What you should know about the military coup in Niger — #96
Amid poverty, violence and climate change, Niger has been seen as an example of relative democratic stability — what happened?
Welcome to the first-ever Thursday deep dive. The topics will vary and depend entirely on what stories or insights capture me.
You might have picked up that Niger has been in the news recently due to a military coup and reactions rippling across the globe.
Since we tend to overlook the African content when following the news, and this is an event with global geopolitical impact, it felt like a good topic for a first deep dive ...
Let's get into it:
Following similar events in neighbouring Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, Niger had a military coup on July 26th.
Appearing to have the support of the entire military, coup leaders arrested Niger's democratically elected president Mohamad Bazom and installed General Abdourahmane "Omar" Tchiani as Niger's new leader.
This is the eighth coup in West Africa in three years and the first military coup in Niger in ten years. When I read those facts, my initial reaction was, "What's going on here?". And for anyone living in a more peaceful part of the world, military coups at any interval seem like a distant concept ...
So let's look into this a bit closer and why the events in Niger have global geopolitical importance.
First, some essential historical context ...
Niger is located in the region called "West Africa". It was part of French West Africa, a federation of eight French colonies: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Benin and Niger. This federation existed from 1895 until 1958, but these countries remain closely connected today, especially economically.
Geographically, Niger is the largest country in West Africa, located in the centre of the Sahel — the region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. The Sahel spans the African continent from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east.
The region has abundant human and natural resources but struggles with environmental, political and security challenges. This military takeover was the Sahel region's eighth since 2020. But Niger has been seen as an example of relative democratic stability in recent years.
Strategically, Niger hosts both French and US military bases and has been the cornerstone of United States counterterrorism efforts in West Africa. There are currently 1,500 French troops and 1,100 American troops in Niger. The United States state department describes Niger as "important as a linchpin for stability in the Sahel" and "a reliable counter-terrorism partner" against various Islamist groups linked to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.
What is the reason behind the coup?
After gaining independence in the 1960s, many young African countries struggle to deepen and institutionalise democracy. Many countries in the Sahel have experienced violent extremism, and there have been repeated abuse of executive power, economic decline, violation of human rights and worsening effects of climate change. Violence, conflict, and crime have surged over the last decade, creating significant challenges for countries within and outside the region.
France has maintained a presence in their former colonies. This has partly been for trade reasons, but they've also kept a military presence in the region. This has caused long-term tensions that now seem to be reaching new heights.
With escalating violence, there has been a lot of criticism towards the French post-colonial presence in the region, mainly due to its failure to combat the spread of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel. French troops withdrew from Mali in 2022 and Burkina Faso in 2023 following military coups.
Further, climate change is causing desertification to spread southwards from the Sahara into the Sahel, adding to the instability in the region.
Niger's people consistently rank as having the lowest living standards anywhere in the world. With a very young population and high unemployment, Niger has seen many young men joining extremist groups and gangs.
While the situation has escalated over the last years, the primary reason for the coup now seems to be a conflict among Nigers civilian and military elite. But, there have also been reports suggesting that the coup was initiated after the coup leader was about to be fired.
So, how has the world reacted to the coup?
The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, the United Nations, France and the United States have all condemned the coup and called for the reinstatement of President Mohamed Bazoum. Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa released milder statements of concern.
On the other hand ...
Russia had a seemingly sympathetic reaction to the power grab. The leader of Russia's Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, reportedly described the military takeover as a triumph.
One of the global worries following the coup isn't purely that it threatens the broader regional instability – paving the way for jihadist groups – but also opening the door to further Russian influence.
One likely scenario is that the Niger junta deploy the Wagner Group, the Russian-owned private militia active in Ukraine, to support the coup. This was openly done in Mali after the coup in 2022, and Wagner is also rumoured to support the junta in Burkina Faso, but its coup leaders have denied those accusations.
A pro-Russian movement has developed in Niger and neighbouring countries, and both Mali and Burkina Faso claim that Russia is an important strategic ally. Before the coup, President Bazoum had complained of disinformation campaigns by the Wagner Group against his government, and one aspect of this is that the Wagner Group has exploited mineral resources in other African countries to fund its operations. There is little doubt that it would like to do the same in Niger, which is rich in uranium — producing 7% of all global supply.
Sidenote: Russia has been very active (as have China and The United States) in building relationships with African countries, proving increasingly important when the Western world has put them in the freezer. More about that some other time.
What responses have we seen to the coup, and what happens now?
Last week, ECOWAS leaders met in Nigeria's capital Abuja, to frame a response to the coup, and to impose trade and financial sanctions on Niger. They gave the coup leaders a week to reinstate the democratically elected president, saying that military intervention in Niger was not off the table. "[The] military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality," said Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, at the beginning of last week.
From captivity, Bazoum has been able to talk to diplomats, write an op-ed for Washington Post, and call for resistance to the coup. The United States has expressed deep concern for Bazom and his family (his wife and son), who are also detained since they are running out of food and living under increasingly dire conditions. A close adviser says they remain healthy but live without electricity, with only rice and canned goods left to eat.
Mediation efforts are underway, led by Nigeria and other regional powers. But the junta has warned against outside intervention, and with the military governments of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali expressing support for the coup, fears of a broader conflict are mounting.
ECOWAS had issued a Sunday deadline allowing Niger's junta leaders to restore the democratically elected president. The coup leaders responded to the bloc's threat of military action by closing Niger's airspace. This is problematic for the African economy as airspace over Sudan and Libya is already closed to commercial aviation, and the addition of Niger means creates a block from Western Niger to the Red Sea.
Nigeria has cut electricity supplies to intensify pressure on the country's coup leaders. Over the weekend, Nigeria's Senate discussed the situation after President Bola Tinubu informed it about the Ecowas resolutions imposing sanctions and the possible use of military force. However, Nigerian media reported strong opposition to military intervention, especially from senators representing states near the long border the two countries share.
Several countries are also cutting their foreign aid to Niger to put pressure on the coup leaders. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger is heavily dependent on foreign aid and received more than $3.3 billion a year in official development assistance in 2021.
Finally ... Why is this one getting so much attention in a region with constant military coups?
The presence of the power struggle between Russia and the West makes this coup a higher stake globally, than the other recent coups in the region.
The fears of a broader conflict in West Africa are mounting as the military governments of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali are expressing support for the coup while other regional leaders, like Nigeria's newly elected President Bola Tinubu, regard the coup as a "litmus test for West Africa’s democracy."
Maybe most of all: Niger used to be seen as the country that showed the troubled region that a different path forward was possible. It once embodied the region’s hopes for stability and progress. Losing its democratically elected president, that path now seems far gone.
That was all for today, I hope you learned something new.