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‘Why I want Russia in and France out’ – BBC News

  • By Tchima Illa Issoufou & Beverly Ochieng
  • BBC World Service, Niamey & Nairobi

In a sign of growing hostility towards the West since the coup in Niger, a businessman proudly shows off his outfit in the colours of the Russian flag in the traditional heartland of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum.

Since the coup, there has been a war of words between the military and the West.

Mr Bazoum was a staunch ally of the West in the fight against militant Islamists, and was a strong economic partner as well.

Niger hosts a French military base and is the world’s seventh biggest producer of uranium. The fuel is vital for nuclear power with a quarter of it going to Europe, especially former colonial power France.

Since General Abdourahamane Tchiani overthrew the president in a coup on 26 July, Russian colours have suddenly appeared on the streets.

Thousands took part in a protest in the capital Niamey on Sunday, with some waving Russian flags and even attacking the French embassy.

It now seems this “movement” is spreading across the country.

The businessman, based 800km (500 miles) away in the central city of Zinder, didn’t want to give his name for safety reasons and asked that we blur his face.

“I’m pro-Russian and I don’t like France,” he said. “Since childhood, I’ve been opposed to France.

“They’ve exploited all the riches of my country such as uranium, petrol and gold. The poorest Nigeriens are unable to eat three times a day because of France.”

The businessman said thousands had taken part in Monday’s protest in Zinder in support of the military takeover.

He said he had asked a local tailor to take material in the Russian colours of white, blue and red and make an outfit for him, denying that it had been paid for by pro-Russian groups.

Niger is home to 24.4 million people where two in every five live in extreme poverty, on less than $2.15 a day.

Image caption,

The demonstrations in favour of Niger’s military takeover have often featured Russian flags

President Bazoum entered office in 2021 in Niger’s first democratic and peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960.

But his government was a target for Islamist militants linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda who roam across parts of the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel just to the south.

Under pressure from the Islamists, the armies in both neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, also former French colonies with considerable French interests, seized power in recent years, saying this would help in the fight against jihadists.

Like Niger, both these countries previously had significant numbers of French troops helping them but as the Islamist attacks continued, anti-French sentiment rose across the region, with people in all three countries starting to accuse the French of not doing enough to stop them.

Once in power, the junta in Mali welcomed Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group as they first forced out French troops and then pushed for thousands of UN peacekeepers to leave.

Although Islamist attacks have continued in Mali, Burkina Faso’s junta has also grown close to Russia and expelled hundreds of French forces.

In Niger, anti-French protests were frequently banned by Mr Bazoum’s administration.

Several civil society groups began escalating anti-French protests in mid-2022, when Mr Bazoum’s administration approved the redeployment of France’s Barkhane forces to Niger after they had been ordered to leave Mali.

Key among them is the M62 movement, formed in August 2022 by a coalition of activists, civil society movements and trade unions. They led calls against the rising cost of living, poor governance and the presence of the French forces.

Image caption,

Russian colours are suddenly popular on the streets of Niger

Various planned protests by the group were banned or violently put down by Niger’s authorities with its leader Abdoulaye Seydou jailed for nine months in April 2023 for “disrupting public order”.

The M62 appears revitalised in the wake of President Bazoum’s removal.

In an unusual move, its members were quoted by state TV mobilising mass protests in support of the junta, as well as denouncing sanctions by West African leaders over the coup.

It is unclear if the group is linked to the junta known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP) or to Russia.

But it was the umbrella group organising Sunday’s protest, where smaller civil society groups such as the Coordination Committee for the Democratic Struggle (CCLD) Bukata and Youth Action for Niger were also present.

Back in Zinder, the pro-Russia businessman is positive about how Moscow can help his homeland.

“I want Russia to help with security and food,” he said. “Russia can supply technology to improve our agriculture.”

But Moutaka, a farmer who also lives in Zinder, rejects this argument and says the coup is bad news for everyone.

“I don’t support the arrival of Russians in this country because they are all Europeans and nobody will help us,” he said. “I love my country and hope we can live in peace.”

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