9th Dec 2023


Can Europe still contribute to peace in Niger?

  • The Niger capital, Niamey. The median age in the country, now under military rule after the July coup, is 15 (Photo: Jean Rebiffe)
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The withdrawal of French forces from Niger is officially underway, just weeks after French president Emmanuel Macron's announcement of a full withdrawal by year's end.

The decision comes in the wake of the military takeover on 26 July, which saw the removal of president Mohamed Bazoum. This appears to be a significant setback, despite the local population's support, both for the fight against violent extremism in the Sahel region and for French foreign policy more broadly, in particular with Paris' firm stance in favour of a return to the status quo ante 26 July.

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But it is certainly also an opportunity to chart a more effective European approach going forward.

The withdrawal follows the suspension of security cooperation and budget assistance between the EU and Niger and amid broad uncertainty regarding the future of the wide-ranging Niger-Europe partnership. Sadly, the primary victims of the breakdown in cooperation will be the most vulnerable civilians.

While military solutions alone have proven wholly insufficient to protect civilians from the various terrorist groups operating in the region, these groups have shown themselves capable of seizing any security vacuum to increase their attacks, as seen after French troops left Mali.

Moreover, the breakdown in cooperation is also likely to reduce the space for the kinds of community resilience initiatives that successfully hold back the spread of violent extremism.

At Search for Common Ground Niger, we are primarily engaged with and in service of these communities. Communities outside the large urban centres, many of whom already struggle to identify any substantial improvement in their socio-economic or security conditions.

Communities whose primary concerns since July have been the impact of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sanctions on their access to electricity, medical products, and food, and the fear of a regional military intervention.

Resentment of France and ECOWAS

We've also been working with young Nigeriens across the country to tackle misleading and harmful content online, efforts driven into overdrive since 26 July, much of which contributes to polarised narratives around the role of France, ECOWAS, and other external actors.

These perceptions are central to understanding why so many have rallied behind the military takeover and the accelerated rejection of 'outside interference' among wide swathes of the population. We must recognise that perceptions like these hold as much weight as facts.

Whether based firmly on real events or not, people's views on politics and security are crucial data for anyone seeking constructive engagement opportunities.

Undoubtedly, the withdrawal of French troops provides a morale boost and validation for the military authorities and their supporters. However, it is also true the previous uncompromising stance and pressure tactics of ECOWAS and its supporters, most visibly France, have not only proved ineffective, but actively counterproductive, serving only to reinforce the de facto authorities who effectively framed their seizure of power as a noble defence of Nigerien sovereignty.

Beyond bolstering the military regime, the widespread disinformation and hardline, combative, and often violent prevailing discourse around the military takeover has increased the risks of violence against "unpatriotic" groups and activists.

These same factors also risk further ill-adapted strategic choices, following the breakdown in security cooperation with EU partners. And crucially, this disinformation and polarised discourse reduce the space for the kinds of meaningful, inclusive, and thoughtful dialogue on the transition and responses to real needs of Nigeriens.

In such a challenging context, France is right to recognise its military presence as untenable. A difficult, but necessary, next step is for European and West African partners to accept that there can be no simple return to the pre-July 26 system.

But nor should Niger's longtime partners despair or disengage. The hope of Nigeriens now, and the hope that should guide the support of EU and other partners, is for an inclusive transition that reestablishes a constitutional and civil regime, calms divisions, and reinforces institutional capacity to respond to the real needs of the population.

Though regional actors, notably Algeria, can play important facilitating roles, this process must necessarily be locally-led. But what exactly does "local" entail? With Niger's population of approximately 25 million, where "only" one million reside in the capital, Niamey, it's clear that efforts must extend beyond the city limits. It's paramount that all segments of society, without exception, participate in a constructive, Nigerien-led process to shape the transition and future of the country.

In a country where the median age is less than 15, this must include the broadly excluded youth population, as well as women of all ages, diverse religious actors, minority communities, and alternative political voices.

Niger has a rich tradition of informal and community-level dialogue mechanisms, which can bring about sustainable solutions. As we write, civil society, local radio, mediators, and community organisations across the country are coordinating enormous efforts to ensure that traditionally marginalised voices can be safely and meaningfully heard in Niger's National Dialogue.

Such local solutions needn't exclude a supportive role for European partners. Indeed, European technical and financial assistance here, working with civil society and local media organisations, can be the key to ensuring a transition that consolidates the institutions of the Republic of Niger rather than weakens them.

A Nigerien-led, internationally-supported process grounded in inclusive and quality dialogue within Niger will also pave the way for the rebuilding of trust with regional and international partners. European partners should stand ready to support ECOWAS to reinvest in its 2050 Visions for an ECOWAS of the Peoples, where good governance is fostered in cooperation with the population and complemented by partnerships on inclusive socio-economic development, human security, and dialogue-based conflict resolution.

After the French troop withdrawal, European partners can and should still play a supporting role in Niger. But it's crucial that this role is characterised by humility and inclusivity. To move forward, Europe's objective should be to support a truly inclusive and meaningful national dialogue, with a particular emphasis on bolstering civil society initiatives.

Author bio

Eoin O'Leary is policy officer for European Affairs at Search for Common Ground, a global peace-building NGO working in 33 countries. Beatrice Abouya is regional director there for West Africa.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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