On April 22, Niger’s National Assembly approved a policy change that gives greater leeway for the redeployment of two French-led counterterrorism missions – Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba – from Mali to Niger. The vote was 131 to 31, representing all but four of the National Assembly’s members.
In a sense, the vote was theater. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already effectively accepted the French redeployment back in February (see his series of posts on Twitter starting here). Moreover, on March 5, the parties of the presidential majority released a joint statement welcoming the redeployment of foreign forces. Yet the April 22 vote was theater that the government took seriously – Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou addressed the deputies before the vote, evoking Niger’s dire security situation and arguing that Niger cannot face the threat alone.
Why bother with such a vote? Likely to head off, or at least wield a powerful talking point against, the anti-French sentiment in the country and in the Sahel as a whole. It’s a better optic to have the redeployment approved by a huge majority vote in parliament than to merely impose it by presidential decree. See more on the logic of the vote here.
French forces (or, that is, additional French forces) are coming from Mali to Niger primarily because of the deterioration in diplomatic relations between France and the junta in power in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup that brought the junta to power, there was still a fair amount of normalcy in French-Malian relations until the May 2021 follow-on coup that consolidated the junta’s power. Since then, relations went into a tailspin, with big consequences for Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014 as a successor to the French-led Operation Serval, the operation that broke jihadist control over northern Malian towns in 2013. Amid international outcry over the May 2021 coup, French President Emmanual Macron announced “the end of Barkhane as an external operation” (whatever that means, and clearly not a description that applies even amid big changes for Barkhane). Then, as the junta increasingly signaled that it would defy international and regional pressures to hold elections by February 2022, relations worsened further, to the point where Malian transitional authorities expelled the French ambassador in January of this year. That led Macron and allies to announce, in February, a shift of Barkhane and the associated Takuba Task Force (a special forces unit drawing personnel from multiple European countries) elsewhere. Other factors were involved too, though, including the above-mentioned anti-French sentiment in the region, particularly in Mali, as well as some domestic fatigue back in France with the tactically sophisticated but strategically aimless Barkhane and its attendant casualties.
Niger was the logical fallback for Barkhane and Takuba – a country adjacent to Mali, with two presidents (Mahamadou Issoufou, in office 2011-2021; and Bazoum, elected in 2021) who have shown themselves overwhelmingly friendly if not outright deferential to France, the United States, Germany, the European Union, etc.
A bit of background on Niger’s domestic politics: Issoufou and Bazoum, close allies, both belong to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French acronym PNDS). When Issoufou hit his two-term limit, he backed Bazoum (who had held multiple senior positions within Issoufou’s governments and within the party) as the PNDS’ presidential candidate. Bazoum won the run-off election in 2021. The PNDS, in legislative elections in 2020-2021, won a total of 80 seats out of 166 (it is supposed to be 171, but five seats allocated for the diaspora ultimately went unfilled because of the difficulty of organizing diaspora-based elections amid COVID-19). The speaker of parliament is Seyni Oumarou, who placed third in the first round of the 2020-2021 presidential elections; his party is the National Movement for the Society of Development (MNSD), currently part of the presidential majority in the National Assembly. Reuters and others put the presidential majority at 135 seats. The largest opposition party in parliament is MODEN/FA, the party of ex-speaker and Issoufou enemy Hama Amadou.
The National Assembly vote on Barkhane and Takuba’s redeployment was along party lines, although I have not been able to find the precise breakdown of which deputies voted for or against the policy change. In terms of what was actually voted on, this concerned a revision of the 2021 “Declaration of the General Policy of the Government,” and specifically its first plank, which relates to security. The deputies voted on a measure adding new language to that policy document, now formally allowing the government “to build the largest possible alliances for fighting terrorism, to welcome allied forces on its soil and to have them participate in joint military operations.” From what I can tell, the deputies were not directly voting on Barkhane and Takuba, but it was clear what foreign deployments the vote would authorize.
The opposition, meanwhile, objected on the grounds that the redeployment violates national sovereignty, and on the grounds that the measure is unconstitutional, legally feeble, and/or gives too much power to the government. Multiple observers, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at the visit of the French Agency for Development’s Director General to Niamey just days before the vote, seeing it as yet another instance of the continued existence of “Françafrique.”
Meanwhile, there was a minor cabinet reshuffle in Niger on April 23, the day after the vote – but I’ll have to tackle that in a future post.
See some footage of the Prime Minister’s speech, and the vote, here.