PARIS: France will pull its soldiers out of Niger following a July coup in the West African country, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, dealing a huge blow to French influence and counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel region.
Macron said 1,500 troops would withdraw by the end of the year and that France, the former colonial power in Niger, refused to “be held hostage by the putchists.”
Niger’s military rulers welcomed the announcement as “a new step toward sovereignty.”
France’s exit, which comes after weeks of pressure from the junta and popular demonstrations, is likely to exacerbate Western concerns over Russia’s expanding influence in Africa. The Russian mercenary force Wagner already present in Niger’s neighbor Mali.
“This Sunday, we celebrate a new step toward the sovereignty of Niger,” said a statement from the country’s military rulers, who seized power in late July by overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
“The French troops and the ambassador of France will leave Nigerien soil by the end of the year.”
The statement, read out on national television, added: “This is a historic moment, which speaks to the determination and will of the Nigerien people.”
Earlier Sunday, before Macron’s announcement, the body regulating aviation safety in Africa (ASECNA), announced that Niger’s military rulers had banned “French aircraft” from flying over the country’s airspace.
The French president has refused to recognize the junta as Niger’s legitimate authority but said Paris would coordinate troop withdraw with the coup leaders.“We will consult with the putschists because we want things to be orderly,” Macron said in an interview with France’s TF1 and France 2 television stations.
France’s ambassador was also being pulled out and would return to the country in the next few hours, Macron added.
French influence over its former colonies has waned in West Africa in recent years, just as popular vitriol has grown. Its forces have been kicked out of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso since coups in those countries, reducing its role in a region-wide fight against deadly Islamist insurgencies.
Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which have used it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s wider Sahel region.
Russia’s expanding presence
France’s military base in Niger’s capital, Niamey, had become the epicenter of anti-French protests since the July 26 coup.
Groups have regularly gathered on the street outside to call for the exit of troops stationed in the capital. On one Saturday this month, tens of thousands rallied against France, slitting the throat of a goat dressed in French colors and carrying coffins draped in French flags.
Pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey have waved Russian flags, adding to Western countries’ fears that Niger could follow Mali’s lead and replace their troops with Wagner fighters.
Before his death in a plane crash last month, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin spoke in a social media clip of making Russia greater on all continents and Africa more free. Wagner’s future has been unclear since his demise.
Wagner is also active in Central African Republic and Libya. Western nations say it is also present in Sudan, though it denies this. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a return to constitutional order in Niger.
French nuclear power plants source a small amount — less than 10 percent — of their uranium from Niger, with France’s state-owned Orano operating a mine in Niger’s north.
Macron said he still regarded democratically elected President Mohammed Bazoum, currently held prisoner by the coup leaders, as Niger’s legitimate leader and had informed him of his decision.