Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, in an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, said he believed there was ‘zero chance’ of the military kicking him out of government.
They did just that two months later in a coup that has rendered the country unstable and is threatening to worsen violent crises in the region.
A group of soldiers in the presidential guard announced on national television on Wednesday, July 26, that they had decided to put an end to Bazoum’s administration because of “the continuing deterioration of the security situation and poor economic and social governance”. The following day, the army declared support for the coup. On Friday, the coup leaders suspended the constitution and declared General Abdourahmane Tchiani, commander of the presidential guard, as the country’s new ruler.
The military rulers have since detained Bazoum, senior government officials, and at least 180 members of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS). There have been protests both in support of and against the coup by people in the country.
ECOWAS vs the Junta
Various countries and international organisations, including the United Nations and African Union, have condemned the coup. But some of the reactions have been hard-hitting in ways that suggest military options may be explored in restoring Niger’s democratic government.
On Sunday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced that it was suspending transactions with Niger, freezing the country’s assets in its banks, and imposing a travel ban on the putschists and their families. It demanded Bazoum’s immediate release and reinstatement and gave the Nigerien junta one week to comply.
ECOWAS has faced a lot of criticism in the past about the ineffectiveness of its approach to military coups in the region. West and Central Africa are infamously described as the coup belt because of their history of political instability. The first military coup in Africa took place in Togo, and between 1960 and 2010, there were over one hundred coups (both failed and successful) recorded in West Africa, far ahead of any other region on the continent. ECOWAS responded to the recent chain of coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali with economic and diplomatic sanctions, including suspending membership. But this doesn’t seem to have yielded results.
So with Niger, it is trying something different.
Ecowas has said it may resort to the “use of force” if its demands are not met. To show it was serious, it called for an immediate meeting between the member states’ chiefs of defence. The regional coalition had used a similar tactic in 2017 when former Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, tried to remain unlawfully in power despite losing the national election.
But the coup leaders in Niger have not taken this development lightly. They stress that they are determined to defend the country’s territory from foreign interference.
And they are not alone. They have received backing from Burkina Faso and Mali, other West African countries currently ruled by military governments.
In a joint statement released on Monday, the two countries announced that any military intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war on them. Such an intervention, they said, could lead to disastrous consequences, including destabilising the entire region. They described the sanctions against Niger as “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” and said they would not be observing them.
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, who was elected ECOWAS chairman last month, is known to favour pushing forward with difficult decisions, and so observers are anxious to see what actions will be taken if the ultimatum lapses with the coup leaders still holding on to power.
Violent extremist actors
Armed confrontation between ECOWAS and the armed forces of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger risks distracting the various countries from terrorism within their borders. Insurgent groups operating in the region, such as Boko Haram, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), could exploit the ensuing chaos to recruit foot soldiers and further wreak havoc on civilian and state targets.
But even without this, extremist groups are known to take advantage of political instability and the collapse of state institutions. This was, for example, what happened in Mali after the March 2012 coup d’état as Tuareg forces and jihadist insurgents occupied the northern region.
Since 2012, the Sahel region has seen an alarming rise in violent extremism, which is now gradually spreading to countries along the Gulf of Guinea. The crisis has displaced millions of people and now accounts for nearly half of all terrorism-related deaths worldwide.
Niger occupies a crucial spot for armed groups because it serves as a trafficking route for arms from Libya to other parts of the Sahel, including northern Nigeria and Mali.
France vs Russia
Another cause for worry is that the coup could trigger a proxy war for control between France and Russia.
Being a former French colony, Niger Republic has had strong economic and political ties with France since it gained independence. After withdrawing its forces from Mali because of strong opposition from the military leaders and locals, France redeployed hundreds of its soldiers to Niger, where it has a military base. There are also economic ties between the countries. According to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), 8.3 per cent of Niger’s imports come from France, which is second only to China. Most of France’s radioactive chemicals (21 per cent) are also sourced from Niger, which has one of the largest uranium reserves in the world.
