“Every morning when we pass in front of the raising of the colors, we stop to salute in front of the Nigerien flag. There is not ours”, describes Lieutenant Nicolas (the majority of French soldiers can only be cited by their first name), deployed in Ouallam for a week with his comrades from the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (2eREI).
It is from this grip placed on red-brown ground that the Nigerien staff plans and pilots the anti-jihadist operations of the armed forces (FAN) near the Malian border, with the support of 300 French infantrymen.
Nigeriens, who are worried about the security vacuum that the French departure from Mali could create at the border, have just agreed to the tricolor soldiers being co-located on their base in Ouallam.
“Ultimately, we have the ambition to have a sufficient number of military and air resources to ensure our own security. This is not yet the case. We need partners to increase our power”, justifies the minister. Nigerian from Defense, Alkassoum Indattou, came to Ouallam with his French counterpart Sébastien Lecornu.
Pushed out of Mali by a hostile junta after nine years of presence, the French army intends to continue the fight against the jihadists in the Sahel, especially in neighboring Niger. But quietly and in the second line, to avoid giving way to easily flammable anti-French sentiment in the region.
“To succeed in our mission, we must stick to what Niger wants”, reminds Mr. Lecornu in front of the legionnaires, under a temperature close to 45 degrees.
– Food crisis –
Fruit of the lessons of a not so distant past, when France carried out operations in Mali alone, discretion is the new watchword of the French soldiers in the Sahel. Like the Spartan camp being set up in Ouallam, in a corner of the base, behind an area where the FAN store a heap of carcasses of damaged vehicles, for lack of spare parts.
Under a small sand-colored tent, the 2eREI Operations Center occupies a central place. On a forest of screens, officers follow in real time a reconnaissance operation in progress, under Nigerien command.
This morning, French intelligence resources contributed to the capture by Nigeriens of two suspicious individuals. “We bring them the skills they lack. But they have a perfect knowledge of the terrain and the enemy. They are children of these lands”, argues a French officer.
Around the tents that house the camp beds of the legionnaires, diggers are busy clearing the ground. “This is the future life zone of those who are in operations at the moment”, explains Commander Arnaud.
A modest square covered with a khaki tarpaulin serves as a dining area. Opposite, four country showers and two rows of outdoor sinks.
A few steps away, a hangar houses the maintenance workshop for forward armored vehicles (VAB), light armored vehicles and French trucks, put to the test in this rainy season.
Anxious to make its military commitment in Africa less visible, France wishes at the same time to further promote its economic and humanitarian aid actions.
In the poor village of Simiri, near Ouallam, a crowd of women and young children are gathered in a center for the fight against child malnutrition financed by Paris.
“We are in a year of unprecedented food crisis,” warns Jean-Noël Gentile, of the World Food Program (WFP). “If we experience a second insufficient rainy season, it will be a disaster” in this area already weakened by the jihadist threat, he assures. Some 4.4 million people live in food insecurity in Niger.
“We have to walk on our two legs to meet the challenges facing Niger and the Sahel more broadly over the long term”, by combining security and development efforts, insists French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who also came to testify. its support for Niger.