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Niger’s partners fill void left after French exit

The diplomatic isolation of Niger’s junta is easing as the West African country’s partners start filling the void left by its former ruler France, whose last soldiers left on Friday. The international community, and above all Western countries, had unanimously condemned the July 26 military overthrow of elected president Mohamed Bazoum. The United States, the European Union and France suspended military cooperation and financial assistance, while the Economic Community of West African States regional bloc imposed heavy sanctions to encourage a return to civilian rule. Four months later, Bazoum is still holed up in the presidential palace and the new military leaders have yet to announce a timetable for elections. But ECOWAS has hinted at easing sanctions if the junta agrees to a “short transition.” On Thursday, Benin President Patrice Talon said he wanted to “quickly” restore relations between the two countries. The United Nations General Assembly meanwhile on Monday accepted the accreditations of a new ambassador sent by Niamey. – Europeans divided – As Niger military leaders ordered French forces to depart, other Western countries have indicated they wish to keep a toehold in the country, above all to counter Russian influence in the region. The United States, which has an air base in the north, was the first to soften its position, saying Wednesday it is ready to resume military cooperation on the condition the junta commits to a short transition. European countries have started to break ranks with France, which closed its embassy and has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the military leaders. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said during a visit to Niamey that Berlin is “interested in a resumption of projects” with Niger’s military. “France is disengaging from the Sahel, but afterwards we have to agree on some common European approach in this region, and not each man for himself,” said a European diplomat. According to another Western diplomat, the European Union is in an “untenable position”, with member states showing little hurry to agree on a common policy. “Out of seven member states who were present in Niger, six, with France being the exemption, want to return at all costs but are waddling in line,” while Nigerien military leaders “have played a clever game,” the diplomat said. Niger put pressure on European countries by ending two EU security and defence missions in the country and repealing a law that criminalised trafficking migrants to Europe. “One should not see these openings as a capitulation to the military authorities,” said Fahiraman Rodrigue Kone, Sahel specialist at the Institute for Security Studies. “But in a context of shifting strategic alliances in the Sahel, a certain pragmatism is replacing dogmatic stances,” Kone said. “Given their tensions with France, which has an important weight in European diplomacy, the strategy of the Nigerien authorities is to develop bilateral cooperation with certain European actors,” he said. – Moscow’s spectre – European countries “face a dilemma,” said an Italian diplomat. “We have a responsability to stay, because the void would be immediately filled by the Russians.” A Russian delegation arrived in Niamey early December to reinforce military cooperation. Moscow is already the preferred ally of military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso — two countries which formed an alliance with Niger in September and contemplate joining into a confederation. Outside of military affairs, the “Russians cannot help solve all the challenges,” said ISS’s Kone. An eventual resumption of European development assistance would be a big relief to the Niger regime, which has been forced to slash government spending by 40 percent. But Niger can count on dividends from an oil pipeline built by China, which is due to be inaugurated in January and will allow the country to export crude oil for the first time, with some 90,000 barrels a day flowing towards Benin.

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