The Niger coup, which deposed elected president Mohamed Bazoum just hours before the start of the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, is not the first coup in the Sahel region in recent years. There is fear that it will not be the last either, in a region where the internal factors of failure intersect with foreign intervening influences. Niger has become an arena of confrontation on multiple fronts, with diverse and competing headlines, slogans and agendas.
Between generations of colonisation
Competing over Niger are a former coloniser who is losing ground in the vast Sahel and a new herald of liberation from imperialism. From the track record and image of this new herald across the numerous frontiers of this competition, doubts arise about how different it actually is from the former coloniser in everything it casts itself as an alternative to – from imperialist tendencies to dominance over what lies above and beneath the earth in terms of natural resources. These resources are the fighting grounds in a pivotal region, on a continent that represents one of the poles of the future and serves as Putin's key to unlocking the isolation around Moscow. (1) On the other side, according to the United States’ assessments, Niger is an important location that should not fall. (2)
This is how Niger, the African nation that the world has grown accustomed to hearing about in the context of famine risks over the past years, appears now on its way to making headlines as a battleground in the competition between different generations of colonial powers. It is in the process of becoming another arena of the global Cold War, which is unfolding on multiple fronts in the fields of economy, politics and technology, as well as in traditional war zones, notably and most intensely in Ukraine, which has been facing a Russian invasion for a year and a half.
The context of the coup
The Niger coup came in the aftermath of a second wave of coups in Africa, following a period of political and economic reform during which several of the continent’s nations managed to transition to democracy. Before that, Africa had experienced a first wave of coups that encompassed a large number of its countries. These periods can be described as follows:
- The coup revolution: During the 1970s and 1980s, coups in Africa were a regular occurrence and a general condition that only a handful of nations were spared of. In regions like the Sahel and West Africa, for example, Senegal remained and still remains the only country that has not experienced a military coup. This nation remains a ray of light in a region whose political systems experienced turmoil and only scarce moments of stability in governance. France especially was not uninvolved in these coups, whether in their preparation, organisation, approval or support.
- The period of stumbling democratic transition: This phase began in the early 1990s, with France attempting to support this direction officially. This support was evident in the 16th Conference of Heads of State of Africa and France held by former French President François Mitterrand in mid-1990 in the city of La Baule-Escoublac in western France, attended by several African leaders. Mitterrand's main message at the time urged African leaders to adopt political systems that would establish multi-party democracies and open the door to competitive elections. This period hit its peak at the start of the millennium, where several African countries successfully achieved democratic transitions, culminating in the establishment of a legal arsenal binding continental and regional frameworks to reject regime changes through coups, and imposing automatic penalties on those involved.
- The second wave of coups: Following the period of democratic transition, known as the "African Spring", a sense of frustration prevailed due to the failure of nations that had transitioned to democracy to fulfil the basic aspirations of the Sahel’s population, particularly in terms of development and security. This failure led to a series of coups, starting in Mali, which experienced three coups within a decade. The trend then extended to Guinea, which witnessed two coups during the same period. It also reached Burkina Faso, which oscillated over the past decade between a situation labelled as a revolution and the beginning of an African Spring that ousted its former president, Blaise Compaoré, alongside two coup attempts, the most recent of which led the current president, young Captain Ibrahim Traoré, to assume power in Ouagadougou. He now leads one of the strongest cases of rebellion against the former colonial power in the Sahel and West Africa.
The parties to the confrontation in Niger
The confrontation seems almost inevitable in Niger between two sides: one clings to its legitimacy, while the other clings to the seat of power grabbed only days ago. The speed of their mobilisation and the gravity of the language used indicate that both sides view the crisis and its strategic consequences as serious. In the first camp, the leaders of the recent coup, backed by their fellow rebels, stand against the subordination of Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea-Conakry to the West, particularly France.
In the opposing camp stands the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, exceptionally supported by both regional and international groups. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set a deadline that ended on Sunday, 6 August 2023. It announced that if the coup plotters refused to relinquish power and reinstate President Bazoum, they would proceed with military intervention to thwart the coup. ECOWAS's stance has strong and explicit support from Western countries, particularly France. Paris had already completed the evacuation of its citizens, along with hundreds of citizens from other European countries, from Niamey before dawn on Thursday, 3 August, in anticipation of potential hostilities on the 63rd anniversary of Niger's independence from France.
With the intensification of the signs of confrontation between the parties and the expansion of its domains in terms of politics, security, and diplomacy, a resolution is not expected to be quick or easy. This is based on realities and variables after the ousting of President Bazoum. The party supporting the coup relies on an escalating internal support base fuelled by a blend of national and patriotic sentiments. The rise of a president belonging to a small tribal group to the presidency of a country like Niger alone is sufficient to incite nationalistic sentiments against him. However, when foreign powers openly declare their support for him and strive to reinstate him to power, even through the use of force, that becomes the best recipe to amplify national and patriotic fervour to its fullest extent. It becomes the most effective tool for the coup plotters to harness in mobilizing popular anger.
