Act in support and not in place of: the French army had to learn the lessons of its forced exit from Mali in the summer of 2022, and is today testing a discreet partnership in Niger, tailored to the demands of Niamey . “In Niger and even globally everywhere in Africa, the philosophical position is different from what was done in Mali. Today, our aid starts first from the needs of the partner,” summarizes General Bruno Baratz, Commander of the French Forces in the Sahel (FFS).

A change of paradigm necessary after the departure from Mali of the French soldiers of the operation “Barkhane”, under the pressure of a hostile junta which appealed to the Russian mercenaries of Wagner, although it denies it. Neighboring Burkina Faso, also led by putschist soldiers, demanded in January the withdrawal of French special forces from its territory and is in Wagner’s sights.

To lessen the flank of criticism against the military presence in Africa of the former colonial power, President Emmanuel Macron has ordered action strictly adhering to the specific demands of the countries concerned and remaining low noise. An instruction respected to the letter in Niger, which accepts in return 1,500 French soldiers on its soil to increase its armies, while the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) has regained the hair of the beast at the border with Mali.

“Debarkhanization of Spirits”

“Niger serves as a laboratory for the French army for its renewed approach,” summarizes Michael Shurkin, an American expert specializing in the tricolor military world. France was waging its own war in parallel to what the Malian armed forces were doing. Today, she wants to do it differently. “Staying on the second line, however, requires a “debarkhanization of minds”, slips a French officer, recalling that an entire generation of soldiers tracked down jihadist groups for a decade in the Sahelian sands, in much more autonomous conditions than today. today.

Engaged in a rise in power of its armed forces, which should reach 50,000 men in 2025 then 100,000 in 2030, Niger seems satisfied. “Today the command is Nigerien, master of the field and of the needs, underlines the former Nigerien Minister of Defense (2016-2019) Kalla Moutari. We can only congratulate ourselves. The French bring us the military training, equipment, intelligence and air resources that we lack. We must leverage their presence and that of other partners, as the threat increasingly takes root in central and eastern Mali and spills over into Niger. »

While Niger previously served mainly as a transit base for operations in Mali, the French have reinforced their presence there and detached hundreds of men to the south-west of the country, near the Malian border. The Franco-Nigerien operation “Almahaou”, in the Tillaberi region, has already produced positive effects, argues Colonel Grégoire Servent, commander of the French projected air base (BAP) in Niamey: “We have gone from 33% of cropland in this area a year ago to 65% today. This area is considered a priority because it is the breadbasket of the country. »

Drones Reaper and Bayraktar

Cooperation works all the better because “Niger has a particularly effective counter-insurgency strategy”, which aims to “secure the populations and allow the return of the State to areas contested by terrorist groups”, added the general. Baratz. In Mali, despite undeniable French tactical victories against armed groups, the political power has never managed to reestablish its authority in the semi-desert areas raked by “Barkhane”. And the national army has remained fragile despite efforts to harden it for years.

From now on, the areas of cooperation extend to the air domain, according to the needs of Niger. “The BAP, during the ‘Barkhane’ era, had much less interaction with Nigeriens. A shift really took place with the withdrawal from Mali, “says Lieutenant-Colonel Fabien, combat partnership assistant. French drones and fighter planes take off daily from Niamey to support Nigerien operations on the ground. And a seminar recently brought together French and Nigeriens on the use of their respective drones, American Reaper for the first, Turkish Bayraktar for the others.

“As the Nigerien army increases in power, the objective is to adapt our system downwards”, promises the commander of the FFS.