Niger's president, Mohamed Bazoum, is concentrating the bulk of European military operations after the break with Bamako

Niger, new centre of anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel

PHOTO/@PresidenceNiger - Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum at the 61st Ordinary Summit of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government in Accra, 3 July 2022

The Tuareg secessionist challenge in Mali, quickly absorbed by the virulent jihadist insurgency, set off alarm bells in the Sahel more than a decade ago because of the multiple consequences that could result from the collapse of the Malian state. François Hollande, then occupant of the Elysée Palace, deployed Operation Serval 'in extremis' to quell the Islamist advance despite his initial reluctance, legitimised by an express UN Security Council resolution. Since then, Mali had been the regional theatre of operations, the nerve centre of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. But the definitive rift between Paris and Bamako has completely transformed the chessboard. 

As French and Western troops leave Mali - the last to be expelled from the country was Takuba, the European anti-terrorist force - dozens of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, linked to the Kremlin and implicated in numerous atrocities against the civilian population on the continent, land and occupy the military bases used by Operation Barkhane - Serval's heir - to fight from there against the Islamist insurgency. This shift in alliances has upset the plans of French President Emmanuel Macron and the rest of the European allies. Mali, considered the heart of the Sahel, is no longer a partner for reducing the jihadist threat. It is time to rethink the strategy. 

Niger is emerging in this scenario as the main alternative for France, Germany and other EU member states involved in counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel. Niamey has become a key player in channelling all the European and regional missions that previously operated in Mali, as Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum announced in February, when he said he was open to hosting European missions: "The heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali, but in Niger... and perhaps in a more balanced way in all the countries of the region that want this [security assistance]". Compared to its neighbours, Mali is an oasis of stability surrounded by a sea of conflict.

Mapa Sahel

Bazoum, the protagonist of the first peaceful transfer of power in Niger's history since independence in 1960, has taken a critical stance towards the coup-led military junta in Bamako, aligning himself with the postulates of France and its Western partners. When France withdrew Mali from the G5 Sahel, the regional cooperation group created in 2014 to counter the Islamist insurgency, Niger's president acknowledged that the alliance was 'dead'. Nor did he shy away from predicting that 'the region would be even more infested and that terrorist groups would grow stronger' when the same Malian junta, led by Colonel Assimi Goita, expelled Barkhane and Takuba's forces. 

The Nigerian nation is located in a critical area and has adverse geographical conditions. With 80% of its territory covered by the Sahara and landlocked, it has to cope with the effects of climate change, in its case increasing desertification. Niger shares a northern border with Algeria and Libya, an eastern border with Chad, a southern border with Nigeria and Benin, and a western border with Burkina Faso and Mali. The jewel in the crown, however, is the triple divide it shares with the latter, one of the main global crime hotspots where terrorists, armed militias and transnational criminal organisations operate. None of these organisations are relentless.


A decade ago, the Islamist threat only affected Mali. Since 2015, however, the insurgency has spread throughout the region as a result of the structural weakness of states and their inability to maintain control over the entire territory, coupled with the remarkable adaptability of jihadist militias. Porous borders did the rest and jihadist organisations now control large swathes of land. They impose their law. In the case of Niger, the strength of Boko Haram in neighbouring Nigeria has also played a role. This explains the proliferation of the jihadist phenomenon, which has led the country to rank eighth in the latest Global Terrorism Index, fifth in Africa. 

The fragility of its regional partners does not help either. Successive coups in Mali, Guinea-Conakry and Burkina Faso have destabilised Niger, which also experienced its own putsch two days before Bazoum's inauguration in December 2020. A group of military rebels tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the outgoing government amid growing discontent within the military ranks. Only the presidential guard thwarted the coup. The former philosophy professor and trade union leader, a pro-government candidate who had held the foreign and presidential portfolios, had to react.


Bazoum's strategy has combined a military approach and a concern for the deeper causes of the crisis in Niger and the Sahel as a whole. The Nigerien president has pushed for dialogue with terrorist organisations, while at the same time seeking to expand and strengthen the role of the state. From the outset, he has been open to external collaboration, not only with European countries, but also with the United States and Turkey. In November 2021, Niamey acquired Bayraktar TB2 drones from Ankara, as well as Hürkuş fighter planes and armoured vehicles, to improve its anti-terrorist arsenal. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's recent visit to Niger on his tour of the African continent strengthened relations between the EU's Berlin and Niamey. During his meeting with Bazoum, the Social Democrat pledged to increase the number of troops deployed in MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, in a context in which the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Daesh's affiliate in the region, is advancing across the tri-border territory. However, it is France that aims to maintain its influence in Niger, the new centre of counter-terrorism operations. 

Chad, a regular strategic partner of the Elysée, was in the running to concentrate the bulk of French and European military missions, but the instability in N'Djamena as a result of the semi-coup carried out by Mahamat Déby, son of the long-lived President Idriss Déby, who died in strange conditions on the battlefront, has cooled relations. Niamey is perhaps France's last bullet in the chamber to redress its intervention in the Sahel after the premature end of Operation Barkhane. The challenges will be the same as in Mali: the rise of anti-French sentiment and Russia's gradual infiltration of the Sahelian fringe through the Wagner group.