regime, its supporters and those opposed to it.

Short presentational grey line

Adama Zourkaleini Maiga is soft-spoken, but her eyes suggest steely determination.

The single mother-of-two lives in a quiet, middle-class part of Niger’s capital Niamey, but is originally from Tillabéry, one of the regions worst-hit by violence.

“My mother’s cousin was chief of a village called Téra,” she tells me over lunch. “He was assassinated just seven months ago.

“The terrorists were looking for him and when they found out he’d rented a car to flee, they caught up with him and killed him. They slit his throat. It was a real shock for our whole family.”

Adama blames France – which has had 1,500 troops in the region to fight Islamist militants – for the failure to contain the violence.

“They can’t tell us that the French army was successful,” she says. “I don’t understand how they can say they’re here to help people fight terrorism, and every year the situation gets worse.”

Niger was seen as the last Western ally in the Sahel, this semi-arid region which has become the epicentre of jihadi violence. France and the US each station troops in Niger, which is also home to the US’s biggest drone base.

But when France refused to recognise the new military government here, simmering resentment at perceived French interference in Niger’s internal affairs boiled over.

Pro-junta supporter

Pro-junta supporters see the coup as a fresh start

Many Nigeriens believe France has had privileged access to the country’s political elite and natural resources for too long. They see the coup as a chance for a clean slate, a way to get sovereignty back and be rid of French influence.

“The army has never stayed in power long in Niger,” Adama says, referring to the five coups that have rocked the country since its independence from France in 1960.

“The military will eventually return to their bases and hand over to a better civilian government that will lead Niger to its destiny,” she adds.

The popular anger that followed France’s refusal to accept Niger’s new leadership escalated when the junta asked its troops and ambassador to leave the country.

French President Emmanuel Macron initially refused to comply, but now says he’s decided to agree to the junta’s demands because the Nigerien authorities are “no longer interested in fighting terrorism”.

Outside a military base in Niamey housing French troops, hundreds of protesters have been camped out for weeks, stopping supplies from reaching the personnel there.

On Fridays the protesters hold a prayer sit-in. In the scorching midday heat, Imam Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye Amadou advises the crowd to be patient.

“Just as a divorce between a man and a woman takes time, so too will Niger’s divorce from France,” he tells the crowd.

Pro-junta protest in Niamey on 16 September

Hundreds of protesters gather outside the French embassy each week

After his sermon, I ask him why, after years of close cooperation, the people of Niger are so angry at the French.

“In the whole of the Sahel, Niger is France’s best partner.” he says. “But it’s France that is now refusing to accept what we want and that’s why there’s tension.

“France could have left quietly after the coup and came back to negotiate with the putschists. Why is Emmanuel Macron now saying he doesn’t recognise our authorities, when he’s accepted coups in other countries like in Gabon and in Chad?

“That’s what has made us angry and we think France takes us for idiots.”

Assoumane Harouna speaks at a rally

General Abdou Assoumane Harouna says Nigerien forces will protect their people

During the prayers there’s commotion as a big car flanked by armed guards drives in.

The newly appointed governor of Niamey, General Abdou Assoumane Harouna – popularly known as Plaquette – steps out. He’s an imposing 6ft 5in man, dressed in military fatigues and a green beret.

As we jostle for an interview with him, he points to my producer and tells the crowd: “You see, people say we don’t like white people, but we welcome them with open arms.”

He tells me the people of Niger want a prosperous, proud and sovereign country and that outsiders should respect their will. When I ask if the junta can keep his country safe from terrorists, he replies that Nigerien forces have always protected their people, and can do so without foreign partners.

But those opposed to the regime fear the departure of French troops could be disastrous for Niger and the wider region.

“In the fight against the terrorists, France is a key partner that provides most of the intelligence that helps us beat the terrorists,” Paris-based Idrissa Waziri, a former spokesperson for deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, tells me over Zoom.

“The rushed departure of the French has led to a deterioration of the security situation in Mali and Burkina Faso. France nowadays has become a scapegoat to get people out on the street, blaming it for all our problems.

“France is not the problem, the problem today is this attempted coup which is a significant step backwards for Niger.”

Man outside French military base wears a Niger flag during a protest

It’s still too soon to know whether France’s departure will cause more unrest in the Sahel

For Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Sahel project manager at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, it’s too early to say whether France’s departure will lead to greater insecurity in Niger and the Sahel more widely.

In neighbouring Mali, the departure of foreign and UN troops has been followed by an uptick of violence by both Islamist insurgents and rebel groups. But Mr Koné says there are fundamental differences between the countries.

“Unlike in Mali, the French army played a more supportive role in Niger, helping local troops in a more limited capacity” he says. “The Nigerien army already had lots of experience fighting terror groups, especially on the eastern front against Boko Haram.”

He adds that Niger’s armed forces are more present across their territory than Malian forces were. In Mali, terror groups could seize large swathes of territory in the north of the country, where the state and the army were absent.

Following a threat by the regional block Ecowas that it would invade Niger if deposed President Mohamed Bazoum wasn’t restituted, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger set up an alliance on 16 September.

In the Sahel security alliance, they agreed to help each other against armed rebellions and external aggression. Mr Koné thinks this could be a game changer.

“The lack of cooperation between the three countries was one of the reasons terror groups could easily cross from one territory into the next,” he says. “There’s already been two or three joint military operations between these three countries. This increased cooperation is putting real pressure on the insurgents.”

He also thinks the alliance could help share best practice from Niger to the other two countries.

Last year, terror-related deaths in Niger fell by 79% according to the Global Terrorism Index; whereas neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso became the two deadliest places for terror attacks. Some 90% of last year’s violence related to Islamist extremism in the Sahel occurred in the two countries.

“The reason the Bazoum administration had some success in reducing deaths in Niger is because it developed a more holistic approach: combining military strategy with community engagement and socio-economic development,” Mr Koné says.

Pro-junta supporters stand on the street

Some pro-junta supporters welcome the coup

But despite its relative success, this process wasn’t popular with everyone, with some members of the military seeing it as the government being soft on terrorists and encouraging impunity. It’s unclear if the junta will continue on the same path.

It’s also hard to gauge how much support President Bazoum has in Niamey.

His closeness to the French government has angered many, but we struggled to get any of his supporters, or anyone opposed to the decision to expel France, to speak to us on the record. Most people seemed too scared of the consequences.

It didn’t help that the junta followed the BBC team’s every move in the country, and was aware of what interviewees told us.

France’s departure doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Niger’s cooperation with western powers. There are still foreign troops in Niger, including those from the US.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told journalists in Kenya on Monday that his country hadn’t yet made any significant changes to its military forces in Niger.

But he said they would continue to evaluate the situation there and any future steps made would prioritise both their democratic and security goals.

As the Sahel finds itself at the frontline of the war on terror, the decisions made by the ruling juntas there will be crucial to the spread of Islamist extremism to the wider region.

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