A military coup in a small African country has sparked threats of military intervention backed by the US—and mass rallies in support of Russia. Why?
Remind me about Niger…
For starters, it’s pronounced Nee-jér not Ni-jur. It is the largest country located in the Sahel region in West Africa. The Arabic word ‘sahel’ (“shore”) signifies the semi-arid bit between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savannah plains in the south.
The frontline of Islamic militancy: For over a decade, nations in the Sahel have been ground zero for the resurgence of Islamic militancy—which spread downwards as the Middle East collapsed into chaos. Weapons and armed fighters entered the region starting in 2011—when Libya imploded after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, the stretch of land covering the border areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger has become a base for powerful affiliates of Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The larger crisis: The jihadists have found fertile ground in a region wracked by civil war and total absence of governance. Millions of people in six Sahel countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria—are in the midst of a severe humanitarian crisis. More than 370,000 people are displaced within Niger—which also hosts more than 250,000 refugees from its neighbours.
Why Niger matters: It has been relatively stable compared to its neighbours. And it is a critical ally for the West at a time when both China and Russia have been expanding their African footprint. Niger is also seen as an important bulwark against the spread of jihadist extremism. The country hosts both US and French bases—and around 1,000 US and 1,500 French troops are currently stationed in Niger.
Also very important to note: Niger is rich in uranium—producing 7% of all global supplies.
Ok, tell me about this coup…
This is the fifth coup in Niger’s history since it achieved independence from the French in 1960. President Mohamed Bazoum was elected to power in 2021—marking the country’s first peaceful transfer of power. Bazoum had earned a reputation for good governance—and there have been notable improvements in education and public health. And his government received significant aid from the West. Example: the EU had reserved $554 million for the 2021-2024 period to support education, governance, and sustainable growth.
The coup: On Wednesday, a group of soldiers appeared on TV to announce that they have taken control of the country. Their leader announced: “We have decided to put an end to the regime that you know”—citing the rise of extremist violence and “poor economic and social governance.” The rationale is that a strong junta is required to put down the jihadists. Soon after the announcement, the Nigerien army command declared its support for the soldiers—making the takeover official.
The new leader: is General Omar Tchiani—the commander of Niger’s presidential guards. Not much is known about him other than he was close to Bazoum’s predecessor. But Tchiani also helped block a potential coup in March 2021—right before Bazoum was due to be sworn in. His motives, however, remain unclear.
As for Bazoum: The whereabouts of the president remains unknown. It seems like Bazoum and his family are still barricaded within the presidential palace—and he spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the phone.
Hmm, so far it seems like a sad and familiar story…
Maybe it will turn out to be just another military coup. But the situation is notable for a number of reasons—including the very prominent role of external powers.
Not a ‘coup’ as yet: Let’s start with what’s happening on the ground—where government leaders are putting up a strong resistance. The foreign minister declared:
There was an attempted coup, but of course, we cannot accept it. We call on all Nigerien democratic patriots to stand up as one to say no to this factious action that tends to set us back decades and block the progress of our country.
And sources close to Bazoum say he has no intention of resigning. Also this:
It is unclear how much support the coup leaders have from the rest of the security forces, but support for Bazoum among the population and political parties appears strong. In a statement on Wednesday, a group of Nigerien political groups said the situation was “suicidal and anti-republican madness.”
A threat to intervene: These days, foreign allies prefer to make a lot of diplomatic noise—while arming their chosen side faction in a civil war. But this time, the 15-nation ECOWAS—which is an alliance of West African nations—is threatening to send troops. After a crisis summit, it issued an unusually aggressive statement:
A statement read out after the summit said that ECOWAS had "zero tolerance" for coups. The regional bloc would "take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order" if its demands were not met within a week. "Such measures may include the use of force," and military chiefs are to meet "immediately" to plan for an intervention, the statement added.
The alliance has given the junta seven days to reinstate Bazoum.
Upping the ante: ECOWAS, the EU and US have threatened to cut off foreign aid—which would be “catastrophic” for Niger. It is one of the world’s poorest countries—receiving close to $2 billion a year in development assistance. But similar ECOWAS sanctions have had little effect in other African countries—such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. That may explain the unprecedented move toward threatening military intervention.
A strong Western response: The US, France and the EU have vociferously supported ECOWAS’ tough line. That’s because the West cannot afford to lose any more ground in the Sahel:
Niger has been a key ally in Western campaigns against insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel, and there are concerns that the coup could open the door to greater Russian influence there. Thousands of French troops were forced to withdraw from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso following coups there.
This time, President Emannuel Macron declared France will not tolerate any attack on its interests in Niger, and will respond in an "immediate and intractable manner.” That’s unusually militant language for Paris. And that’s because Niger is the last remaining Western bastion in the Sahel.
Even the UN: is urgently sounding the alarm—insisting the world cannot afford to lose Niger to the military: "Niger is playing a key role in fighting terrorism. If Niger stops playing this role this will give more space and more leeway to terrorists to expand in the region."
Enter, the Wagner group: The private military company founded by a Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin has been growing its footprint in Africa—especially the Sahel. Failing to put down jihadist insurgencies, military dictatorships have turned to the ever-obliging Wagner Group—often described as a “one-stop shop for all autocrats around the world.” In 2021, Mali hired Wagner in exchange for access to its gold mines. Recently, Burkina Faso is also flirting with the company—having kicked out all French troops and diplomats.
Next stop, Niger: Within days of the military takeover, Prigozhin hailed the coup as good news and offered his troops to help bring order. On Sunday, thousands of supporters of the military held a rally—waving Russian flags, no less.
While there is no evidence of Wagner’s involvement in the coup, it represents a huge opportunity to expand its presence in the region—having already infiltrated Niger’s three neighbours. US experts say, “If it becomes isolated and loses Western military support, Niger may have little choice but to turn to Russia or Wagner.”
Interesting to note: As you may remember, Prigozhin himself is in President Vladimir Putin’s dog house after a failed rebellion against the Russian military. But there have been signs of peacemaking—and Niger may be his best chance to get back into the great leader’s good books. For years, Wagner has been acting as a proxy—extending Moscow’s influence in Africa:
[It] turned into a model where [Wagner] typically targeted states that have weak governance and ongoing security threats that also have rich natural resources such as natural energy, gold, and gemstones…Moscow can exploit these resources, but also use them to finance its operations elsewhere, including in Ukraine — and with the added benefit of being a bit harder to target with international sanctions. Moscow uses Wagner to help guard these kinds of mineral assets, but also to capture the state. “Those friendly autocrats become Russian clients,” Ramani said.
The dark horse: China—which has been quietly pumping money into Niger—investing $4.6 billion and $480 million in the country’s petroleum and uranium industries, respectively. Beijing had an amicable relationship with Bazoum—and may be sitting pretty even if he is ousted by a pro-Moscow junta.
The bottomline: It’s way too early to tell if this coup will be successful. But if Niger does turn toward Moscow, it will become part of a larger tide that is sweeping away Western influence over Africa.
Vox has the best overview. CNN has more on the coup. Al Jazeera is best on the wannabe president Tchiani—and why he moved against Bazoum. BBC News and Reuters have more on ECOWAS’ threat to intervene. NPR has more on the Wagner presence—while South China Morning Post looks at Beijing’s interests. Our Big Story on Burkina Faso has lots more on Wagner’s presence in Africa. We also did a Big Story on the other key battleground of the Great Game in Africa—Sudan, which is in the midst of a bloody civil war