Niger coup marks yet another French setback in the African Sahel

The coup hinders France's ability to safeguard its crucial economic interests related to its future energy needs. Ten percent of its uranium imports come from Niger.

Protesters wave Nigerien and Russian flags as they gather during a rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023.
Protesters wave Nigerien and Russian flags as they gather during a rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023.

Niger coup marks yet another French setback in the African Sahel

France's recent setback in the African Sahel marks its third loss in the region. This has triggered demands from local populations for Paris to withdraw, raising questions about the decades-long economic and cultural ties between France and African countries.

The Wagner company's role in exacerbating this estrangement is also being scrutinised, as there are concerns that Russia's involvement in Ukraine might be expanding southwards, fuelling conflicts between the East and West in a world undergoing significant changes.

Niger, in particular, is grappling with its fifth military coup since gaining independence, which has captured global attention, even overshadowing the Russian African summit in St. Petersburg.

Cartoon: Putin seeks allies in Africa

The repercussions of this coup have reached the capitals of various UN Security Council member states. The reactions have varied significantly — reflecting the diverse nature of relationships and interests between the nations involved.

The focus has shifted from securing food and wheat supplies for the continent, as previously promised by Moscow to its African allies, to finding a respectable solution to the new crisis unfolding in the African Sahel region.

The presence of hundreds of European military personnel in the region adds complexity to the situation, and their fate now hangs in the balance as events unfold.

France, with its substantial military base in the area housing approximately 1,500 soldiers, is particularly affected. France has previously lost similar bases in Mali and Burkina Faso due to coups allegedly linked to the Wagner company's activities.

France is particularly affected by the coup in Niger. It has previously lost similar military bases in Mali and Burkina Faso due to coups allegedly linked to the Wagner company's activities.

The motives behind the coup

General Abdourahamane Tiani, the new ruler in Niger, has justified the military regime change as a response to the deteriorating local security situation, and the lack of cooperation against terrorism with the military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, particularly in the border region of Liptako-Jorma, which has been plagued by terrorist activities.

Abdourahamane Tiani, who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger July 28, 2023.

He claims that Niger, its armed forces, and its population have been suffering from insecurity, murders, and humiliation caused by these extremist groups.

In light of these security challenges, several countries in the Sahel region have held the French forces — present in the region since 2013 as part of Operation Barkhane — responsible for being lenient in dealing with these extremist groups.

Consequently, these countries have called for the departure of French forces, including those from other European nations who have participated in the operation since 2014.

The recent coup has seen some young men expressing their enthusiasm by burning the French flag in Niamey, the capital of Niger. This act reflects a portion of public opinion supporting the coup and opposing the presence of French military forces, as well as their economic influence in the region.

It is worth noting that Niger plays a significant role in supplying Paris with uranium for electricity production, despite facing its own electricity crisis. The country's vast area of over 1.2 million square kilometres adds to the complexity of the challenges it faces.

Several countries in the Sahel region have held the French forces responsible for being lenient with extremist groups and have called for the departure of French forces.

Europe expresses opposition

In response to the military coup and the overthrow of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, France, the former coloniser, took decisive action to distance itself from the new regime.

An archive photo of French President Emmanuel Macron receiving the ousted President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 23, 2023.

Paris decided to halt all military dealings and financial and technical support to Niger as a form of punishment.

This move constitutes a significant blow to the French presence in the Sahel and Sahara region. The annual French financial support to Niger, amounting to approximately 183 million euros, includes 37 million euros for military assistance aimed at countering extremist armed organisations.

French President Emmanuel Macron convened an emergency meeting of the French Defence Council immediately after returning from a tour of the French colonies in the Pacific. During this meeting, he strongly condemned the military coup and refused to recognise its legitimacy or its results.

He characterised the coup as a dangerous act that poses a threat to the entire Sahel region. Consequently, orders were issued from the Elysée Palace to impose sanctions on the leaders of the coup, with General Abdourahamane Tiani, the head of the National Salvation Council and former head of the Presidential Guard, being the primary target.

The European Union, led by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, shared a similar stance to France, expressing clear opposition to the coup.

