29th Sep 2023

EU flights disrupted as Niger closes sky

  • British Airways and Air France-KLM flights to Europe forced to go back on Monday (Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck)
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Europe-Africa flight paths are being redrawn, as the Niger putsch threatens to escalate into a regional-scale war.

Air France-KLM and British Airways flights from South Africa, Kenya, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Europe were already in the air, but forced to turn back home early on Monday to seek more fuel when the Niger junta suddenly closed its airspace.

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Niger's new no-fly zone adjoins existing ones over war-torn Libya and Sudan, forming a 2,600 km-long barrier between sub-Saharan Africa and the EU.

Air France-KLM has also suspended all flights to Burkina Faso and Mali, while flights rerouting around Niger are facing hours-long delays and re-fuelling stops.

The widening no-go band in the sky comes as Niger goes dark on the ground due to electricity cuts and prepares for a potential invasion by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Ecowas' first deadline for the Niger junta to give up expired on Sunday, when putsch leaders held a rally at a soccer stadium in Niamey, where they beheaded a rooster painted in the colours of the French flag to symbolise resistance to French "neocolonialism".

Ecowas will now hold a snap summit in Abuja on Thursday, with the EU still hoping back-channel diplomacy has a chance.

"The only way is the diplomatic one," Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani said.

"We hope that these [Ecowas diplomatic] efforts will ultimately lead to success and that constitutional order will be restored in Niger," the German foreign ministry also said.

But France and the US are sounding less optimistic.

"Coups are no longer appropriate ... It's time to put an end to it," French foreign minister Catherine Colonna said this weekend, with all French nationals now urged to avoid travel to Niger.

Victoria Nuland, a senior US diplomat who met with coup leaders in Niamey on Monday, said America was "offering its good offices" as a mediator, but added: "I would not say that we were in any way taken up on that offer".

If Ecowas intervened, as it did in 2017 in Gambia or in 1997 in Sierra Leone, its Niger force was expected to be led by Nigeria, with contributing troops from Benin, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.

On the Niger side, ordinary people might well take up arms, given that 78 percent back the putschists, according to a poll of adult men in Niamey by the Premise Data consulting firm for The Economist magazine.

Burkina Faso and Mali, also led by new juntas, have promised to defend Niger against Ecowas.

But jihadist insurgents have threatened to attack Niamey in a fresh offensive.

Proxy wars?

Meanwhile, France, Italy, and the US still have over 2,000 troops and a drone base in Niger, deployed to fight Islamist militias before the coup.

And Russia has hundreds of Wagner-group mercenaries in neighbouring Libya and Mali, amid reports by French diplomats on Sunday that a Niger-junta delegation met with Wagner commanders in Mali to discuss intervention.

"Will this lead to a full-blown war in Africa? It certainly has the potential to do so," said James Stavridis, Nato's former top commander in Europe, on Monday.

A report by US think-tank the Hudson Institute said: "If the [Niger] junta were to dig in its heels and rally the populace around the flag — possibly even arming civilian militias — the [Ecowas] intervention could morph into a multifaceted counterinsurgency that Ecowas would not be prepared to handle".

For her part, Nuland warned the putschists against taking in Wagner, which the US has designated a terrorist entity.

"The people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in," Nuland said in Niamey, given Wagner's history of human-rights atrocities and financial predation in Africa.

Russia and Wagner are keeping quiet on Niger, for now.

But Wagner's spin doctors also helped president Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic to extend his rule in a referendum win on Sunday, with a whopping 95 percent that will act as an advertisement of the group's hybrid political and combat capabilities.

The Premise Data pollster said 50 percent of people in Niamey would welcome the Russians.

And despite Niger's mineral wealth and strategic location, China — the other great power seeking influence in Africa — voiced pessimism over Niamey's immediate future on Monday.

All Chinese nationals in Niger should "leave for a third country" or "return home for temporary refuge" if they can, China's Niger embassy warned.

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