Legislators in Niger have approved a bill that allows the hosting of more European special forces in the west African country as France continues its withdrawal from neighbouring Mali.
Niger’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday in favour of the bill, which clears the way for more European troops to be deployed but the total number has not been revealed.
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The issue of increased foreign troops had pitted the governing party of President Mohamed Bazoum, who proposed the legislation, against opposition and civil society group who are weary of France’s military involvement in its former colonies.
“We need foreign forces for intelligence and aerial support to Nigerien armed forces fighting on the ground,” leading governing party member Daouda Mamadou Marte said before the debate began on Friday.
Meanwhile, Nigerien civil society leader Abdoulaye Seydou told Reuters that passing the bill would be a breach of sovereignty.
“Sahelian states are able to set up their own protection mechanisms,” he told Reuters.
The ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism holds a majority in Niger’s parliament, with 135 out of 166 seats.
Friday’s decision comes after Bazoum agreed for Niger to host some special forces from Mali, back in February.
About 2,400 French troops and 900 special forces from the French-led Takuba task force are expected to leave Mali in the coming months as relations between France and the ruling military government in Bamako continue to rapidly deteriorate.
The withdrawal has sparked concerns that violence from Mali’s central region, where an array of armed groups who have pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda have stoked ethnic tensions fuelled by dwindling resources, will further spread across the Sahel.
Mali has since turned to the Russian private military contractor, the Wagner Group. A joint force of troops from the G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – is also active along the porous border between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The violence has already led to the deaths of hundreds, displacement of millions and made swaths of territory ungovernable in the Sahel.
Several coastal west African states such as Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast, which have been hit by spillover attacks in recent months, could also host the re-deployed troops.
In November, protesters in both Burkina Faso and Niger blocked a French convoy travelling from Ivory Coast to Mali.
Two people were killed in Niger in ensuing clashes.