Niger’s Coup Signals Trouble

After a military-backed overthrow of the civilian government, putsch leaders appear to have invited in Russia as chances of negotiation recede

Niger’s Coup Signals Trouble
Supporters wave Russian flags and a placard with an anti-France slogan as they rally in support of Niger’s junta in Niamey. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, the large, landlocked West African nation of Niger made it to the front pages of Western newspapers. It had nothing to do with coups, conflict, politics, jihadists or even the impoverished country’s multiple famines. The U.S. government wanted to prove that Iraq presented an existential threat to the world in 2003. A shipment of yellowcake — the canary-colored chalk necessary for nuclear power and bombs — had made its way from Nigerien uranium mines to Saddam Hussein, they claimed. Iraq would soon be made whole with democracy and a robust Western security presence to get it on its way to stability, and the world a safer place.

The Niger-Iraq connection was, of course, all just a spectacular ruse to justify an invasion for the sake of some poorly thought-out strategic purpose in a resource-rich part of the world. Said uranium delivery never took place. The overthrow of Iraq’s government had nothing to do with democracy. 

Fast-forward to this first week of August 2023. Niger marked 63 years of independence from French rule. Nigerien and Russian flags peppered a crowd gathered in celebration of not only their freedom from the “ancien” European power but in support of the new self-proclaimed leader of the country, who staged a coup d’etat against the popularly elected leader the week before. Abdourahmane Tchiani — the head of the presidential guard who turned on his boss, President Mohamed Bazoum, who was allegedly about to fire him — seized the role as head of state with the military’s support. 

Several factors at play made his putsch popular with the public and therefore more likely to stick, despite international efforts to revert to civilian rule. Many of those factors are purely domestic, though competing global powers also have a role to play in the mess. At the same time, however, the world as we know it is very different from what it was at the turn of the millennium. The cascade of coups and their aftermath in the Sahel — six countries in three years — is a reflection of that change. 

Nigeriens are going through a slew of challenges similar to those that Iraqis experienced not long after the first strike on Baghdad. Raging jihadist insurgencies, vicious domestic political infighting, weak institutions, dire economic and physical insecurity, regional instability, a flood of foreign military personnel that local communities distrust and industry professionals wanting in on lucrative contracts. The financing, training and equipping of the country’s soldiers on the parts of Western capitals was guaranteed as long as the elected leader vowed to stay the course on democratic governance, even if everyone knew the promises or prospects were shallow. Or just plain hollow.

Niger is also not Iraq. Although democratic institutions were nascent, Nigeriens voted for president Mohamed Bazoum in a relatively free and fair election. He and his close friend and predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, transferred power peacefully. Both invited foreign support to fight off jihadists as well as critical aid dollars to feed the underserved and spawn economic development. And Bazoum’s commitment to democracy seemed as sincere as his desire to mitigate extremism, even if by all appearances only modest progress had been made on both fronts. But Niger is in the throes of disruption, with a tangle of interrelated domestic and regional economic, climate, security and political crises that have made democracy a difficult goal to achieve. 

The interests of external players — even though they may perceive their efforts as helpful — have aggravated the instability. Anti-Western sentiment — particularly directed at France and the U.S. — is boiling hot in the Sahel. At the same time, however, global economic and political power balances have shifted toward a new situation that is only in the earliest stages of taking shape, and it is one in which the West has less power. 

France, long after its formal release of colonial power in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, maintained military bases and exploitative mining practices in multiple countries for decades. As the sole buyer of Niger’s uranium for 40-plus years, its monopoly on uranium stocks broke only in the early part of this century, when it faced competition and extensively diversified import sources. Its presence remained, however, with hundreds to over 1,000 French troops and legionnaires regularly stationed at its base in Madama on the border with its northern neighbor, Libya. The United States, having followed the lead of France in the Sahel until the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, emerged as a key partner and investor in the region’s counterterrorism and border security efforts alongside France by mid-decade, building up a small base of its own in Agadez. Niger’s success as a partner in democracy concurrently became part of the narrative.

