“Macron, get out of our house,” thousands of young demonstrators chant to the rhythm of reggae, making plain their demand for French soldiers to leave Niger.
Rallies to protest the 1,500-strong French military presence have attracted tens of thousands of people to the airbase which hosts part of the former colonial power’s contingent near Niamey’s airport in the past 10 days.
The Nigerien generals who seized power in a July 26 coup have denounced several cooperation accords with France and are demanding Paris withdraw its troops.
But Paris does not recognise the legitimacy of the military regime and day and night almost without interruption citizen “vigils” camp out at Escadrille roundabout, the centre of the protest movement.
There is a Saturday night atmosphere along the metal barriers guarded by an almost uninterrupted line of police and soldiers.
Old men, hand-holding couples, young people wearing the national colours, groups of women, and street vendors all crowd the area under street lamps.
An improvised market has taken root under a specially erected awning. Grilled corn, rice, couscous and tea are all on sale.
– ‘Support my country’ –
Hafizou, who says he is 16, has come along with a friend carrying a sleeping bag to stay late into the night.
“I am here to support my country,” says Hafizou, caught up in a group of people blaring vuvuzela horns.
“I swear, I walked ten kilometres to get here — we shall never tire,” insists Souleymane Abdou, a trader.
Some drift into the protest camp like Mariama Oumarou, a private sector manager draped in a purple veil.
“My husband gives me permission to come to show that I am a true patriot,” she says.
The vigil offers a space for rare social exchange in a conservative society.
“It makes us feel good to be here. We meet people, exchange ideas, we talk about the crises we’ve just experienced,” explains Mariama.
But everyone is adamant they are primarily here to support the cause — forcing out France.
The organisations behind the vigils are making sure they get participants onside, with one local association having promised to serve “1,000 meals a day.” It has teams of people busy distributing meals in cardboard boxes.
“Small businesses are growing, charitable people are preparing food to distribute for free. There is unparalleled determination,” says Issaka Oumarou, who heads one association backing the military regime.
– ‘Don’t need the French’ –
The festive atmosphere contrasts with the angry slogan on everyone’s lips.
“Down with France,” down with its politics, its president and its soldiers.
The French soldiers inside cannot hear the cacophony from their enclave, protected by a substantial security system.
“We don’t need the French. Our army can readily do the job without them,” says one youth at the rally, Oumar.