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Why Nigeriens are protesting against France’s anti-jihadist campaign

‘Colonisation is an unhappy memory that pushes many people to revolt.’

A soldier stands guard outside a site for refugees and internally displaced people in Niger’s Tillabéri region in April. Displacement has soared in recent months as violence rises. Giacomo Zandonini/TNH
A soldier stands guard outside a site for refugees and internally displaced people in Niger’s western Tillabéri region, in April 2021.

French President Emmanuel Macron is visiting several African countries this week in an attempt to reverse his country’s waning influence on the continent as key allies eye up partnerships with other global powers, including Russia.

 

This intervention is unlikely to convince Nigerien civil society groups who have been hitting the streets in recent months as their country – a former French colony – becomes the new hub for France’s much-criticised Sahelian anti-jihadist operation.

 

“Colonisation is an unhappy memory that pushes many people to revolt against the French and France,” Amadou Oumarou, a lecturer at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey, in the capital city, told The New Humanitarian.

 

Macron is not visiting West Africa’s Sahel region – which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – as part of his tour, though anti-French sentiment has been spreading there as a decade-long French intervention fails to quash spiralling jihadist insurgencies.

 

Thousands of French troops left Mali last year after Paris fell out with a military junta that is now allied to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group. A smaller French mission ended in Burkina Faso earlier this month after a similar rupture with the junta there.

 

“The populations do not understand why the terrorist attacks continue, given the big means available to the French forces.”

 

Though the French military has been present in Niger for a while, it now sees the country as its main ally in the Sahel. Over 1,000 French troops – some redeployed from Mali – are currently based in Niamey and in jihadist-hit border areas.

 

France has vowed to maintain a lower profile in Niger than it did in Mali, taking cues from local forces rather than substituting for them. Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has said the joint operations are going well so far. 

 

Yet the increased French military presence has led to protests. Activists and analysts in Niger say France’s poor record against militant groups in the Sahel does not bode well for their country, which is fighting jihadists in the west and southeast.

 

“The populations do not understand why the terrorist attacks continue, [given] the big means available to the French forces,” said Amina Niandou, president of the Association of African Communication Professionals in Niger.

 

Others questioned the motives of France, which has a long history of post-colonial military meddling in Africa. These interventions consistently sought to protect French interests, shoring up allies and punishing foes.

 

French forces committed atrocities in Niger during the colonial period. And unfair resource exploitation by the French state-owned nuclear giant Areva has continued into the present day, even as Niger remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

 

In time for Macron’s Africa visit, we asked four Nigeriens to give their perspectives on France’s role in their country. We also asked for their broader view of the conflict in Niger and how best to resolve it. Interviews were edited for length and clarity.

 

Amadou Oumarou, lecturer at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey: ‘France is rightly or wrongly considered to support and maintain autocratic, dictatorial, and corrupt regimes’

 

The New Humanitarian: Why are Nigeriens sceptical of the French military presence?

Amadou Oumarou: The reservation of Nigeriens on the French presence in their country is explained by several factors. First, the historical factor: Colonisation is an unhappy memory that pushes many people to revolt against the French and France. This explanation is [old] but current, because it dominates the subconscious of many Nigeriens who see in France those who tortured their ancestors. Second, the economic factor: France is present in our countries through several firms or companies which only benefit the French and France. This is a cause for frustration and hate. Third, the political factor: France is rightly or wrongly considered to support and maintain autocratic, dictatorial, and corrupt regimes.

 

The New Humanitarian: Does the protest movement reflect a majority view among Nigeriens?

Oumarou: I don't think the protests represent a minor point of view. It is a feeling that is widely shared and that can or could be expressed on any occasion. French action in terms of the fight against jihadism [has not achieved] concrete results perceptible to citizens. The presence of forces other than French, or the non-presence of French forces, has more positive implications for populations in spaces of violence.

