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Niger’s civil society in protest: “Europe should take the opinions of the people seriously.”

Megatrends spotlight 2022 15, 21.09.2022

The French military operation Barkhane has concluded its withdrawal from Mali on 15 August 2022. As it relocates partially to neighbouring Niger, civil society has risen in protest there as well. Additionally, President Mohamed Bazoum’s announcement to increase the Diesel price ignited a public outcry. Megatrends Afrika spoke with Moussa Tchangari, secretary general of the Nigerien non-governmental organisation Alternative Espaces Citoyens (AEC), about the reasons for social discontent, new forms of protest, and possible ways out of the current security crisis.

LT: Mr. Tchangari, as a result of the war in Ukraine and rising global market prices, President Mohamed Bazoum announced the increase of the price of Diesel in Niger from 1st of August 2022. This led to great discontent among the population. In the discourse of civil society organizations, however, the disapproval of the increased Diesel price became promptly interwoven with a sharp criticism of the reinforced French military presence in Niger. How are these two themes related in the perception of civil society?

MT: Both themes are not only topical. But they also raise fundamental questions about the future of our country, which deserve to be asked: How can we protect the purchasing power of the population in the face of rising inflation? And what does the presence of different foreign armies mean for our country’s sovereignty? Following the government’s decision to increase the Diesel price as of 1st of August, President Bazoum invited civil society actors and explained the rationale behind the price increase. But he also underlined that the decision would not be reversed.

This triggered a wave of protest and led 15 civil society organizations to join forces in a platform called M62 – in reference to Niger’s 62 years of independence from French colonial power. In a first declaration, M62 demanded the abrogation of the increased Diesel price, but also the withdrawal of the French military mission Barkhane. I think that the issue of the Diesel price is actually being used as a catalyst by the involved organisations to problematize the French military presence. While the latter is welcomed by our government, the public has long viewed it with scepticism.

Taken together, these two issues have the potential to mobilize the population. But it also makes it more difficult to find concrete solutions. Especially as we know the government’s position in both cases. A planned demonstration was banned. This shows how the government interprets the concerns of the population and reacts to criticism.

LT: Your organisation AEC is not part of the newly founded platform. Why?

MT: We support an active civil society that addresses both issues. But we do not have the same understanding of the problems as some of the organisations involved. For us, there are many other fundamental questions, which need to be raised in this context – concerning for example democracy and good governance, civil rights, or the fight against famine. These are questions that we should discuss together with our government – if it is willing to do so.

And then it is also a question of method. We already founded a network of civil society organisations in 2017 under the name „Cadre de Concertation et d’Actions Citoyennes” and have carried out many joint activities since 2018. Many organisations that are now involved in M62 were also part of the network. Why should we get up one morning and launch a new structure – without first taking stock of what we have achieved so far?

LT: In Burkina Faso, political parties and civil society organisations formed an alliance at the end of July 2022 called M30 Naaba Wobgo and organised protests against the French Africa policy. Did this also give impetus to Nigerien actors to form an ad hoc coalition under a similar name?

MT: Yes, that certainly played a central role. But should we act like this? People want change. But if you look more closely at these kinds of ad hoc movements, you see that their biggest problem is first of all to understand what the problem actually is. And then, building on that, to develop potential solutions.

LT: At present, little is officially known about France’s new military intervention strategy in Niger. What role does disinformation play in the mobilisation of Nigerien civil society?

MT: The mobilisation of the population is not primarily due to the spread of disinformation, but to the fact that almost 10 years of French military presence in the region have not produced satisfactory results. People ask themselves: why should we continue as before if it is not working after all? They argue that the French have the means to make a difference but are not doing so. They, therefore, doubt that France’s goal is really the fight against terrorism, and many rumours are spreading. But in reality, we should ask ourselves whether military interventions can actually be effective in the fight against armed groups in our country.

Unlike others, I do not think that we will get better results by simply exchanging the players. We see in other cases, for example in Afghanistan, but also in our own history, that a war cannot be won with tanks, drones, and planes alone. It is not enough to say that Barkhane was not efficient. We see today that a purely military approach has failed. We see that we need an alternative. This alternative is inevitably the search for political solutions.

LT: Does this mean you support President Mohamed Bazoum’s approach to engage in a dialogue with jihadist groups?

MT: I cannot confirm that President Bazoum is currently engaged in a real dialogue, but I definitely think it should be considered. If President Bazoum is serious about going in that direction, then that is a better idea than continuing to entertain the illusion that the problems can be settled purely by military means. Of course, the military should also be strengthened so that the balance of power does not continue to shift in favour of jihadist groups. That is one thing. But a fundamental solution can only be found through dialogue.

LT: As a representative of Nigerien civil society, what are you expecting from the international community – especially from European actors – with regard to the management of the current security crisis?

MT: I think that European countries should accept that the security crisis in the Sahel is first of all a problem of the countries in the Sahel. We need to find a solution to the crisis here – by negotiating our ideas and contradictions with each other.

What we are currently seeing, however, is that solutions are being imposed on us in the name of counter-terrorism. When the Malian leadership, for example, wanted to engage in a dialogue with jihadist groups, they were blocked by France.

Europe should take the opinions and concerns of the people in the Sahel seriously, who are not always represented by our own governments, instead of saying that the population is not well informed or even manipulated. This attitude is also what ultimately contributes to the rejection of European military assistance here.

This interview was conducted by Lisa Tschörner (SWP) on 16th of August 2022 in Niamey, Niger.