Niger’s new military rulers have charged France with “blatant interference” as they accused President Emmanuel Macron, who has reiterated his support for ousted leader Mohamed Bazoum, of “perpetuating a neocolonial operation against the Nigerien people”.
Colonel Amadou Abdramane said on Friday that Macron’s recent comments “constitute further blatant interference in Niger’s domestic affairs”.
Macron on Monday backed the tough stance of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including threats of military action, after the July 26 coup against President Bazoum, a close ally of France.
France, he said, “supports [ECOWAS’s] diplomatic action and, when it so decides, [its] military” action.
Speaking on state TV Abdramane said: “Mr Macron’s comments and his unceasing efforts in favour of an invasion of Niger aim at perpetuating a neocolonial operation against the Nigerien people, who ask for nothing more than to decide its own destiny for itself.”
Relations with France, Niger’s former colonial power and ally in its fight against an armed rebellion, went swiftly downhill after Paris stood by Bazoum. Macron on Monday hailed Bazoum as a “principled, democratically elected and courageous man”.
ECOWAS has threatened to intervene militarily in the Sahel state if diplomatic pressure to return Bazoum to office fails.
Meanwhile, thousands of people on Friday gathered outside France’s military base in Niger to demand its troops leave.
A three-day sit-in has been organised by the M62, a coalition of civil groups opposed to the French military presence in Niger.
“France must leave, and she will leave because Niger is not her home,” said an M62 leader, Falma Taya.
The French president has dismissed Niger’s rulers as having “no legitimacy” and has defied the new administration’s deadline for the French ambassador to leave the country.
Paris has also refused to pull its forces out of the country. France has around 1,500 troops in Niger, many of them stationed at an airbase near the capital. They are deployed to help fight armed groups.
On Friday, the French president said that he spoke to Bazoum on a daily basis as he again reiterated France’s support for the ousted leader.
“I speak every day to President Bazoum. We support him. We do not recognise those who carried out the putsch. The decisions we will take, whatever they may be, will be based upon exchanges with Bazoum,” said Macron.
‘Feels like a ban’
A week earlier, the military regime gave French Ambassador Sylvain Itte 48 hours to leave the country.
On Thursday, Niger’s junta ordered police to expel Itte and revoke his diplomatic immunity. They have been following the strategy of military governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in distancing themselves from the region’s former colonial power amid a wave of anti-French sentiment.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from the capital, Niamey, said there continues to be a deployment of “more security forces here at the embassy of France as well as the residence of the French ambassador”.
“On Thursday, we saw security forces here intercepting two vehicles that came out of the French embassy,” arresting the two drivers, Idris said.
Security forces have also suspended the operations of non-governmental organisations working in the country, Idris said. Officials have cited “security concerns” as the main reason.
But an official of one of the NGOs said the decision “feels like a ban”, Idris reported.
“Niger is one of the most vulnerable countries which is dependent on external aid,” he said.
About 7,300 tonnes of food aid destined for Niger is stuck in transit due to border closures, the United Nations has said.
French military spokesman Colonel Pierre Gaudilliere on Thursday warned: “The French military forces are ready to respond to any upturn in tension that could harm French diplomatic and military premises in Niger.”
Despite the tensions, efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully are continuing.
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who is also the current chairman of ECOWAS and has taken a hard line on the coup, on Thursday floated the idea of a nine-month transition back to democracy.
Also this week, Algeria, which shares a 1,000km (620-mile) land border with Niger, proposed a six-month transitional plan that would be overseen by a civilian power.
Last month, the country’s coup leader proposed a three-year transition after meeting a delegation of West African leaders.