 

Amina Niandou, president of the Association of African Communication Professionals: ‘French forces have not been able to prevent the expansion of terrorism’

The New Humanitarian: How widespread is the anti-French sentiment in Niger?

Amina Niandou: At first, the protest movement was a minority view. But the way things are going, especially reading what is happening on social networks, the protest movement can evolve. The population does not understand why the terrorist attacks continue, [given] the big means available to the French forces.

 

The New Humanitarian: Why are Nigeriens sceptical of the increased French presence?

Niandou: Nigeriens are sceptical of the French military presence and not against the French. In my opinion, the Nigeriens who are in this position have observed what is happening in Mali and Burkina Faso. For these Nigeriens, the French forces in these countries have not been able to prevent the expansion of terrorism. So, for them, Niger will be in the same situation. Some also believe that the attacks are sponsored by French forces.

 

The New Humanitarian: What do you think the government should do to tackle the problem of jihadist violence?

Niandou: The government should prioritise development solutions. Youth will need to be occupied through the creation of jobs or other entrepreneurial opportunities. Young people are as much drivers of conflict as they are of peace. Governance also must be good enough to overcome factors such as poor redistribution of mineral resources, impunity, social injustice. It will also require the involvement of women and young people in all peace processes, and their integration into local governance.

 

The New Humanitarian: President Bazoum has opened talks with some jihadists. Is this a better option than military operations?

Niandou: I totally agree with the dialogue. Jihadism in Niger is increasingly carried out by local actors. Several studies…. on the factors of radicalisation of young people have shown that it is local, young people who are swelling the ranks of these jihadists. A dialogue will make it possible to find local responses to this phenomenon.

 

Amadou Harouna Maïga, civil society leader from the conflict-affected Tillabéri region: ‘Niger needs the support of France. No country alone can win a war’

The New Humanitarian: Why are people protesting against France?

Amadou Harouna Maïga: Its presence has in no way brought any change to the security situation, despite the ultra-sophisticated modern means at its disposal. The outings of these [protest] movements for the most part are limited to Niamey, the capital. But at times, in certain regions of the country, actors come out to chant their hostility to the presence of French forces in Niger.

 

The New Humanitarian: At the same time, you feel the French should stay and help Niger?

Maïga: Niger needs the support and commitment of France, in the sense that no country alone can win a war.

 

The New Humanitarian: What should the Nigerien government do to combat jihadist violence?

Maïga: First of all, the government must do everything possible to find out the reasons for this jihadist violence, because when a problem is not identified, it will be difficult to find ways out.

 

The New Humanitarian: Is dialogue with jihadists a better option than military operations?

Maïga: Niger is used to discussing, negotiating, dialoguing with armed groups and has concluded agreements. On the one hand, this has been possible because the government is aware of their demands, and on the other hand it knows the actors well. [But] in Niger, until now, the government has not received any claims from the jihadists. So how can it do a dialogue, and with whom?

 

Maïmouna Diado, journalist: ‘The image that Niger retains of France is of continuous colonisation’

The New Humanitarian: Why are Nigeriens protesting against France?

Maïmouna Diado: These Nigeriens, on the whole, are not against the fact that France is in Niger. For them, the French army must be in Niger, but they are against the strategy of fighting against the jihadists that France is leading. Despite the presence of the Barkhane force [the name of France’s now-defunct Sahel operation], the country continues to suffer attacks against its army. This is why these Nigeriens are protesting, and this number is not a minority, it is really the whole. They simply ask that France review its strategy for fighting jihadists in the Sahel, and particularly in Niger.

 

The New Humanitarian: Has France played a negative historical role in Niger?

Diado: France has played a historically negative role in Niger because, for Nigeriens, it was France that colonised Niger for several years. The image that Niger retains of France is of continuous colonisation. Despite the fact that [we have] all the resources, the country does not manage to develop. And it is France which is at the origin of this plundering of resources in which there has been no positive progress. There are only negative results: Mineral resources are not extracted fairly, and the country is struggling to benefit from these mineral resources.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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