Niger’s Coup Threatens to Spark Wider Violence

Smoke billows as supporters of the Nigerien coup attack the headquarters of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), the party of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, on July 27, 2023. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

The deadline a bloc of West African countries had set for a junta to end its takeover of Niger passed without military action last weekend. But concern is growing that the latest regime to come to power in Africa’s “coup belt”—this time overthrowing a key U.S. ally—will hurl the region into wider conflict and fuel jihadist violence.

The coup began in late July when Niger’s military, led by presidential guard head Gen. Omar Tchiani, announced it had overtaken the government to “put an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” The ousted President Mohamed Bazoum remained under house arrest with his family as of Sunday afternoon, reportedly without electricity, water, or cellular connection.

The coup’s architects, drawing on the legacy of French colonialism in Niger, have used anti-Western sentiment to galvanize public opinion in their favor. At a pro-coup rally in the capital city of Niamey on Sunday, hundreds of Nigeriens packed a busy stadium to yell anti-French slogans and wave Nigerien—and Russian—flags. 

“The junta has taken advantage of this general resentment toward France,” says Kabir Adamu, founder of Beacon Consulting, a security consulting firm based in neighboring Nigeria. “The more it shows opposition toward France, the more the populace kind of rallies around it.” 

After an emergency summit last week among leaders of the Western African bloc, known as ECOWAS, its chairman and Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu vowed a strong response. The group quickly moved to implement sanctions, enforce a no-fly zone, and close their borders with Niger.

Though ECOWAS also threatened military action, some member countries have urged a more tempered response. Within Nigeria, the bloc’s de facto leader, mounting opposition to the potential human and economic costs of a direct conflict has complicated Tinubu’s path forward. Politicians and clerics—particularly in the northern regions near Niger—have come out against military action, and lawmakers in the Nigerian Senate called for a diplomatic resolution over the weekend. 

The putsch toppled another domino in the Sahel region, a stretch of land beneath the Sahara Desert plagued by growing jihadist violence and political instability. Analysts worry that a weak response could spell trouble for other democratic governments in the neighborhood. 

“Bazoum was one of the last democratically elected leaders remaining in the Sahel. The U.S. staked a lot of our regional credibility and our strategy in the region on backing him,” James Barnett, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, says in an interview. His ouster followed by a lack of a coordinated response “doesn’t speak well to the status of democracy across Africa or the status of U.S. influence in the region.”

Terrorist activity in Niger—though still high—fell significantly in 2022, under the leadership of Bazoum’s democratically elected government. The country has increasingly been the hub of Western counterterrorism efforts in the region, hosting some 1,500 French and 1,100 American troops on its soil. The U.S. has provided about $500 million in security assistance to Niger since 2012, largely to aid in the fight against Islamic militants. The coup has put a pause on that aid, as well as some U.S. operations in the country, with potentially disastrous consequences.

“Niger really was an anchor of security policy in West Africa to try to prevent the seemingly unstopped spread of jihadist terrorist groups from the landlocked Saharan, Sahelian states down into the more economically dynamic, interconnected coastal states,” says Barnett. “The fear has been that if Niger collapses, then the entire strategy for containing—not even defeating, but containing—the jihadist threat in West Africa kind of goes out the window.”

Niger’s coup followed military takeovers in the neighboring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, both suspended ECOWAS members, who said they’d consider any attack on Niger a declaration of war against their countries. 

The new regime in Niger has also looked to Russia’s Wagner Group for support in the face of a possible ECOWAS intervention. The mercenary army—itself the perpetrator of a recent mutiny back home—appears more than willing to oblige. Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the Nigerien coup last month as an overthrow of the colonial system, having already thrown his fighters’ weight behind the military regimes in Burkina Faso and Mali. Prigozhin’s involvement in post-coup African nations creates a bleak outlook—civilian casualties in Mali have increased by nearly 280 percent since Wagner deployed to the country in 2021, according to State Department estimates

Insurgencies have also gained traction under the countries’ military leadership. A report by the Global Terrorism Index found that terrorism-related deaths in Burkina Faso rose by 50 percent from 2021 to 2022. Mali, meanwhile, suffered its largest number of terrorist-related deaths on record in the last decade in 2022. 

Both countries are among the top five most terror-plagued countries in the world. The Sahel region, a hotspot of jihadist attacks, reported more deaths due to terrorism in 2022 than South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa combined—43 percent of deaths due to terrorism globally. Burkina Faso and Mali alone accounted for 73 percent of those deaths. 

The junta in Niger announced last week that it was terminating its defense relationship with France, raising concerns that jihadist groups might fill the vacuum.

“As this realignment is happening, the bad guys are not standing still. They are taking advantage of the gaps that will be created,” Adamu tells The Dispatch. “They will exploit those gaps, and they will continue to expand their operations.”

West African democracies want to stop this trajectory before it starts. ECOWAS is slated to hold another emergency summit to assess the situation in Niger on Thursday, but direct intervention would mark a break from the bloc’s traditional role. 

“If ECOWAS intervenes, it’ll represent a paradigm shift in the approach of collective security in West Africa,” Bakary Sambe, a conflict researcher with the Senegal-based Timbuktu Institute think tank, says in an interview. “This intervention would undoubtedly reflect the desire of NATO—France and the U.S.—to thwart the Russian, Wagnerian advance.”

France has voiced its support for an ECOWAS intervention, but the U.S. remains more hesitant—the State Department has yet to designate the military takeover a “coup.” 

Still, Sambe cautioned against abandoning the region to bad actors. “People in the Sahel do not reject democracy, but they reject the contradiction of how democratic principles were applied in their countries—bad governance, corruption of the elites, and so forth. So it’s not a good time to leave the Sahel. It’s the time to give new credibility to the democratic discourse,” he says. “The Western powers are in a very crucial dilemma. If they leave the Sahel, they’ll leave the place for the Russians and for autocratic powers.”

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