March 2. 2024. 2:57

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Arrested M62 leader wants French military forces to leave Niger

In an office on a sandy street in Niamey, the capital of Niger, Abdoulaye Seydou sat for an interview a day before he was detained by the authorities.

The 41-year-old is the co-ordinator of M62, a coalition group of civil society organisations, formed last year in Niger with the goal of forcing France’s military forces out of their country.

The umbrella group was created on August 3rd. “This date is the independence day of Niger [and] this movement has been created to defend the interests of the population,” Seydou said.

Citizens of Niger, he added, were increasingly upset about a range of issues, including “foreign countries like France that try to interfere in the affairs of the country . . . Nigeriens are treated like slaves and this must be stopped”. We met hours after a scheduled protest against the French military presence in Niger was prevented from going ahead.

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Arrested M62 leader wants French military forces to leave Niger

Arrested M62 leader wants French military forces to leave Niger

Niger – a landlocked west African country of roughly 25 million people, has one of the lowest standards of living in the world. In the UN’s latest Human Development Index – a measurement that includes statistics related to life expectancy, education and gross national income per capita – Niger is listed 189th out of 191.

Now a subsection of its citizens are beginning to claim there is a link between the low standards of living and the French military presence within the country. Seydou says soaring prices are a key reason why the former French colony wants France’s military out.

M62′s efforts come as France pulls out of Niger’s neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso, where it was involved in counter-terrorism efforts for years. The Sahel region has been the scene of escalating violence, amid growing Islamist terrorism, for the past decade and many citizens are frustrated at the lack of progress in quashing the groups.

Both al Qaeda-affiliate Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara are active.

More than 2.9 million people are displaced across Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, according to the UN, with the Sahel described as one of the world’s “most forgotten crises”.

France’s Operation Barkhane once involved the deployment of about 5,500 soldiers. It began in 2014, continuing a similar operation launched the previous year and had a base in Mali, a special forces centre in Burkina Faso, an intelligence centre in Niger and co-ordination centres in various other countries, according to the Institute for Security Studies. It was officially ended last November.

In a speech then, French president Emmanuel Macron said some French troops would stay in the region, but under new agreements worked out with host countries.

The latest withdrawals come amid a growing shift in support for Russia.

Mali experienced coups in both 2020 and 2021, and protesters ahead of the second one waved Russian flags. France later announced that it would withdraw its military from Mali in February 2022, with all troops leaving by August.

Burkina Faso had two coups last year, with supporters also waving Russian flags in the capital, Ouagadougou. The second coup, in September, saw Ibrahim Traoré (34) come to power. There was widespread speculation that he would begin working with Russian mercenaries, though official sources denied this. French troops agreed in January to leave, after they were given one month to withdraw 400 special forces.

On February 7th, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Mali for two days of talks focused on announcing more support for the military junta in its battle against the Islamist insurgency.

“We will no longer justify our choice of partner. Russia is here on demand by Mali and responds efficiently to our strategic needs,” Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop told journalists. This came despite a call by UN experts, at the end of January, for an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes by Mali’s government forces and the Russian private military contractor Wagner.

In a phone interview Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), said France “has now been kind of regulated to the sidelines” in the Sahel.

“It is a former colonial power and people in the region perceive them as having failed to arrest this jihadist insurgency. Therefore they are turning elsewhere and specifically Russia. So now, having withdrawn from Mali and being asked to leave Burkina Faso, [France’s] presence is basically limited to Niger, which they had intended to make their hub for future operations.”

Nsaibia said Russia was perceived as “some kind of saviour among some segments of west Africa. They are an “alternative to the French, who people are . . . tired of. They have seen France being present and fighting extremists for roughly a decade now but with very little success. Instead the result, while France has been present, is that the conflict has only escalated and expanded”, he said. “Russia provides a kind of different package compared to France, or even the US.”

He said while other countries were hesitant about providing weapons and military hardware, Russia had been “very willing to offer [them] as part of their package . . . Those are really capabilities that they lacked, and Russia is the provider”.

Nsaibia said he did not think Russia was carrying out a major influence operation in Niger, though there were some pro-Russia sentiments. Niger was a bit more “insulated against those influences”, because it was “stronger compared to Mali and Burkina Faso . . . and also, the popular voices haven’t been able to come out as freely, or the government hasn’t allowed them to kind of take over the streets, so to speak”.

The Niamey centre where M62 has its office is shared with the Pan-African Network for Peace, Democracy and Development, of which Seydou is also president The office is named after Thomas Sankara, a left-wing military officer and former president of Burkina Faso who was assassinated in 1987. Seydou calls Sankara his “idol”. The pan-Africanist took power in a military coup when in his 30s, and was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”. Sankara heavily criticised the “neocolonialism” of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and challenged the role of France in its former colonies. It was under Sankara’s presidency that the country, then the Republic of Upper Volta, was in 1984 renamed Burkina Faso, meaning “Land of Upright People”.

In the centre there is a picture of psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the effects of colonisation, with the quote: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” Nearby is a photograph of Nelson Mandela, alongside the quote: “Freedom can never be taken for granted. Each generation must safeguard it and extend it.”

Seydou repeatedly accused the French military of trying “to instigate some turmoil in the country”, and also trying to “create conflict” with Mali, a country which was a “brother for a long time”.

M62, he said, was also protesting over the cost of living. “Now they increased everything . . . life has become very, very, very expensive. They increased the fuel prices and then they increased all products like oil, vegetables, rice . . . So we are fighting against this so that the government should reduce the prices.”

He accused the Nigerien government of raising prices to get more taxes, but not spending them on “education, health and other fields that can permit the country to move forward”.

And the French, he said, were partly to blame.“It’s like the [French forces] become protection for the government so the government can do exploiting, do whatever they want . . . Even now there is no peace in the country because there is no security.”

He also referred to the death of several people in Tera, western Niger, in late 2021, which took place when protesters confronted a French convoy on its way to Mali. “Nothing happened [as a result], it’s like they’re not human beings or citizens of this country,” said Seydou.

The French embassy in Niger and a spokesman for the Nigerien government did not respond to requests for comment on this and various other issues raised by Seydou.

Seydou said he was surprised that people were not allowed to protest. “This movement is a peaceful movement,” he said. “The government is very afraid . . . Most of the population, the people are supporting us. It’s like a popular movement.”

Regarding Russia, Seydou said it was very important to clarify that M62 had no links with Moscow or groups associated with it. “We are fighting for Niger’s sovereignty, so we are not with any foreign country partners.”

The last time M62 organised a protest, last September, some attendees came with Russian flags and placards related to Russia, but Seydou said the organisers confiscated them. After they got to the protest spot, others took out more Russian flags which they had hidden until then. “These people maybe had been sent by the government,” Seydou said, suggesting that the Nigerien government could use photographs of attendees waving the flags to forbid future protests and to get more support from countries such as France and the US.

Nsaibia, the Acled researcher, said he was sceptical of the idea that the Nigerien government had planted Russian flags.

Seydou was arrested on January 23rd, the day after this interview. Dublin-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders said he was initially charged with the “publication of information likely to undermine public order”, though that charge was later dropped. While trying to leave court, Seydou was arrested again and charged with being complicit in burning miners’ sheds on a gold site in Niger’s Say area. He was transferred to Kollo, a high-security prison around 30km from Niamey, said the organisation, which described Seydou as a “human rights defender”.

“Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention of human rights defender Abdoulaye Seydou as it strongly believes that this is directly linked to his peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights,” the organisation said.