France abandoned by its allies in Niger

US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s surprise visit to Niamey on August 6, 2023 marks a turning point in the Niger crisis. The United States took charge and marginalized France. Read the analysis by Leslie Varenne, Director of the Institut de veille et d’étude des relations internationales et stratégiques (IVERIS).

The crisis in Niger is dominating the news in the summer of 2023. The ECOWAS summit in Abuja on August 10 was one of the highlights, putting military intervention back on the agenda just as it seemed to be receding. In fact, by underlining in its communiqué “its determination to keep all options open for a peaceful resolution of the crisis”, while ordering “the deployment of the standby force”, the sub-regional organization tried to please everyone: the hard-line camp, led mainly by France, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, and the more numerous camp advocating dialogue. But what will happen? It’s hard to say at this stage, given the shifting sands. One thing is certain, however: the surprise visit of Victoria Nuland, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, to Niamey on August 6 marked a decisive turning point. The ball is now in the American court, which is ignoring the agitation in Paris.

The lady with the buns is back in business…

To appreciate the importance of this visit and the messages it sent out, a brief review of the career of this American diplomatic heavyweight is in order. Since 1993, this spiritual daughter of Madeleine Albright has held various positions in the Bush and Obama administrations, including that of spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, between 2010 and 2013. A period when the United States and its allies had outdone themselves with the wars in Syria, Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and the “Arab springs”. But this figure of the neoconservative movement achieved global notoriety by organizing regime change in Kiev in 2014. The images of Victoria Nuland handing out bread rolls while haranguing the demonstrators on Maïdan Square go down in history. Her famous “Fuck the EU” pronounced at the same time during a conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, an exchange maliciously recorded and leaked, also sticks to her skin.

More familiar with the European continent, she has nonetheless taken African affairs in hand. In 2021, she toured several East African countries and Niger. In October 2022, she visited Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. She has just completed a new road show that took her from Pretoria, a few days before the BRICS summit, to Kinshasa, via Abidjan, finally landing in Niamey on August 6.

“F…k France”

American activism in Niger comes as no surprise, given their strategic interests in the country. However, Victoria Nuland’s visit to Niamey, which was not on her agenda, took everyone by surprise. A few days earlier, Catherine Colonna had prided herself on being on the same wavelength as Washington, but apparently the feeling wasn’t mutual. By sitting and talking for two hours at the military table, Victoria Nuland signaled to Paris that she was taking the lead. In the diplomat’s flowery language, this could be summed up as follows: “We can’t let the frog-eaters handle this, they’re going to bring us Wagner! !

The second message sent to the Elysée Palace and to the ECOWAS hardliners who were preparing to use the hard way: we prefer dialogue. In this, the Acting Secretary of State reiterated the position of Anthony Blinken, who on August 2 agreed with the Chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki, that “there is no acceptable military solution” to the crisis in Niger.

Make no mistake, the Biden administration is not suffering from a sudden bout of pacifism. With the 2024 presidential election just months away, they simply can’t risk supporting a new conflict. They are bogged down in Ukraine, where the counter-offensive is faltering, while their support for Kiev is becoming increasingly unpopular at home. They are also in a delicate position in Syria and in the Strait of Hormuz, facing Iran, where the US Navy has just deployed 3,000 men. Meanwhile, tensions persist in the China Sea.

Rome and Berlin, both with a military presence in Niger, have rallied to the American position. Since the departure of French troops from Mali, both capitals have sought to distance themselves from Paris on African issues, to avoid being contaminated by the outcry against French policy. While Germany was sober in its statement that it “favors mediation”, Italy couldn’t resist taking a swipe at France. In an interview with La Stampa, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani declared: “Europe cannot afford an armed confrontation, we must not be seen as new colonizers. On the contrary, we must create a new alliance with African countries, one that is not based on exploitation. We must postpone the option of war as long as possible.”