But the wave of anti-French sentiments sweeping across the Sahel has also found a home in Niger. Opposition parties, civil society groups, and a significant number of people in the general population had always been sceptical of Bazoum’s romance with France and Europe.
Since the coup, protesters have been seen burning the French flag and hoisting Russia’s colours while also shouting slogans against and in support of either country. They complained about France’s perceived interference in their affairs. Over the weekend, demonstrators damaged properties of the French embassy and tried scaling the fence into the building, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to issue a warning.
“Anyone who attacks French nationals, the military, diplomats, or French interests will spur an immediate and uncompromising response from France,” Macron said.
Contributing to the heightened tension in Niger is the allegation from the Junta that France is plotting to intervene militarily in order to reinstate the deposed president. The French government has denied this.
Meanwhile, Russia has positioned itself as a worthy ally to African countries, especially given the rise of anti-West sentiments. It has vigorously expanded its influence on the continent in recent years by deploying mercenaries, providing arms, securing resource deals, supporting coups, and spreading propaganda. The Kremlin especially exerted its influence through Wagner, a private military force it funded until this year. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly praised the Niger coup in a recording shared on Telegram, lauding the coup leaders for getting rid of “their colonisers”. He also appeared to be offering his company’s services.
French forces withdrew from Mali following the agreement between the military rulers and Wagner. Malian authorities have also demanded the suspension of the UN stabilisation mission in the country, MINUSMA, which is set to fully exit by December. The same trend can be seen in the Central African Republic. French troops have left, giving way to an increased Russian military presence, and there have been repeated protests against the local UN peacekeeping mission. Ditto Burkina Faso, which gave French troops a quit notice this year and is working closely with Russia.
The recent coup in Niger, in fact, happened on the eve of the Russia-Africa Summit, with some analysts suggesting this may not have been a coincidence.
Worsening humanitarian prospects
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has 4.3 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance, constituting about 17 per cent of the population. It also has nearly 1.9 million children who are acutely malnourished and hosts over 660,000 internally displaced people and refugees.
As a result, Niger relies heavily on aid from other countries to support its citizens. In 2021, it received nearly $1.8 billion in government aid. That same year, official development assistance accounted for about 12 per cent of its gross national income — which is way above the average of 3.3 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But one consequence of the coup is that many countries are now withdrawing their support.
The European Union, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all cut off financial support to the country, and the United States says the continued provision of its assistance is “clearly in jeopardy”. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Saturday: “Our economic and security partnership with Niger, which is significant, hundreds of millions of dollars, depends on the continuation of the democratic governance and constitutional order that has been disrupted.”
If the trend continues, it will limit the volume of resources available to fund essential public services and provide welfare assistance to vulnerable people within the country.
Humanitarian activities have also taken a downturn. Action Against Hunger recently stated that it has temporarily suspended some of its operations in Niger, possibly due to the border closure and restrictions on movement.
“Niger has been in the midst of its worst humanitarian crisis in a decade, which has been exacerbated by a late rainy season and long periods of alternating drought and floods. From now until the end of August, cases of child malnutrition are expected to increase significantly, making our interventions even more necessary,” the global humanitarian organisation said.
The fallout will affect Nigeriens, who may cross the border in search of refuge, and citizens of neighbouring countries currently seeking shelter in Niger.
On the question of whether the Nigerien Junta can actually deliver on its promise to stop the “continuing deterioration of security” in the country, developments in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali do not encourage optimism.
Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that over 9,000 people were killed in both countries last year, more than doubling the death toll in 2021. Last month, the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) noted that violence targeting civilians by militant jihadist groups in Mali was “nearly five times more frequent in the last 12 months than in the year before the junta took power”.
“Mali’s junta justified its coup based on insecurity … yet the Malian junta has not demonstrated a commitment or capacity to address security concerns,” observed ACSS research fellow Daniel Eizenga.
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