Niger set for rallies to demand French troops leaveFri, 01 Sep 2023 14:32:00 GMT

Niger braced Friday for a weekend of planned anti-French rallies as tensions mount between the country’s new military rulers and its traditional ally.A coalition of civil society groups opposed to the presence of French forces in Niger has called a three-day sit-in, starting Friday.The protest, organised by the M62 grouping, is set to take place in central Niamey to demand the departure of the French contingent.France has around 1,500 troops in Niger, many of them stationed at an airbase near the capital, who are deployed to help fight a bloody jihadist insurgency.Separately, a “permanent” sit-in has also been called by another civil society group, the Patriotic Front for the Sovereignty of Niger.Kicking off Saturday, it will continue “until the departure of all French soldiers”, organisers say.Relations between Niger and France have deteriorated since President Mohamed Bazoum, a close ally of France, was toppled in a coup on July 26.Paris has stood by Bazoum and refused to recognise the new rulers in the troubled Sahel state.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 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 Colonel Pierre Gaudilliere 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.- Return to democracy – 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 timeframes, 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.Nigerian President Bola Tinubu Thursday suggested a nine-month period such as his country underwent in the late 1990s.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 ECOWAS has warned it could intervene militarily to restore civilian rule if efforts to end the crisis diplomatically fail.The Economic Community of West African States also imposed sanctions on Niger after the coup.Around 20 human rights organisations called in a letter Friday for the West African bloc to lift the economic measures, arguing they would further worsen the vulnerability of Niger’s population.The sanctions, they said, had been met with incomprehension from “deprived people who expected… more solidarity and empathy”.Niger is battling two jihadist insurgencies — a spillover in southeastern Niger from a long-running campaign in neighbouring Nigeria and an offensive in the southwest of the country by militants crossing from Mali and Burkina Faso.