By Milcah Tanimu
The French army has initiated the withdrawal of its troops from Niger after being instructed to leave the country by the leaders of a coup that ousted a president with close ties to Paris.
The departure marks the start of a complex and sensitive process that France expects to conclude by the end of the year, effectively concluding another French anti-jihadist operation in Africa.
A spokesperson for the French chief of staff confirmed that the first troops have left, in line with an announcement made by Niger’s military leadership on Monday, indicating that the 1,400-strong French contingent would commence their departure on Tuesday.
A French defense source revealed that the first group of soldiers considered a priority for evacuation, due to health or humanitarian reasons, left Niger on Monday.
Niger had mentioned that convoys of troops would be escorted out of the country by the Nigerien army overland, without specifying their destination.
The withdrawal is expected to present logistical challenges for the French, given the limited safe routes out of a region plagued by various jihadist groups.
Approximately 1,000 French troops were stationed in the capital, Niamey, with an additional 400 deployed at two forward bases in the north-west, near the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, an area known for insurgent activity.
This marks the fourth instance in less than two years that French troops have been asked to leave by a former African colony, dealing a blow to France’s influence on the continent and its prestige on the international stage.
France’s ambassador to Niger was also ordered to leave by the leaders of the coup that occurred on July 26, which overthrew French-backed President Mohamed Bazoum. He returned to Paris on September 27, prompting celebrations in Niamey.
Niger’s military rulers had characterized the announcement of France’s diplomatic and troop withdrawals in September as a “step toward Niger’s sovereignty.”
Both Mali and Burkina Faso, which have also experienced coups in the past two years, have distanced themselves from France, accusing it of a colonialist attitude and a failure to effectively combat jihadists. Mali has turned to Moscow, enlisting mercenaries from the Wagner group.
In Niger, anti-French demonstrators have been seen waving Russian flags, a stark contrast to the warm reception French troops received in 2013 when they helped liberate northern Mali from Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.
Niger had recently been serving as a regional hub for French troops assisting regional armies in the fight against Islamist insurgents.
French President Emmanuel Macron initially attempted to keep his troops and ambassador in the country, arguing that only the ousted Bazoum had the authority to request their withdrawal. However, in late September, he yielded to pressure to bring them home following months of anti-French protests.
France still maintains that Bazoum’s ousted government is the sole legitimate authority, and the former president remains under house arrest in Niamey. The United States has about 1,100 military personnel in the country and announced last month that it would “evaluate” its next steps following Macron’s announcement.