French withdrawal from Niger: The dawn of a new historic cycle in the Sahel? Spécial

As soon as French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of French forces from Niger, the reaction of a leading international affairs expert was summed up in one sentence: "the great Nation is losing its face and its diplomatic place in the Sahel". Up until now, both the junta and France have tried to put on a brave face in order not to lose face. What was seen as a simple request from a junta that had just taken over the reins of power in Niamey quickly became one of the ingredients of the nationalist, even populist discourse that Sahelian militaries are now famous for, as we saw in Mali and Burkina Faso. One could come to think that France's stubbornness was also due to the fear that the departure of its forces from Niger would be a trigger for other countries in the region. After a two-month tug-of-war, the junta had to wear France down; this battle of unequal symbolic arms could only be won with difficulty by a cornered France, which had the disadvantage of having to deal with urgency and history at the same time. This attitude put it in a bad position when faced with a junta whose populist discourse continues to have an effect on a population and a youth overheated by the impression of having defeated a regime and gradually rid itself of a dominating power.

ECOWAS faced with a diplomatic fait accompli?

But, at the same time, Emmanuel Macron's announcement sounds the death knell for ECOWAS's intervention project, and deals a severe blow to its credibility, notably its capacity to deter military coups, one of its priority objectives. This situation augurs well for the emergence of a “militaro-populist” trend, to the detriment of the democratic ideal in the sub-region. The risk of coups, sometimes theorized as paradoxical moments of "democratic breathing space", is likely to increase.

ECOWAS, the sub-regional organization has thus been presented with a diplomatic fait accompli, with this failure of military strategy stemming, in reality, from four main factors:

 - A certain division within the AU Peace and Security Council.

- The ambiguity of the position of the United States of America and its pragmatism, considered self-serving by some observers, resulting in a lack of firm diplomatic and military support since the beginning of the crisis.

- France's diplomatic isolation within the EU, despite appearances to the contrary, with the lack of diplomatic and financial support for a possible operation, as ECOWAS's main financial partner.

- Strong opposition from public opinion in the Sahel and West Africa, and from civil society, which now sees itself as a legitimate stakeholder in the security debate and even in foreign policy, putting pressure on political leaders who are heavily criticized, particularly by young people.

A geopolitics of youth: indiscriminate "mimicry"?

But the aspect that needs most consideration is the possible effect of indiscriminate mimicry, facilitated by social networks, on the part of a disenchanted youth that is socio-economically vulnerable to radicalism and populism, seasoned with effective Russian "propaganda" to which Westerners respond with policies of influence supported by communication that rivals aggressiveness.But what is denounced as Russian "propaganda" seems to be backed up by a real foothold in real society and among young people, who are sometimes snubbed by chancelleries fascinated by literary elites reminding them of their "universality", by political leaders who are losing ground and by economic operators, subcontractors to their bosses and multinationals. A group of unpopular intermediaries rejected by a youth completely committed to a stodgy pan-Africanism, for want of a real political culture in the image of the founding fathers.

Ingredients for a new historic cycle in the Sahel?

This set of facts now constitutes an explosive recipe against French interests in French-speaking Africa, where Paris was for a long time considered a "champion" by the European Union and the "Western camp", which has recently become much more fractured.A high-ranking diplomat could not have been clearer when he declared, at an important meeting, that "NATO is not a bloc but a simple alliance", which aptly reflects the current state of mind of international partners in the shifting sands of the Sahel, where they are increasingly dispersed, not to say divided or even bogged down.But beyond the publicity surrounding the French withdrawal, and the epidermal reactions of "pan-Africanist pride" and "French disillusionment", it has become clear that the process of fighting for a second decolonization from below seems to be inexorably underway.

Avoiding new disillusionment: the disturbing questioning

The question arises, however, as to whether the military regimes now calling for the departure of foreign forces will be able to do without them for long after the time of expressions of pride and galvanizing speeches. The recent Liptako Gourma Charter, sealing a mutual defense pact "in the event of aggression" between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, certainly raises hopes of synergy, but raises questions about its operationality and durability. These questions - admittedly disturbing for some - are all the more legitimate given that if these countries were to find themselves in a security situation that would force them to once again call on military cooperation, now rejected in this context strongly marked by nationalist and pan-Africanist rhetoric, it would be another Sahelian disillusionment that would inevitably be fatal.Such a disillusionment would open up, through a second Islamist breath, a wide boulevard for the actors of political Islam and extremist movements who would come to claim, "legitimately", the status of new forces untouched by any exercise of power after the failure of today's secular and military policies. In any case, the dawn of a new historical cycle seems to be looming in the Sahel, but also for Euro-African and, more particularly, French-Sahelian relations.


 Timbuktu Institute - October 2023