Residents pray during an anti-France protest in front of a French base in Niamey, Niger, September 15, 2023/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that Paris will recall its ambassador from Niger and withdraw its military forces in the coming months, following the coup in the West African country that ousted pro-French President Mohammed Zoom.
The French president's announcement appears to have ended two months of tensions between Niger and the former colonial ruler, during which the Paris ambassador remained in his place in the capital Niami, even though coup leaders ordered him to leave.
"France has decided to recall its ambassador," Macron said in an interview with French television, without specifying how. "In the coming hours, our ambassador and some diplomats will return to France."
Niger's military rulers have banned French planes from flying over the country's airspace, according to the Aviation Safety Agency for Africa and Madagascar. It is unclear whether this will affect the ambassador's flight.
Macron added that military cooperation had ended and that French forces would withdraw "in the coming months and weeks," with the full withdrawal completed by the end of the year. He added: "We will consult with the putschists because we want it to be done peacefully." France has about 1,500 troops in Niger as part of an anti-jihadist fighting force in the Sahel region, but Macron said Niger's military authorities "no longer want to fight terrorism."
Niger's military rulers responded quickly with a statement read out on national television. "This Sunday we celebrate a new step towards Niger's sovereignty," said a statement from the military rulers who seized power when the president was ousted on July 26. "This is a historic moment, expressing the determination and will of the Nigerien people," the junta said in a statement.
French President Emmanuel Macron awaits meeting with Pope Francis in Marseilles, France, September 23, 2023/Reuters
The military leadership in Niger informed the French ambassador, Sylvain Ita, that he must leave the country after the coup. France ignored an ultimatum issued by the junta last month ordering the ambassador to leave within 48 hours because it refused to recognize its legitimacy. Earlier this month, Macron said the ambassador and his team were "literally being held hostage" at the embassy, eating combat rations because they could not receive food deliveries.
In an interview on Monday, the French president reiterated Paris' position that Zoom is being held "hostage" and remains the "sole legitimate authority" in the country. "He was targeted in this coup because he carried out bold reforms and because there was ethnic settling and a lot of political cowardice," said Macron, who regularly speaks by phone with Zoom, who remains under house arrest at the president's residence.
The coup against Zoom was the third of its kind in the region in recent years, following Mali and Burkina Faso in 2021 and 2022, whose militaries also forced French forces to withdraw. The coup in Niger was a particularly severe blow for Macron, who wanted to be a special ally of Niamey, and for France's continued presence in the region after the coup in Mali. The United States also has more than a thousand troops in the country, and it is unclear whether they will remain there in the long term.
Throughout his presidency, the French president has spoken frequently about historic changes in France's postcolonial role in Africa, but experts say Paris is losing its influence across the continent to China, Turkey and Russia. French forces in Mali and Burkina Faso have been replaced by fighters from the Russian mercenary organization Wagner, and the West fears they will soon gain a foothold in Niger as well.
After the July coup, the Economic Community of West African States threatened military action to restore Zoom to power, but so far its threats have not materialized. "We are not here to be hostages of the putschists," Macron said. "The putschists are the allies of disorder."
Macron said dozens of people were killed in terror attacks in Mali after the coup, and now Niger is experiencing a similar escalation. "I'm very concerned about this area," he said. "France, sometimes alone, has taken on all the responsibility and I am proud of our army. But we are not responsible for the political life of these countries and we draw all the conclusions."
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