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Last week, it was Mali, the day before yesterday, Burkina Faso, yesterday Guinea, and today Niger that were shaken by a military putsch. On the evening of July 26, national programmes were abruptly interrupted when a dozen soldiers appeared on television to proclaim the impeachment of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been in power since 2021. In his speech, Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane announced the suspension of institutions and the closure of the country’s borders, justifying the coup by the collapse of the security situation in the country, which is home to Western military bases, notably American and French.
The announcement came after a tense day in the capital, Niamey. At around 7 a.m., soldiers abducted the Head of State and his wife from their residence. Located inside the presidential palace, the residence is normally under the protection of the elite unit led by General Tchiani. According to several Nigerien and foreign sources, General Tchiani triggered this movement in response to President Bazoum’s bid to remove him from office. Mohamed Bazoum has always been a loyal democrat, opposed to the methods of the Wagner paramilitary forces and to putschists in neighbouring countries, and seen as a positive figure by many European and American leaders.
In Niamey, the relative calm of the first few days following the military takeover has given way to rallying support for the putschists and fears of a fiery outburst. Since July 30, there have been scenes of violence against Western embassies, with hundreds of demonstrators displaying Russian flags around the capital. Violence has also been reported, notably at the headquarters of the former ruling party, the PNDS-Tarayya, where demonstrators set fire to and severely assaulted people leaving the premises. Amid the security situation, the United States and several European countries have initiated the evacuation of their nationals from the country. France notably evacuated 577 nationals.
The regional geopolitical situation is all the more explosive. Rarely has the regional economic organisation, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), been as assertive regarding the political situation of a member state. Since the political instability in Niger, ECOWAS has been more determined than ever to intervene militarily to restore Mohamed Bazoum to power. The West African bloc agreed on August 10 to deploy a regional intervention force. It took Ecowas seven weeks to deploy 7,000 troops to the Gambia in 2017, to compel President Yahya Jammeh to go into exile and cede the presidency to Adama Barrow, who had defeated him in an election. The mission in Niger would be much more complicated, given that the Niger army has garnered local support while ECOWAS has been talking tough. Its army has been extensively trained over the years by the United States and has been battle-tested for years in the fight against a insurgency. Spokespersons for the putschists in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have subsequently warned the regional organisation against any attempt to intervene.
Europeans and Americans find themselves confronted with a delicate security backdrop. Failure in the fight against the jihadist groups, particularly in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, has spurred the local armies to turn against their civilian authorities and undermine Western attempts to advance democracy. For years, France, the European Union, and the United States have supported the democratic government of Niger across many domains: security, development, and humanitarian aid. Niger occupies a strategic position for French-American cooperation in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Nearly 1,500 French and around 1,000 American soldiers are based in the country. American drones constantly monitor the Sahel and provide decisive intelligence for French operations, including the elimination of the leader of the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, in September 2021. Since General Tiani took power, all counter-terrorism operations conducted with Niger have been suspended.
Of all the countries in the region, Nigeria would have the most to fear from a fresh destabilisation in Niger. As the leading power in Ecowas and the most populous country in Africa (215 million inhabitants), Nigeria shares a border with Niger that stretches for more than 1,600 kilometres and fears that letting the putschist leaders settle in Niamey may lead to widespread insecurity, especially if the putschists do not respond to the security and social demands of its population over time. Nigeria fears that the grip of the putschists will only encourage the Nigerian army’s thirst for power. Nigeria had already experienced three decades of military dictatorship before the return to democracy in 1999. The Nigerian president is already facing a precarious state of insecurity propelled by several non-state entities: armed criminal gangs in the centre and north-west; terrorist groups, including Boko-Haram, in the north-east; and the agitation of separatist groups in the south-east.
With Russia continuing its advance on the African continent — Burkina Faso has turned to Moscow, and Mali has called on the mercenaries of the Wagner group — the West is in real danger of losing Niger. The head of the Russian armed militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has wasted no time. In a purported message, he is already reaching out to the putschists in Niamey, claiming that his troops can restore order and eliminate the terrorist groups. The collapse of the democratic regime in Niger risks becoming a new front for the Russian war machine and an accelerator for the expansion of the Kremlin’s influence in the Sahel. Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium. Seizing part of the mineral wealth that can be reinvested in the war effort in Ukraine is likely to become a strategic ambition for the Russians.
Now that President Bazoum, who was one of the last allies of Paris and Washington in the region, has been removed from power, if the putschists manage to consolidate control over the next several weeks, it will be difficult for the Americans and French to maintain a presence in Niger. In a bid to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, the putschists have already denounced several military agreements signed with France and announced their intention to terminate the functions of Niger’s ambassadors to France, the United States, Nigeria, and Togo. None of this augurs well for the fight against regional terrorism or the spread of freedom and democracy as a whole in the Sahel.
Dr Alex Vines. Sahel: After a spate of coups, what can be done? Chatham House, 4 March 2022.
Siaplay, Mounir & Werker, Eric. Will rising insecurity erase West Africa’s economic development gains? Brookings Institution, 3 February 2023.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Fact Sheet: Military Coup in Niger. ACLED, 3 August 2023.