On the other hand, influential neighbouring countries, particularly Algeria and Mali, have declared their opposition to military intervention. Algeria has declared several positions since the coup, between announcements and statements. Among the latest of these positions is its “deep adherence” to the restoration of the constitutional order in Niger, and its “support” for President Bazoum as a “legitimate president” while warning against “foreign military intervention intentions”. (3) Similarly, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Conakry declared in a joint statement that any war against Niger would be considered a war against them. (4) To reaffirm this position, the head of the ruling military council in Bamako, Assimi Goïta, received the leaders of the Niger coup (5). This reception coincided with a meeting of the chiefs of staff of ECOWAS, to put the final touches on what is believed to be a plan for military intervention in Niger. It appears that the decision to intervene, which international powers such as Russia (6), China (7) and Italy (8) have expressed reservations about, was made shortly after the coup occurred.
In the midst of this regional and international division, ECOWAS appears determined to proceed with its plan for military intervention in Niger, seeking to punish the coup leaders, restore President Bazoum to power, and thus deter any future coup attempt. What shall settle the issue and determine the organisation’s next steps is Nigeria’s stance, the largest nation in West Africa. While former president Muhammadu Buhari was less enthusiastic about confronting the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea given his complicated circumstances - including his health condition, social affiliations, and strategic positioning - it appears that the new president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is spearheading the battle against the putschists. Nigeria has implemented punitive measures against its neighbour Niger, including border closures and power cuts; and its president considers the continued detention of Bazoum to be an insult to all regional leaders. For its own part, Senegal has declared its readiness to participate in the military operation, (9) which can be viewed as a response to the joint statement by the coup-supporting axis of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Conakry. This trio are considered by Dakar to be adversaries of its regime, which is facing several internal political crises.
Unlike Senegal’s tough stance, Mauritania, which holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, put forth a remarkable position. In two statements over the course of a week, Nouakchott expressed its rejection of the coup and opposition to the unconstitutional seizing of power. Although it is not a member of ECOWAS, it is part of the camp supporting the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum. The Mauritanian president chose to make a stop in Paris during his return trip from China, and the government’s spokesman, Nany Ould Chrougha, announced his country’s willingness to consider the possibility of participating in the military operation if it were requested to do so. (10)
Niger: The “Ukraine of West Africa”?
Although the leaders of the coup in Niamey - unlike their “predecessors” in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso - come from the top ranks of the Nigerien military, and are not openly hostile to France or its presence in the region, their emphasis in their first post-coup address on the security dimension gave a strong signal from the start that their relationship with Paris would be bleak. This was further reinforced by a series of decisions and procedures by the coup leaders, such as the suspension of military agreements with France (11) and cutting the live broadcasts of Radio France Internationale and France24. These actions came in the midst of popular movements against France, which saw coup-supporters attacking the French embassy building in Niamey and raising the Russian flag during demonstrations that featured slogans in Russia importing Putin to help combat “imperialism”.
Russia was careful in the hours and days after the coup not to give the impression of being pro-coup, choosing to stick to general statements in which it expressed support for legitimacy and called for restraint. But the concrete geopolitical factors and the context of escalating competition between Russia and France in Africa suggest that Russia’s position will develop into something more decisive. If reports that the rebels in Niamey have requested support from Wagner to confront a potential military intervention (12) are confirmed, Niger could become a focal point of international conflict, becoming the Ukraine of West Africa.
While most of its cities live in total darkness, Niger lights up the skies of France’s cities with the uranium it produces. France has extended the operation of its nuclear reactors despite pledges made at climate summits in order to limit the impact of Russia gas flows. Niger is a vital point in the pathway of oil pipelines from Nigeria to Europe via Algeria, a massive project that the two energy-rich African nations are betting on to boost their growth. Europe views it as a strategic lifeline to reduce its excessive dependence on Russian energy. Niger also represents the final safe place for Washington and Paris’ forces in the Sahel region, which Western officials never fail to repeat loud and clear. This means that they will defend the continuity of this country as a Western ally, considering it is a vital part of their strategic security framework.
The crisis in Niger began mostly due to internal reasons, particularly the stumbling transfer of power between the presidents Mahamadou Issoufou and Mohamed Bazoum when Bazoum sought to exercise his full authority and appointed his men to the military establishment. However, these disputes quickly became a deeper conflict between him and the army, ending in a military coup that is on the verge of disturbing the balance of power across the entire region. Perhaps it will drag the ongoing conflict between Russia and the West into the Sahel region, ushering in a new phase. Considering the plethora of regional factors of polarisation and their interplay, this phase may evolve into a military confrontation that could escalate to open regional warfare, resembling the current situation in Ukraine in its ferocity and diverse weaponry. If ECOWAS, with Western support, succeeds in freeing Bazoum from detention, he could assume a role similar to that of President Zelenskyy. The geography of the Sahel and the Sahara render them difficult to subjugate or dominate, contrary to what those coming from overseas believe.