On the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the country earlier this year, Antony Blinken, speaking in the capital of Niamey, hailed Niger as a bastion of democratic stability in a sea of Sahelian chaos. But the internal reality is something quite different. Although their status is much improved over the past 20 years, Nigeriens are among the most economically, educationally and nutritionally deprived populations on the planet. The U.N. ranked Niger the least developed country in the world just two years ago. Over 90% of the population lives on less than $5 a day and over 40% on less than $2 a day. UNICEF, the U.N. agency focused on children, notes that over 50% of children aged 7 to 16 are not in school. Only 1 in 7 has access to electricity and only half have clean water to drink, rates that plummet in the rural areas that make up most of the country. And physical security is never a certainty. Nigeriens’ concerns are still centered on finding work, feeding their families and surviving past the age of 40. When Tchiani took over, the central state was still weak and the military being built up by Western governments clearly had no interest in maintaining a civilian democratic state. Even Tchiani’s post-coup statements about ensuring good governance — whether sincere or not — are a mirror of the popular view that democracy as the West envisioned it just wasn’t delivering.

This is hardly to say that the Americans and Europeans are the bogeymen deserving all the blame. Niger receives 40% of its income from their foreign aid, and the country now has multiple other clients mining its minerals. China and Turkey, meanwhile, have worked their way into mining and construction rights in Niger and other parts of the region along with Russia. These newer players have not necessarily treated the Sahelian people or the natural environment any better. But the long legacy of pain inflicted by French dominance — a perception reinforced by troubled U.S.-allied counterterrorism missions — makes it the easy scapegoat to justify a coup that kicks out Westerners and their democracy-for-security carrot-and-stick diplomacy. A sizable contingent of Nigeriens and their neighbors are expressing that they want autonomy and agency over how they govern, and with a lot less of the West’s involvement. Tchiani is jumping on the bandwagon of the increasingly popularly held belief that democracy is a kind of white man’s shell game to keep the continent poor, powerless and under the thumb of the old colonial master by other means — a message perpetuated by Russian misinformation and disinformation. 

Not all of Niger’s neighbors are on board with the coup, however. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States, from which Niger is now suspended, has imposed sanctions and says it is ready to intervene militarily if need be. This posture is also being labeled as serving the needs of France, against which neighboring pro-Russia leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as Guinea — also suspended members following coups of their own — have vowed to defend Tchiani if the French-aligned body intervenes with force. The irony is that while Niger’s coup leader curses an overbearing and ineffective West, he laments their threats to cut the military aid that he needs to fend off the country’s insurgencies. And he refuses to negotiate a return to civilian rule even as an ultimatum from opposed neighbors intensifies. Should Niger, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso unite against neighboring states in response to sanctions or more violent measures, Tchiani’s next steps could mean the difference between protracted domestic struggle for Niger and region-wide interstate, and possibly intercontinental war.

Now back to those Russian flags at the party in Niamey. Neither Russia nor the private military company Wagner Group are proven to have had a hand in Niger’s dismantling. But a face-to-face connection between Tchiani’s government and the Wagner Group is reported to have taken place in Bamako since the takeover. It makes sense. The public-private enterprise has established a playbook for pinpointing domestic grievances, exploiting them to create chaos and finding the gap through which to influence local actors in its favor. The leader of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, publicly praised Tchiani’s move in the following days, and the Nigerien ambassador to Washington, Kiari Liman-Tinguri, believes the organization was somehow involved. The moment is certainly ripe for Russia to step in to claim the mantle with Tchiani and his Malian and Burkinabe friends if the returns outweigh the risks. By successfully marketing itself as the “anti-imperialist” security alternative to a conspiring West in other Sahelian countries, Russia could very well insert itself into Nigerien politics and security domains where the Europeans and Americans once stood. And it need not spend hundreds of millions on drone bases or thousands of troops. Russia needs only a hook to justify its purpose with a critical mass willing to believe in it.

Until, that is, Nigeriens discover that its pretenses are as false and self-motivated as yellowcake shipments to Iraq. It is likely that the average Nigerien today knows nothing of how the country got whipped up into that long global war on another continent a couple of decades ago. But the war set in common collective memory the stereotype that the West uses democracy as a buzzword to lie, cajole and set up cooperative alliances for itself — not for the people the democracy is supposed to serve. 

In the end, a country’s sense of security and good governance ultimately isn’t all about eliminating terrorist threats and holding elections, even though they are critical pieces of it. Africans are screaming for a greater sense of autonomy from foreigners in all things political and economic, as well as in how they relate to creating a safe environment. That transition is hard following centuries of lopsided dependency. But the unipolar power world that the West once inhabited has become one in which Niger and its neighbors have multiple options for business partners and political and security allies. For the moment, the power lies with Tchiani to choose. But if he decides to engage in a wider war with his neighbors, it will invite more foreign involvement, not less. And it will drive his country into the ground. Nigeriens — and all Sahelians — will suffer more than they already do. 

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