France has completed the withdrawal of its troops after they were asked to leave Niger by the country’s new junta.

The last French military aircraft and troops departed Niger by the December 22 deadline set by the junta which severed ties with Paris after the coup in July, the French Army General Staff told The Associated Press. France already announced this week that it would close its diplomatic mission in Niger for “an indefinite period”.

The move ends years of on-the-ground military support and raises concerns from analysts about a gap in the fight against jihadi violence across the Sahel region of Africa.

However, the country would continue to be involved in the Sahel – the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert which has been a hotspot for violent extremism – although differently, President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to a base in Jordan.

“I decided on some important reconfigurations,” Mr Macron said. “We will continue to protect our interests over there but our armies won’t be as present permanently, will be less stationary and also less exposed,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron said he had decided on ‘reconfigurations’ (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool)

Niger’s junta described the end of the military co-operation with France as the start of “a new era” for Nigeriens.

“Niger stands tall, and the security of our homeland will no longer depend on a foreign presence,” it said via X, formerly known as Twitter. “We are determined to meet the challenges before us, by consolidating our national military and strategic capabilities.”

But analysts say a vacuum will be created by the troops’ departure. It will “leave Niger and the entire Sahel worse off” in terms of overall counter-terrorism efforts as Niger was seen as the last remaining Western partner in the decade-long fight against jihadi groups in the region, said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused security consulting company Signal Risk.

Some 1,500 French troops were training and supporting the local military in Niger, which had been envisioned as the base for counter-terrorism operations in the region after anti-French sentiment grew in Mali and Burkina Faso, both run by juntas that have also forced French troops out.

But after deposing Niger’s democratically-elected president Mohamed Bazoum, the nation’s junta led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani severed military relations with France and other European countries. Instead, he sought defence co-operation with Russia, whose private mercenary Wagner Group is already active in parts of Africa but faces an uncertain future there following the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The withdrawal of foreign military missions is already affecting security in Niger, where the number of attacks has surged, according to Oluwole Ojewale with the Dakar-based Institute for Security Studies.

“The country has not demonstrated sufficient military capabilities to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal. Strategic attacks are being launched by the various armed groups who now roam freely in the ungoverned spaces in the country and incidents have remained on the rise,” said Ojewale.

The junta in Niger has formed a security alliance with the military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso to co-ordinate counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel.

However, much of the immediate impact of the departure of French troops would be felt in western Niger’s Tillaberi region which has been the hotspot for extremism in the country, said Mr Ryan.

“Violent extremist organisations may utilise the vacuum created to exploit and expand their operations” in the Sahel, he said.