Thousands of people have rallied in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, demanding that France withdraw its ambassador and troops from the West African country as its new military rulers have accused the former colonial power of “interference”.
The protesters gathered near a military base housing French soldiers on Saturday after a call by several civic organisations hostile to the French military presence. They held up banners proclaiming, “French army, leave our country.”Niger’s military government, which seized power on July 26, has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of using divisive rhetoric in his comments about the coup and seeking to impose a neocolonial relationship with its former colony.
Macron has backed deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and refused to recognise Niger’s new rulers. Sylvain Itte, France’s ambassador, has remained in Niger, despite a 48-hour deadline to leave the country given more than a week ago, a decision Macron said he “applauds”.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Niamey, said demonstrators expressing frustration about there still being French presence in the country were beginning to take matters into their own hands.
According to security personnel, the protest was scheduled to begin about 3pm (14:00 GMT) but thousands of demonstrators had already gathered by 10am (09:00 GMT), taking police and security forces by surprise.
Idris said the protests that have taken place over the past few days have been “relatively calm and organised” but that, on Saturday, demonstrators were seen “breaking the barriers set up by the security forces, the police and the military” and approaching the base with some trying to force their way in.
The military has since reinforced the area around the French base, which houses about 1,500 French troops, and warned against forceful entry and about the repercussions that would follow.“All military bases. We want to fight to remove from our country all military bases,” said protester Doubou-Kambou Hamidou. “We don’t want it. Because for more than 13 years, terrorism has been here. They don’t care to fight terrorism,” he told Al Jazeera.
Niger’s military rulers have accused Paris of “blatant interference” by backing Bazoum, who has been in custody since the July 26 coup.Macron said on Friday that he had spoken daily with Bazoum since he was removed from power.
“We support him. We do not recognise those who carried out the putsch. The decisions we will take, whatever they may be, will be based upon exchanges with Bazoum,” the French president said.
The Sahel country is also embroiled in a standoff with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The regional bloc has threatened to intervene militarily if diplomacy fails to return Bazoum to office.
On Monday, Macron said: “I call on all the states in the region to adopt a responsible policy.” France, he said, “supports [ECOWAS’s] diplomatic action and, when it so decides, [its] military” action.
Analysts say France may not leave Niger without a scene, especially since its forced departure from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in the wake of military coups there.
“If this crisis isn’t handled diplomatically, there’s the risk of clashes between the two sides,” said Kane Oumarou, a Niamey-based public affairs analyst.
“For the junta, it’s important to make the French ambassador leave, otherwise it will look weak in the eyes of its supporters. The government in France is looking to provoke the junta by questioning its legitimacy.”