French President Emanuel Macron has stated that France will immediately withdraw its ambassador and diplomatic staff from Niger, and that the 1,500 French troops stationed in Niger will be withdrawn over the next weeks with a total withdrawal “by the end of the year.” This major development follows mass mobilizations of huge numbers of people demanding that France respect the decision of the country’s new government to expel the troops. The new military government came to power in July after ousting former Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, and enjoys significant popular support in particular around its opposition to French domination.
French Army Chief of Staff General Pierre Schill described the dynamic in the Sahel in 2022 saying, “We’re getting used to being the Americans in this coalition.” Like the U.S.-led “War on Terror,” the French military campaigns in the Sahel — ostensibly carried out by a “coalition” of countries ruled by neo-colonial governments — have only succeeded in causing horrific civilian casualties and keeping these countries in a state of chaos and dependency while utterly failing to achieve the publicly stated mission objectives of “combatting terrorism.”
France has had troops stationed across the Sahel since the country began the supposed counter-terrorism operations Serval in 2013, followed by Operation Barkhane. Despite a decade of military operations, the stated targets of France’s campaign — right-wing religious fundamentalist militias variously associated with transnational networks like al-Qaeda and self-styled Islamic States — have not been defeated while many hundreds of civilians in Niger, Mali and other Sahel states have been killed by French forces.
Given this reality, compounded by the centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism West African states have experienced at French hands, it is no surprise that Niger is the latest in a series of coups that have reshaped the geopolitics of West Africa significantly. In recent years, much of the region has pivoted toward an anti-colonial footing because of the policies of these new governments and the mobilization of the region’s people.
Burkina Faso followed Mali in expelling French troops earlier this year, and popular forces, military leaders and new governments across the region are taking advantage of the maturation of a more multipolar global balance. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger solidified a regional and defense pact, establishing the Alliance of the Sahel States (AES) last week. The AES signals a mutual cooperation between the three nations independent of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and African Union, which are criticized as acting on behalf of France, the United States and other western capitalist interests. Chairman of ECOWAS and Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu backtracked unilateral threats of a military invasion, but the regional bloc has not lifted its sanctions imposed on Niger. ECOWAS has a long history as an agent of neocolonialism, including brutal conduct during regional conflicts such as the Liberian Civil War in the 1990s.
If the French are “the Americans in this coalition,” then what is the role of U.S. imperialism in relation to French neocolonialism? Niger is host to one of the largest U.S. drone bases in the world, a quarter-billion dollar facility near Agadez, Niger. The United States also maintains an airbase near the Nigerien capital Niamey, with both facilities part of the broader network of facilities built out to support the Pentagon’s African Command, known as AFRICOM. Established in 2007, the growth of AFRICOM reflects the critical role that U.S. war-planners see the African continent playing in the 21st century.
Despite a strong anti-French, pro-sovereignty stance from the new Nigerien government, the U.S. military has reported that negotiations with the new Nigerien government has allowed the United States to resume both drone and crewed aircraft operations out of the Agadez airbase. Whether this represents a momentary arrangement or a more long-term accommodation remains to be seen.
Despite France’s claim of deposed President Mohammed Bazoum being the sole “legitimate authority,” the mounting popular pressure of Nigerien people alongside the new military government demonstrates quite clearly the opposite. While the direction of future events is of course uncertain, Nigeriens have expressed their clear opposition to colonial domination of their country. The expulsion of French troops and the French ambassador is a major victory in this fight.