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France outside Niger: the end of Western counterterrorism in the Sahel

General Eric Ozanne shakes hands with the Chief of staff of the Armies of Togo   -  
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BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP or licensors


By forced and forced to leave Niger after Mali and Burkina Faso, France ratifies the end of a model of counter-terrorism in the Sahel, opening the way to an uncertain head-to-head between military regimes and jihadist groups.

The last of the 1,500 French soldiers and airmen based in Niger were due to leave the country on Friday, at the end of a long standoff between Paris and the military authorities in Niamey. “This signals a failure, it is the end of French commitment in the Sahel,” believes Djallil Lounnas, from the Moroccan University of Al Akhawayn. “It’s the end of major interventions”.

Present in the region since 2013, France had deployed up to 5,500 men within the anti-jihadist operation Barkhane, in cooperation with the Malian, Burkinabe and Nigerien armies. It had also obtained the deployment of special forces from European partners, with the support of the Americans who provided intelligence and logistical support from the Niamey base.

A barrage of coups d'état later, the three capitals demanded the departure of the French, who, in turn, marked a profound loss of Western influence in the region. On the European side, “a military commitment will come down to military and security cooperation, involving equipment, training, etc.,” believes Denis Tull, of the German Institute for International Relations and Security (SWP).


Counter-terrorism will require bilateral agreements, notably with Germany or Italy. But "do Europeans want and can engage in relations with the regimes in place? There is no consensus", he adds to AFP.

In the United States, the balances of recent years are also being called into question. “The majority of American efforts in Niger were in support of what France was doing,” notes Michael Shurkin, an expert from the American consulting firm 14 North Strategies.

Washington, legally, cannot provide security cooperation to military regimes. And if no decision has been taken to close its drone base and recall its 1,500 men, "the usefulness of this aid will be low and in no case will it replace what the French provided".

From now on, the only external player can be found on the side of Moscow. The Russian paramilitary group Wagner has established itself in Mali, today becoming the target of operations and communications by jihadist groups.

The mercenary company has been in full reorganization since the mutiny of its leader Yevgeni Prigojine, then his death in a plane crash at the end of August. But Russia retains its influence activities.

Sahel Alliance

A few dozen Russian military instructors and trainers are present in Ouagadougou, even if the authorities have not confirmed their presence. And a Russian-Nigerian partnership, with terms that remain unknown, has just been signed.

“The Russian posture is rather to give the lie to keep the positions”, estimates Lou Osborn, of the NGO All Eyes on Wagner, stressing that Moscow was “not in a secure and stable position” currently. Observers doubt the effectiveness of the model. “I find it hard to see Wagner, with a few hundred men, making a difference if the work is not done by the local armies,” explains Djallil Lounnas.

“Everywhere they go, it’s a butcher’s shop,” he complains. "Wagner makes money from gold mines and goes on support missions without very high losses. If tomorrow it no longer works, they will withdraw and they will have kicked out the Westerners. "

The future will be decided by a face-to-face confrontation between jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group and the military regimes, which created the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) in September. Its charter commits them to combat “terrorism” and binds them by a “duty of assistance and relief” in the face of any aggression.

Military response

Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, director of the Sahel Project of the conflict resolution organization International Crisis Group (ICG), fears that the political aspects of the anti-jihadist fight will be completely neglected.

The Sahelian regimes "invest far too much in the military response. This was already the problem in previous decades and it is getting even more pronounced," he said.

A glimmer of hope could come from negotiations with the jihadists, a prospect that Westerners only considered withholding their noses. Behind the martial discourse of the juntas, “in practice, we see openings here and there, unofficially,” notes Jean-Hervé Jézéquel.

If regimes “manage to convince themselves that dialogue can be a complementary tool, they may have cards to play,” he adds. Beyond national or even local initiatives, "we can imagine negotiations common to the members of the AES. But we are still very far from that. "

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