On the morning of July 26, Niger became the seventh country to fall to a coup in West and Central Africa in just the past three years, when its president, Mohamed Bazoum, was detained in a military takeover. The coup was immediately met with regional and international condemnation that thus far, when combined with sanctions, has yet to dislodge the putschists from power. The ouster of Bazoum presents major challenges for not only the Sahel, but far beyond.
The Niger coup plotters, led by General Abdourahamane Tiani, call themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). Since the coup, they have tried to force Bazoum to formerly resign in a bid to gain more legitimacy. However, Bazoum has thus far refused to do so while regional and international representatives work to restore him to power. The CNSP is threatening to charge him with high treason.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Monetary and Economic Union immediately followed the coup with harsh sanctions. “With immediate effect, the bloc has suspended all commercial transactions with Niger, frozen its state assets in the regional central bank, frozen assets of the state and state enterprises in commercial banks, and suspended all financial assistance with regional development banks,” Reuters reported. The World Bank, European Union, France, Netherlands, Canada, and the United States have all also suspended aid of various forms. And, just as dramatic, Nigeria stopped exporting electricity to its northern neighbor, of which Niger gets 70 percent of its power needs.
Despite rolling blackouts and the rising prices of imported food, civilians have been holding demonstrations in Niger’s capitol of Niamey in support of the coup plotters. It is at these public demonstrations one can see Russian flags being displayed.
Russia has been waging a disinformation campaign across Niger and much of the Sahel for a number of years now, in an effort to gain influence and lucrative contracts over natural resources (Niger is a major source of Uranium). The infamous Wagner group has been a central figure in those efforts. Just days before his death, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin released a recruiting video that appeared to have been shot in Africa. While certainly ready to take advantage of the situation, Russia and Wagner do not seem to be responsible for the coup itself. To analysts, the coup outwardly seems more due to Niger’s internal power struggles rather than a product of any Russian disinformation campaign or other efforts. Though, certainly Russia stands ready to take advantage of the chaos as has been seen in the past. When French forces were kicked out of Mali, Malian authorities turned to Wagner to fill the security gap.
U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has also expressed his doubts that Russia had anything to do with the coup in an interview with the BBC, “I think what happened, and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but… they tried to take advantage of it.” He then went on to ominously warn, “Every single place that this Wagner group has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed.”
Many nations were caught off guard by the coup, with the United States and France particularly so. Secretary Blinken visited Niger in March as part of a trip to the region. During the visit, Blinken labeled the country, “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.” He also gave the same stark warnings about Wagner and Russian influence he would make a few months later after the coup. The coup and the sight of Russian flags being proudly displayed in support of the junta behind the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum, must have been extremely disheartening for U.S. policy makers.
While the U.S. has thus far avoided much of the ire by coup supporters, France, a key ally of the U.S. in the region, has not. On August 25, the CNSP ordered the French ambassador to leave the country. At the time of this writing, the French ambassador has refused to leave Niger with the French ministry saying that such orders can only come from the legitimate head of Niger, President Mohamed Bazoum. The CNSP has cut off electricity and water to the French embassy and consulates.
The potential ouster of French officials from Niger is also very problematic for the U.S. Both the U.S. and France maintain military bases in Niger with more than a thousand troops each deployed there. This is part of counterterrorism efforts not only in Niger, but in the Sahel and East Africa regions also. For the U.S., its bases in Niger play an important role in intelligence collection and help it monitor situations such as Libya, Boko Haram, and the civil war in Sudan. The loss of a key ally in those efforts could have dramatic consequences in the struggle against violent jihadism. So important is Niger to U.S. interests, the Biden administration has thus far refused to call the ouster of Bazoum a coup. Calling the situation a “coup” would immediately trigger congressional legislation mandating military assistance to that country, which is unlikely to be able to defend itself effectively from Muslim extremists, to be suspended. Less than three weeks after the coup, an Islamic state group (known as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) launched an attack that killed 17 of Niger’s soldiers.
The fear among foreign policy experts is that the collapse of Niger under a military junta could form an alliance of military regimes from Guinea’s Atlantic coast to Sudan’s coast on the Red Sea. It would then be likely to export chaos and insecurity to the region and beyond while also upending key African institutional progress. The region would become even more fertile for Muslim extremists, and a hot bed for spreading anti-Western sentiment. Russia’s gaining influence in the region will only make the situation worse—both regionally and further abroad.
The events in Niger are still very fluid. There has been talk by regional powers of a military intervention to restore the leadership of Mohamed Bazoum, who came to the presidency in the first peaceful transfer of power since Niger’s independence. However, the fear is that a war would spread beyond Niger’s borders and become regional. For the time being, diplomatic solutions are being pursued around the clock while the region stands on the brink.