France has announced that it will end its military presence in Niger by the end of 2023, following a coup that ousted the democratically elected president of the West African nation. French President Emmanuel Macron also said that he has decided to bring back the country’s ambassador to Niger, who was reportedly held hostage at the French embassy by the military junta.
Macron: “We are not there to deal with internal politics”
In a televised address on Sunday, Macron said that France will stop its military cooperation with the de facto authorities of Niger, who took over power in July after arresting President Mohamed Bazoum and dissolving his government. Bazoum had won the presidential election in February with 55.75% of the votes, according to the electoral commission.
“We are putting an end to our military cooperation with the de facto authorities of Niger because they don’t want to fight terrorism anymore,” Macron said, referring to the military group led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. “They will come back in an orderly manner in the weeks and months to come, and for that, we will coordinate with the putschists because we want this to happen calmly,” he added.
Macron said that there will not be any French soldiers in Niger by the end of 2023. France had stationed about 1,500 troops in the country, many of whom were there to assist with counterterrorism missions in the Sahel region, where Islamist insurgencies and violence have been rampant. France has been leading a multinational force called Operation Barkhane, which involves about 5,000 soldiers from France and other countries.
The decision to end the “cooperation” is “because we are not there to deal with internal politics and be hostages of putschists,” Macron said. He also reiterated that France does not recognize Niger’s military authorities and insists that Bazoum remains the country’s only legitimate leader.
Ambassador “literally being held hostage” at the embassy
Macron also said that he has decided to bring back the country’s ambassador to Niger, Sylvain Itte, to France. “France has decided to bring back its ambassador,” Macron said. “In the coming hours, our ambassador along with several diplomats will return to France.”
This announcement comes just over a week after Macron said that Itte was “literally being held hostage at the French embassy,” and that “food was prevented from being delivered” to the embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The military junta had ordered Itte to leave the country, and later revoked his visa and instructed police to expel him. But the diplomat remained in place, according to the French presidency.
The situation at the embassy had sparked protests from both supporters and opponents of the coup. Thousands of Nigeriens gathered in front of the French army headquarters on September 2, some demanding the withdrawal of French troops and others expressing solidarity with Bazoum and Itte.
International condemnation and pressure
The coup in Niger has been widely condemned by the international community, which has called for a swift return to constitutional order and respect for human rights. The African Union (AU) suspended Niger’s membership and imposed sanctions on the coup leaders. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also suspended Niger from its decision-making bodies and threatened further measures if the junta does not restore democracy.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement expressing its deep concern over the situation in Niger and urging all stakeholders to engage in dialogue and refrain from violence. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed a special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, to facilitate talks between the parties.
The United States, which also has troops in Niger for counterterrorism purposes, condemned the coup and called for the immediate release of Bazoum and other detained officials. Two US officials said earlier this month that the US could begin withdrawing troops from Niger in the coming weeks. As many as half of the roughly 1,100 US troops stationed in Niger could be pulled from the country, according to the officials.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a population of about 23 million people. It faces multiple challenges, including food insecurity, climate change, population growth, corruption, and human rights violations. It is also a transit country for migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe via Libya.