Niger’s newly installed military government is backing protests this weekend calling for the removal of French troops from the country.
France has about 1,500 troops in Niger, part of a multinational contingent, alongside US troops, that had been advising the army on counter-terrorism operations against militant groups linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS.
But following a military takeover on July 26, which ousted the government of the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, the military suspended the co-operation agreement with foreign forces.
Singling out France, the junta said not enough was being done to counter the worsening militant insurgency.
Youth unemployment in Niger has hovered at about 40 per cent in recent years and many Nigeriens say France has attempted to enact economic hegemony on the vast West African country of 25 million.
France is one of the largest aid donors to Niger, a former colony, but has suspended about $131 million in economic assistance following the coup.
Much of the aid the country receives – nearly $2 billion per year – comes from the EU, mostly to support the military. Analysts say foreign aid accounts for at least 9 per cent of the country’s budget, but the junta has leveraged anti-French sentiment to support the new regime.
A coalition of civil society groups opposed to the presence of French forces in Niger has called a sit-in protest due to end on Sunday evening.
The protest, organised by the group M62, is set to take place in central Niamey to demand the departure of the French contingent.
Separately, a “permanent” sit-in has also been called by another civil society group, the Patriotic Front for the Sovereignty of Niger.
Kicking off on Saturday, it will continue “until the departure of all French soldiers”, organisers say.
The row heated up this week when Niger's military regime stripped France's ambassador of diplomatic immunity and ordered police to expel him, according to a letter seen on Thursday by AFP.
Authorities had already given French envoy Sylvain Itte 48 hours to leave the country last Friday.
France refused the demand, saying that the government had no legal right to make such an order.
French military spokesman Col Pierre Gaudilliere on Thursday warned that “the French military forces are ready to respond to any upturn in tension that could harm French diplomatic and military premises in Niger”.
“Measures have been taken to protect these premises,” he said.
On Thursday, cars leaving the French embassy in Niger were systematically searched by security forces, residents in the area told AFP.
The deadline in another thorny issue between France and Niger could also run out this weekend.
On August 3, Niger's new rulers denounced military agreements with France, a move that the government in Paris has also ignored on the grounds of legitimacy.
The agreements cover different time frames, however one of them dating from 2012 was set to expire within a month, according to military leaders.
Niger's new military regime faces calls for a transition back to civilian rule within months.
Algeria, Niger's influential northern neighbour, has proposed a six-month transition.
The military rulers so far have not responded to the suggestions, having previously spoken of a three-year handback period.
The regional bloc Economic Community of West African States has warned it could intervene militarily to restore civilian rule if efforts to end the crisis diplomatically fail.
Ecowas also imposed sanctions on Niger after the coup.