With 71 soldiers dead in Niger, anti-French sentiment grows in West Africa

  • 12 Dec 2019

France’s security failure in the Sahel has caused popular anger towards the former colonial power as many chant: 'Get out France, we don’t want to see you here.'

Nigerien soldiers stand guard at the border with Nigeria in Diffa, Niger, March 25, 2015. ( Reuters )

Hundreds of militants with heavy arms killed 71 Nigerien soldiers in an attack on a military base in the western Niger next to the border of Mali, the country’s defence minister confirmed on national television on Wednesday.  

The attack, which lasted three hours in the town of Inates, was one of the deadliest on Niger’s military force since violence erupted in 2015. 

The incident happened in the same area where the West African branch of Daesh killed nearly 50 Nigerien soldiers in two separate attacks in May and July.

Amidst the rising violence, France has come under heavy public criticism. The critical voices accuse the country of being in the region for economic reasons and failing to restore stability. 

Although the French army pushed back the militants in 2013, France's counter-terrorism operations in the region seem to have been failing in the past few years. 

France has previously emphasised that its military presence is aimed at maintaining Europe’s safety.  

With the West’s largest military presence in the Sahel, France has 4,500 troops deployed in the region and a budget of nearly 600 million euros ($665 million) per year. 

Rather than stabilising, security has progressively worsened with the militants strengthening their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and fuelling ethnic tensions. 

Eventually, when it became undeniable, the top French military general admitted that France will never secure total victory over the insurgencies. 

On the other hand, France’s failure has spread popular anger towards the former colonial power across the countries as many chanted the same slogan: “Get out France, we don’t want to see you here.” 

Since July, the rising insecurity has negatively affected the cattle-herding community of the town, near the banks of the Niger River. 

Hundreds of people have fled the area for the capital Niamey or other nearby towns, leaving their cattle and houses unattended and unguarded.

Although no group has claimed responsibility as yet, the attack is part of the larger humanitarian crisis that is fuelled by various militant groups in West Africa’s entire Sahel region. 

Protesters hold signs reading ‘France a terrorist state’ , left, and ‘Stop France’s genocide in Mali’, right, during a demonstration called by the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali to protest against the government, the massacre of civilians in Ogassogou and to France’s presence in the country, on Friday in Bamako.(AFP)

Renewed insurgency 

The region has been gripped by violence since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely-aligned militant groups seized the northern two-thirds of Mali, making way for the French intervention the following year that aimed to beat them back.

But the militants, linked to Daesh, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, have since regrouped and expanded their range of influence despite the thousands of regional and foreign troops countering the insurgency. 

Although the violence has hit Mali and Burkina Faso the hardest, leaving large swathes of those countries ungovernable, it has also spilled over into Niger, which shares a long and porous borders with its two neighbours.

‘Get out France’ 

Boiling point was reached when French President Emmanuel Macron’s reaction to the latest attack was described by many West Africans as 'neo-colonialist'. 

The attack, which killed 13 French soldiers, was the worst single loss of troops for nearly four decades. 

Frustrated by mounting anti-French sentiment and rising number of dead French soldiers, Macron “summoned” West African leaders, implying that he would withdraw French troops “if he doesn’t like what he hears”

But Macron’s ultimatum has seemed to do nothing other than inflame the anti-French voices. 

Notably, Salif Keita, an internationally-famous Malian musician, released a video on social media, telling his President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to stop “subjecting yourself to little Emmanuel Macron; he just a little kid” and saying that France is financing the militants. 

Back in Paris, a veteran West African diplomat said the five countries had taken Macron’s summons badly. 

“I think he should treat his elders with a bit more respect,” the diplomat said.