How African Juntas Are Using Anger at France to Consolidate Control

Carmen Yasmine Abd Ali for The Washington Post
A man sits in front of anti-France banners in Niamey, Niger, on Oct. 15.

NIAMEY, Niger – Months after a military coup ousted Niger’s elected president, seen by many here as too close to France, Nigeriens are still celebrating the break with their former colonial power.

Abdoulaye Doule, a 46-year-old hospital worker resting on the side of a road, called the coup a “liberation.” Amadou Issa, a 51-year-old tailor in his shop, said it meant that Niger “finally has its total autonomy.” And Abdoulaziz Issaka, a 48-year-old business consultant who had traveled back to Niger from his home in Germany, said the moment was about “total sovereignty.”

“Everybody is here to fight for our freedom,” Issaka said late last month as he stood outside the military base in Niamey, where nightly protests only recently began to wane. “What we have had is only so-called independence from France.”

Although the July coup that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum began over a dispute with the head of his presidential guard, Western officials and analysts say junta leaders have capitalized on rising resentment toward France among the population to cement their popularity. Taking a page from recent coups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger’s new military leaders have tarred the country’s democratic leaders as too closely linked with France and have promoted a populist message calling for the departure of the French military and diplomats from the region.

“You need an enemy, and the juntas have said from the beginning that France is their enemy,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a Nigerien political scientist based in the Netherlands. “They are almost in a mood where they are high on nationalism. And so they are accepting everything right now in the name of nationalism.”

Anti-French sentiment has long existed in France’s former African colonies but in recent years has become an increasingly powerful factor in the Sahel region, which cuts across the continent below the Sahara and includes Niger. West Africans have grown frustrated that France’s military presence has not stopped violent attacks by Islamist extremist groups, and have been exposed to widespread criticism and disinformation about France on social media.

Issaka, who grew up in Niger and also lived for years in the United States, said he believes in democracy. But he said Bazoum and his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, also democratically elected, had grown corrupt, ineffective and too closely associated with France to be considered legitimate.

Within a few days of the July coup, the junta’s spokesman publicly warned of a “plan of aggression” by France. Thousands of Nigeriens marched toward the French Embassy, chanting “Down with France” and waving Russian flags before smashing windows and setting a door at the embassy on fire. A few weeks later, the junta gave France’s ambassador a 48-hour deadline to depart and ended military cooperation between the two countries. The French army says its 1,500 soldiers, who have already started to leave Niger, will be completely out of the country by the end of the year.

A senior French official said the Nigerien regime has had “bad results in terms of security and the economy, so they are focusing their posture on asking the French to leave.” The official said France, at the request of Niger’s leaders before the coup, had been working with the Nigerien army as a partner, with the Nigeriens leading operations. It remains “a very open question” how France, the European Union and the United States will now be able to pursue counterterrorism in the region, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands, said the speed with which the partnership ended reflected the Nigerien military’s suspicions about French intentions. It also revealed displeasure with French President Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to acknowledge coup leaders and his insistence that Bazoum remained the head of state.

“European and American officials saw Niger as this last bastion for cooperation and reasonable, well-thought-out policies on security matters,” he said. “That was why this coup hit them especially hard.”

Hannah Rae Armstrong, a Sahel expert based in Dakar, Senegal, said Nigerien support for the coup spoke to the differing perceptions at home and abroad. In Europe and the United States, Bazoum and Issoufou were largely celebrated as rare democratic leaders in the region. In Niger, Armstrong said, they were often perceived as leaders of an ineffective, corrupt political regime.

“The coup could be read as a declaration of independence,” she said. “It amounts to a rejection of a political model Nigeriens perceived as allying French interests with their own corrupt leadership. In order to do things differently, they had to sweep away both.”

In the wake of the coup, Niger’s other onetime Western partners, including the United States, are being forced to chart a new strategy as they try to counter groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and Russia’s growing influence in the region. The United States, which has about 1,000 soldiers in Niger and a large drone base, has paused all operations not related to the protection of its own forces. Already, Niger has seen a spike in attacks by extremists since the coup.

Today, the first question that foreigners often get in Niamey, Niger’s capital, is a version of: “Vous venez d’où?” The question – “Where are you from?” – has been asked in markets and on roadsides, by activists, by regular people and by government officials alike.

“Good,” said Birgui Abat Ahmad, a 50-year-old cook sitting under the shade of a neem tree on a recent day, upon learning a journalist was from the United States. “Because we hate the French.”

Lounging on a bamboo chair by the side of the road between afternoon prayers and lunch, Ahmad furrowed his brow and wagged his finger: “If someone tells you there is a good French person,” he said, “they are wrong.”

Ahmad and his friends, veering into conspiracy theories, accused France of pillaging Niger’s natural supply of uranium and of working behind the scenes to destabilize the region. They castigated Bazoum and Issoufou as being “puppets” of France.

Researchers noted that Bazoum broke with certain policies supported by the French, including by negotiating with local extremist groups and supporting efforts to demobilize Islamist militants.

Activist Abdoulaye Seydou, the national coordinator for the M62 coalition of civil society groups, said the list of grievances against France is long. Seydou, whose group has largely supported the new leaders, accused French politicians of trying to exert control over past attempts at military cooperation among West African nations. He said Nigerien soldiers told him that French counterparts were not transparent or respectful, even toward their Nigerien superiors.

Seydou said the final straw came in 2021 when French soldiers opened fire on civilians protesting the French presence who surrounded a military convoy headed to Mali. The Nigerien government said at the time that two civilians were killed. A spokesman for the French army said at the time that soldiers had “used force in a proportionate and appropriate manner” given the violence of the crowd, adding that the “confused situation” made it impossible to determine whether there was a link between the French shots and the deaths of the demonstrators.

Seydou said the door is not forever closed to working with foreigners, as long as they “respect our sovereignty.”

But he added: “As far as France is concerned, we don’t see any cooperation with them today.”