Translated by Rached El-Moctar
- Ibrahim Mustafa, “‘Afriqiya ar-Rusiya’ Shafrat Putin li ‘Kasr al-‘Uzla’ [Arabic: ‘Russia’s Africa’: Putin's Code for ‘Breaking Isolation]”, Independent Arabia, 2 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/5ypcknr5 (accessed 3 August 2023).
- Mohamed Salem, “An-Nufuth al-Faransi fi Ifriqiya: Irth al-Isti’mar fi Muwajahat at-Tanafus ad-Dawli [Arabic: French Influence in Africa: Colonial Legacy in the Face of International Competition]”, AfroPolicy, 10 May 2021, https://tinyurl.com/56e27aru/ (accessed 3 August 2023).
- “An-Nijar: Al-Jazaʾir Tujaddid Tamassukiha bi al-‘Awda ila an-Nidham ad-Dusturi wa Tuhathir min ay Tadakhul ʿAskari Ajnabi [Arabic: Niger: Algeria Renews its Commitment to the Restoration of Constitutional Order and Warns against Any Foreign Military Intervention]”, Algeria Press Service, 1 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/m298btne (accessed 3 August 2023).
- “Burkina Faso wa Mali fī Bayan Mushtarak: Ay Tadakhul ʿAskari fī an-Nijar Sayakun bi Mathabat I’lan Harb ʿAlayna [Arabic: Burkina Faso and Mali in a Joint Statement: Any Military Intervention in Niger Would Be Considered a Declaration of War Against Us]”, EuroNews, 31 July 2023, https://tinyurl.com/2w6pp4ph/ (3 August 2023).
- The Official Account of the Presidency of the Republic of Mali, “Son Excellence le Colonel @GoitaAssimi, Président de la Transition, Chef de l’État, Chef Suprême des Armées a reçu en audience ce mercredi, le vice-président du Conseil National pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie, le Général de Corps d’Armée Mody SALIFOU. [French: His Excellency Colonel @GoitaAssimi, President of the Transition, Head of State, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, received in audience this Wednesday the Vice-President of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, Lieutenant General Mody SALIFOU.]”, Twitter, 2 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/mrxssz4x (accessed 4 August 2023).
- Yakoota Al Ahmad, “Rusiya: At-Tahdeed bi Istikhdam al-Quwwa dhid an-Nijar Lan Yahul as-Sira’ [Arabic: Russia: Threatening to Use Force against Niger Will Not Solve the Conflict]”, Anadolu Agency, 2 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/3v2ytdn5/ (accessed 3 August 2023).
- “As-Sin: Na'mal an Yatim Hal al-Wadhe’ fi an-Nijar 'an Tariq al-Hiwar [Arabic: China: We hope that the situation in Niger will be resolved through dialogue]”, Al Mayadeen, 3 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/358btvpc/ (accessed 4 August 2023).
- “An-Nijar..Bawadir Inqisam Urobi bi Sha’n ‘Asakarat al-Azmah [Arabic: Niger and the Signs of European Division regarding the Militarisation of the Crisis]”, Sky News Arabia, 3 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/34avvmxe (accessed 4 August 2023).
- “An-Nijar..As-Sinighal Tulawweh bi Irsal Quwwat wa Tarqab li Nata'ij Ijtima' ECOWAS fi Abuja [Arabic: Niger: Senegal hints at sending troops and awaits the outcomes of ECOWAS meeting in Abuja]”, Al Jazeera Net, 3 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/nfkd6njn/ (accessed 4 August 2023).
- “Al-Hukuma: Sanadrus at-Tadakhul fi an-Nijar ḥal Taqdeem at-Talab [Arabic: The government: We will consider intervention in Niger if the request is made]”, Al Akhbar, 3 August 2023, https://alakhbar.info/?q=node/49002/ (accessed 4 August 2023).
- “Inqilabiyu an-Nijar Yalghun Ittifaqiyat ‘Askariya ma' Faransa wa Yatawa’adun bi "Rad Fawri" 'ala Ay ‘Idwan’ [Arabic: Nigerien coup leaders cancel military agreements with France and threaten ‘immediate response’ to any ‘aggression’]”, SwissInfo, 3 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/5ej6mhx8/ (accessed 4 August 2023).
- Yakoota Al Ahmad, “Masadir: Al-Majlis al-Inqilabi fī an-Nījar Talab Da'm ‘Wagner’ [Arabic: The military junta in Niger requested support from Wagner]”, Anadolu Agency, 5 August 2023, https://tinyurl.com/4yw34zst/ (accessed 5 August 2023).