Nuland forgets to mention…France

It is interesting to note that none of France’s allies has expressed an opinion on the departure of French troops requested by the ruling military in Niamey. Not a single one took up Paris’s argument that the decision was illegitimate. Nor were there any major statements on France’s role in the fight against terrorism, the protection of Europe’s southern border or immigration – all arguments that have been put forward for years by its allies.

As the icing on the cake, when asked about Niger by Ivorian public television during her visit to Abidjan, Victoria Nuland declared “our position is the same as that of Côte d’Ivoire, ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union”… Oops… she didn’t mention France, which can only be an oversight…

Niger's location in West Africa (Google maps)
Niger’s location in West Africa (Google maps)

The ball in Niger’s court…

All these reasons militate in favor of non-intervention. For no deployment of the ECOWAS standby force can take place without, at the very least, logistical assistance, air support and satellite intelligence from France and the United States. Except, of course, that the Niger military must also be taken into account. Will they accept American conditions? This is THE question that will determine the outcome.

While no one is in the know about the content of Victoria Nuland’s two-hour meeting with junta representatives, the State Department’s minutes mention two essential points: the assurance that the USA will keep its military bases and close the door on Wagner. Importantly, at no point was there any question of “reinstalling the democratically elected President”, Mohamed Bazoum, as he is now known. Still according to the document, she had “a frank and difficult discussion” with Moussa Salaou Barmou, “their guy”, “their asset” within the junta, as the lengthy WSJ article specially dedicated to him points out. “Barmou has become the main diplomatic channel between the United States and the junta. The one who will be able to “help bring this affair to a soft landing”. But if Barmou is their “guy”, he’s first and foremost Nigerian, and he’s not alone. Given the mounting pressure, it seems that Victoria Nuland has not obtained firm assurances on these two specific points. According to a security source in Niamey, the CNSP (Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie, a body created by the ruling military) is on a “neither side nor the other” line…

In the meantime, negotiations continue on all fronts. On August 10, the Algerian Foreign Minister was in Washington for talks with the future Under Secretary of Defense, Derek Chollet. According to the press release, the two discussed “developments in the crisis in Niger and ways to coordinate the two countries’ efforts to strengthen the chances for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.” A meeting and a little phrase that speak volumes about France’s role in resolving the crisis…

Paris persists

After the ECOWAS meeting, and while some were looking for “a peaceful settlement”, the Quai d’Orsay, through the voice of Catherine Colonna, took a hard line. The Minister of Foreign Affairs supports “all the conclusions adopted” at the Summit, “including the decision to activate the deployment of the standby force”. In short, we are ready to provide military support, we are ready for war…

Since the start of the crisis on July 26, the Elysée and the Quai have opted for every regrettable solution. And the list is long. Opting for strong-arm tactics instead of mediation in the current West African context; showing their muscles at the risk of pouring oil on a Continent already red-hot against French policy; trying to repeat the Ivorian scenario by playing on the two entities, the legitimate government and the putschists, without realizing that the world has changed since 2011; endorsing through the media a pseudo-rebellion: the Conseil de la Résistance pour la République is a losing venture. Headed by former rebel Rhissa Ag Boula, long laundered under the gold of the Republic, the CRR has no chance of prospering. Coloring Ouagadougou, Bamako and Niamey red overnight on the Quai d’Orsay’s security maps, thereby banning Air France planes from landing, does nothing to ease the pressure; nor does the closure of visa offices in Mali and Burkina Faso. All these decisions were immediately followed by reciprocal measures.

Bonus: by doing so, Paris makes the United States look like the good guys in the story, which is not without its spice.

No one is rushing to follow France’s lead, and all are silent in mocking silence. Envisioning a scenario in which the United States, Germany and Italy stay in Niger and Paris is forced to pack up, one African diplomat thunders: “It would be Trafalgar and Fachoda! No less…

Leslie Varenne
Director, Institut de veille et d’étude des relations internationales et stratégiques