Drums of war in Sahel as France repatriates citizens from Niger

France on Tuesday initiated the evacuation of hundreds of French and European citizens from Niger as neighboring countries, Mali and Burkina Faso, stated that any external intervention to restore the ousted government would be regarded as a declaration of war.

In the seventh military coup in less than three years in West and Central Africa, a military junta ousted Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum and his government last Wednesday.

The coup has reverberated across West Africa’s Sahel region, one of the world’s poorest and most unstable areas. Niger was regarded as the West’s most steadfast ally in the battle against a rapidly expanding militant insurgency in the region.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has issued a warning of using force to restore Bazoum to power, while neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, which are also governed by military juntas, have pledged to come to Niger’s defense.

Amid the escalating risk of conflict, Spain announced its preparations to evacuate over 70 citizens by air, while Italy stated that it would arrange a repatriation flight. Germany, on the other hand, urged its citizens to join the French evacuation flights.

The recent coups in the region have come amid a wave of vitriol aimed at former colonial power France that resulted in its troops being kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso this year and last.

The United States, Germany, and Italy have troops stationed in Niger for counter-insurgency and training missions. As of now, there has been no announcement of these troops being evacuated.

The new military leadership in Niger has detained senior politicians and issued warnings against any foreign attempts to extract Bazoum, who is currently confined in his palace.

“Considering the ongoing coup in Niger and the fact that the situation continues to be worrying, we decided to make sure that the French citizens who want to leave Niger can do so,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French media.

She stated that there are hundreds of French citizens and hundreds of other EU citizens seeking evacuation, and she hoped that the flights would be completed within 24 hours.

According to Flightradar data, a plane registered to the French armed forces departed from the airport in the capital city of Niamey on Tuesday evening.

War in Sahel

West African bloc ECOWAS has adopted its strongest stance to date on Niger, following difficulties in convincing the military rulers of member states Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea to reinstate democracy.

A declaration made by Mali and Burkina Faso on Monday night indicates the potential formation of a new alliance in opposition to the rest of the 15-member-state bloc.

“Mali and Burkina Faso warn that any military intervention in Niger will be considered as a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali,” said a joint statement read on both countries’ national broadcasters.

They announced their intention to withdraw from ECOWAS and stated that they would take “measures of legitimate defense” to back Niger’s army and its people if ECOWAS intervened. Additionally, Guinea’s military leaders showed solidarity with Niger.

It remains uncertain what assistance Mali and Burkina Faso could offer, considering their under-equipped armies are already struggling to contain domestic insurgencies that have resulted in thousands of casualties.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group operating in Mali, recently expressed approval of the coup in Niger and stated that his forces were ready to assist in restoring order.

The Kremlin urged a prompt return to constitutional order.

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