West African Economic Organization (ECOWAS) also took measures by suspending Niger's membership until the restoration of the constitution, a step previously taken in response to coups in the same region. The African Union granted the coup leaders a two-week window before taking final action.

On its part, the United States expressed support for democracy and renounced violence in the aftermath of the coup. However, it is clear that the situation is causing widespread concern and responses from various international entities.

The French newspaper Le Figaro reported that France was taken by surprise by the coup, despite being aware of the weakness of ousted President Muhammad Bazoum's regime. Bazoum lacked full support from the army, particularly in regard to certain decisions he made regarding military cooperation with France.

Nevertheless, no one anticipated that this dispute would escalate into a full-fledged coup orchestrated by the leaders of the Presidential Guard, which was later joined by the leaders of the National Army. The newspaper commented that France finds itself once again embroiled in complex issues in the African region.

Nigerien protestors storm the French embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

For Uranium's sake

According to several observers of French-African relations, the implications of recent events extend beyond mere suspension of the constitution, forced regime changes, deviation from democratic principles, freedom of expression, and counter-terrorism efforts.

The true significance lies in safeguarding crucial economic interests related to future energy production, its cost, and the competitiveness of French industries.

France heavily relies on approximately 10 percent of its uranium imports from Niger, a country struggling with poverty to the extent that half of its population lacks access to electric lighting and still uses pre-medieval methods for cooking.

In May 2023, the French company Orano signed contracts with the Nigerien government, allowing them to exploit uranium mines until 2040, with the possibility of renewal. The previous contracts were set to end in 2029.

France also owns several mines in the northern part of Niger, employing around 9,000 people, making French mining companies the largest employers of labour in Niger after the government sector.

The French state, represented by the "Deposit Fund," acquired 16.6 percent of the total assets of the Uranium company in a deal worth 994 million euros in 2021. Several public-sector institutions participated in the deal to demonstrate the deep state's significance in France concerning the future of uranium sources from Niger, in addition to Kazakhstan.

A Nigerien Soldier walks outside France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva's uranium mine on September 26, 2010 in Arlit, Niger.

Extending the uranium mining contract is viewed as a significant advantage for France, guaranteeing a continuous supply for its nuclear reactors and ensuring energy independence within all European Union countries, unlike countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Paris is committed to utilising these uranium sources for producing what it terms "grey" or "blue" hydrogen, in contrast to carbon-free "green" hydrogen. However, this issue has sparked substantial disagreements with Berlin and Madrid over the future of energy in Europe by the year 2035.

In May 2023, the French company Orano signed contracts with the Nigerien government, allowing them to exploit uranium mines until 2040, with the possibility of renewal.

Algiers deeply concerned

Algeria is deeply concerned about the events unfolding in Niger as it fears that these developments might lead to the abandonment of its long-held dream of constructing a gas pipeline from Nigeria to the Mediterranean.

In the northern region, Niger shares a 951-kilometre border with Algeria, and this area is considered one of the most active regions in Africa for human trafficking, arms smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Criminal and extremist groups exploit this vast area to carry out terrorist activities. French forces have been deployed along the border to monitor the activities of these militant groups and protect the gold, uranium, and other valuable mineral mines in the northern region, near the Libyan and Algerian borders.

Local media have raised questions about the fate of the gas pipeline project following the coup in Niger, which was intended to pass through the arid Niger desert, spanning 4,000 kilometres through unsecured borders, at a cost of $13bn to transport a significant amount of gas.

Algeria had relied on French support for its pipeline through Niger, in exchange for Western and American support for the Atlantic pipeline passing through Morocco.

Meanwhile, both Morocco and Algeria are in competition to export Nigerian gas to Europe, each having their respective projects.

Nigeria and Morocco announced the construction of an underwater pipeline stretching 6,500 kilometres along the Atlantic Ocean, passing the coasts of 11 African countries, with works progressing since 2016. The project is estimated to cost $25bn.

Miriam Martincic

Read more: Not just a 'pipe' dream, Morocco-Nigeria gas line set to transform Africa

Algeria closely scrutinises any changes in regime within Africa that contradict its economic and political interests in sub-Saharan Africa.

Of particular concern are the developments in Niger, which Algeria considers a crucial gateway to the heart of Africa and an essential part of its strategy for expansion and influence in the region.

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