France’s Choices in Niger Between Acquiescence to the Fait accompli and Secret Negotiations

What is the fate of French troops in Niger? A question worth asking after the announcement of the new prime minister – appointed by the military council – Ali Lamine Zein, last Monday, that “discussions” are taking place with French forces stationed in the country to coordinate their departure “as quickly as possible.”

After five weeks of tensions, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces admitted on Wednesday 5 September to open a debate on how to withdraw some military elements, without specifying the units involved.

There are currently about 1500,<> troops in the country, mostly at the BAP air base near the airport of the capital Niamey, along with the Lam and Euro bases, in the so-called “tri-border area” between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Nicolas Norman, former French ambassador to Mali and the Sahel and Sahara countries, believes that Paris has reached a situation in which it “will lose because it defends a just cause at the legal level but politically loses, as it is not possible for President Mohamed Bazoum to return to office, which would have become the only honorable result for Paris from this crisis.”

Embarrassing interventions

Norman says to Al Jazeera Net, “I see that the public interventions of French President Emmanuel Macron and his ministers, who are highly critical of the coup in Niger are already embarrassing, so the more hostile statements, the more we enter into the vortex of manipulation of coup leaders us.”

Norman considers the issue of clinging to the ambassador unreasonable and subjective, “as it is not that clear – legally – and states usually recognize each other and do not recognize governments, which makes our position not as consistent as we claim.”

“If it was necessary not to give up, it could have been said that he (the French ambassador) was not expelled, but we decided to summon him for consultations, and we will be the ones who decided to contact him. We could have come out of this crisis skillfully and intelligently, but we didn’t.”

For his part, former general in the French army and expert in international relations Francois Chevanci believes that France’s options are clear: to withdraw its forces from the French military base in Niamey “quietly” because it cannot bet on the departure of coup leaders who may try to manipulate the Nigerien people and push them to riot to storm the French embassy there, according to his opinion.

Chauvinci expressed fears of a serious clash between unarmed civilians, soldiers and gendarmes protecting the embassy from the inside or French forces, stressing that “there is no way for Paris to go back on its positions, especially with regard to supporting President-elect Bazoum.”

The same spokesman considers that things are out of Paris’ control because if they wanted to actually influence the resolution of the crisis within 24 hours, its armed forces would have been able to retake Bazoum, put him at the head of the state and imprison the generals, according to his opinion.

Secret negotiations

French armies have stopped supporting Nigerien soldiers since Aug. 3 after generals who seized power at the end of July denounced several military cooperation agreements between the two countries during Bazoum’s rule, and all military assets, especially air operations, including drones, helicopters and fighter jets, were suspended.

France does not yet recognize the new authorities in Niamey and insists on keeping its ambassador there for now. It also ruled out any full military withdrawal from Niger.

According to Nicolas Norman, instead of realizing the fragility of its position, France put itself at the forefront, isolated it diplomatically and focused on supporting the military operation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), while the rest of Europe was content to support Bazoum.

“From afar, it will appear that ECOWAS will be a tool in the hands of France through which it wants to wage war in Niger, but this is not true because Paris does not want to go to war and ECOWAS does not have the means to carry out the military operation and therefore loses its credibility over time,” the former ambassador added.

The former general in the French army stressed the need to highlight the heavy cost that France will incur when withdrawing its military bases from Africa, “especially since they are not there for fun, but at the request of the Niger government,” saying that “attacks by terrorist groups have increased by 600% over the past month.”

In his opinion, the tense political situation and the existence of an illegitimate government greatly trouble Paris, which will push it not to withdraw from Niger completely, adding that in light of the political stalemate between Paris and Niamey, it is possible to withdraw human and material resources allocated to combat terrorism from Niger, especially through Cotonou (the economic capital of Benin), towards France, neighboring Chad, or even towards other theaters where jihadists are active, such as the Middle East, according to the former French army general.

Frequent trap

In a related context, the former French ambassador to Mali believes that his country has fallen into a repeated political and military trap for psychological reasons related to Macron, who had a great appreciation for Bazoum, adding, “We were expelled from Mali and Brukina Faso and Niger was the center of French cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”

“We see that the Americans are taking a more pragmatic and pragmatic position than the French, even calling what is happening an attempted coup rather than a coup,” Norman said.

The former French ambassador warns that Niger is facing a scenario of economic and security deterioration in light of a politically deteriorating situation, and that the country is facing two scenarios, the first of which is approaching Western countries to restore some order in its internal affairs, and the second is “the seizure of power by jihadists.”

Regarding the ambassador’s crisis, Norman explains that the putschists first verbally requested the expulsion of the ambassador and then submitted papers to expel him for the second time: “We had to tell the Nigerien authorities confidentially: we do not recognize you and your request is worthless to us, and Paris had to return its ambassador to consult to simply solve the problem.”

Chauvencey stressed that things are not moving quickly between the two countries in conjunction with the opening of Niger airspace to non-military flights, pointing out that Paris seeks big statements and stands in a position of waiting to buy time and try to find a face-saving solution in the face of the ban imposed by the putschists.

He added that Paris at the diplomatic level is trying to use the time as much as possible and seeks dialogue despite the refusal of the putschists to receive delegations that traveled to Niamey, and believes that Africans should be left to solve their problems themselves.

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