By: Kashif Anwar, Research Analyst, GSDN
A military coup and ousting of democratically elected Niger President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023, created a crisis in this West African nation. The crisis has created a truly geopolitical moment for intra-African politics and opened the door for external powers to interfere in the domestic affairs of Africa. The coup has created a tumultuous order in the country, and the use of force to remove Niger’s military Junta could spark a refugee crisis and regional war. Such instability and panic in Niger could expand in its neighbouring countries impacting most global power’s strategic interests, financial stake and role of their military presence in the country and the West African region. Niger is a landlocked country that sits on a large reserve of uranium and oil and continues to be a Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) whose economy continues to depend upon subsistence agriculture and the export of raw commodities. Such an economic state and the impact of the coup could only result in a rise of the refugee crisis and bloodshed in Niger.
The nation has witnessed coups and political crises since its independence from France in 1960, and the victory of President Mohamed Bazoum on April 2, 2021 became Niger’s first President to witness a democratic transfer of power since its independence. West looked Niger as a bulwark to stop the spread of Islamist insurgency, disorder and spread of Russian influence in West Africa, hosting the US and French military bases. Post-coup, the military Junta ended such military cooperation and agreements with France and the US, increasing the scope and presence of Russian influence in Niger. The ongoing instability, violence and disorder in Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya will impact Niger’s border areas, impacting its security and stability, with spillover from such nations in Niger becoming another challenge for the Junta.
The Coup and its Impact
Considering Niger’s long history of instability, violence and infighting, the 2010 Constitution approved through referendum restored civilian rule in the country. As Niger has witnessed two failed coup attempts in 2015 and 2021, victory of President Bazoum in April 2021 was viewed as a landmark in Niger’s history, witnessing its first peaceful transition of power since 1960. Leader of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, also known as Omar Tchiani removed President Bazoum, becoming the latest coup in Niger’s history. The event has pushed Niger into another tumultuous period and is at a critical juncture to act upon carefully.
The name of Omar Tchianai and his role emerged in a past military coup. He labelled the Bazoum government responsible for the deteriorating bad governance and was dissatisfied with the government’s inability to handle national security matters. Meanwhile, the growing role of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali pushed France to reduce its diplomatic presence and military role under the UN-led MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali. It allowed President Bazoum to welcome France under its renewed strategy to create a buffer between Niger and other West African nations against the Islamist state and Al-Qaeda’s destabilising effect. However, ousting of President Bazoum has tempered such partnership and fight against Islamist insurgency.
Post-ousting, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a group of 15 West African countries, came into action to take necessary military action against the Junta government and impose sanctions against Niger’s Junta to bring peace and restore democracy in Niger. Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, who is also the Chairman of the ECOWAS, argues that any interference in the democratic governance and ill-treatment of ousted President Bazoum will not be accepted by the leadership of the body. A military response from ECOWAS against Junta remains an option at a time when the US is praising Tinubu’s leadership and emphasises that they support ECOWAS’s response and action to restore constitutional order in Niger. However, the prosecution of President Bazoum will push the bloc to take stringent means as severe financial transactions, closing the border and stopping electricity supplies and Niger’s imports.
As General Tchiani argues, he has evidence to back his claim to prosecute the ousted President Bazoum for high treason who has undermined the country’s internal and external security. Mixed signals are coming from Niamey, Niger’s capital, concerning Tchiani’s stance, saying it had learned of the threats with stupefaction. Such stance represents another form of provocation as ECOWAS argues it contradicts the report of the Junta’s willingness to restore constitutional order through peaceful means. On the other hand, the African Union (AU), on Tchiani’s defiant stance, argues that diplomacy is the viable solution to such a crisis and has called for better treatment of oust President Bazoum.
President Bazoum’s ouster, who witnessed two coups before, coupled with the military takeover in Mali and Burkina Faso has unleashed a shockwave in West Africa, disturbing peace and stability in the Western African region. As the ECOWAS has approved the deployment of standby forces to restore constitutional order in Niger as a hard means to compel the Military Junta to restore democracy in the country. Meanwhile, Tinubu argues that a military takeover of a government is no longer acceptable in Africa, and all options are being considered with the use of force as a last resort.
The Great Power’s Geopolitics in Niger – Russia and the US
Niger has strategic significance for the US, Russia, Europe and China because of its vast reserves of uranium and oil, and viewed as a hub for foreign powers like the US and France, who have military bases in the country to fight against regional Islamist insurgency in the West African region. Since coup, western powers and many African governments have called for the release of detained President Bazoum and to bring back peace and democracy in Niger by Junta. With more African governments falling to the military coup and Niger being the latest victim, Africa and its vast, diverse and rich resources have transformed the continent into an arena of great power competition. The military coup in Niger has allowed the US to expand its influence and counter Russia and China’s reach and dominance in the continent.
Russia has warned any military intervention by the ECOWAS in Niger would only lead to a protracted confrontation destabilising the Sahel region – adjacent to Niger and Mali. With the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin welcoming the military takeover in Niger and offering his services to Military Junta, the US blamed the group is taking advantage of the situation. As the US called Military Junta to step aside and restore the country’s democratic constitution; on the other hand, on the ground support for the military and Russia and its influence in the country is visible and alarming for the West. The support for Russia has surged in Niger since the coup, with Military Junta’s supporters waving Russian flags in rallies showing support to the military and Russia while calling France to disengage from the country.
However, whether it was Mali and Burkina Faso in the past or Niger today, such coups show the government’s inability to address the nation’s poor economic and social governance coupled with the threat of Islamist terrorism. Niger’s military close connection with the Russian through the sale of arms or relationship with the Wagner group is one example of Russia’s reach and influence in Niger. West and many scholars argue that from Sudan to Mali to Burkina Faso to Niger, such coups show a similar trend or resemblance of subversion of national government and Russian involvement. However, the second Russia-Africa summit held recently in July in St. Petersburg has strengthened the relationship between Africa and Russia and recognised the relevance of the Global South.
However, a rise in coups in Africa highlights Russia’s ambition and aggressive strategy in Africa. Recent coup in Niger helps to illustrate many issues in world politics, like the happenings in Africa are interconnected and are determined by the great power competition. As Niger Junta received support from Russia, the rise in Russian influence in Niger and Africa has worried the West. Firm support towards Russia in Niger allowed Russia to warn the US and French-backed ECOWAS from taking any military action against the Junta.
The Military Junta has taken an anti-West stand and is inching closer towards Russia, which is highlighted by locals waving Russian flags and showing support to the Junta in their anti-West protests and rallies. The military coup clarifies Russia’s instrument of power, tactics and goals for nations in Africa and explains why Russia didn’t disband the Wagner after their June mutiny, as they’re central to Russia’s global strategy. Despite the West’s superior aggregate power in all dimensions, they failed to develop an idea to have coordination between them to have a comprehensive strategy for Africa, as the West hasn’t appreciated the rising importance of African countries to the global contest which is underway today.
Concerning West’s role in African nations, it’s not too late to have a strategy to counter Russia and its Wagner group’s role, influence and relevance among the African people. The West needs to acknowledge Russia and Wagner’s popularity and support among many African nations can’t be matched and should counter it strategically. Considering the economic state of Niger or other HIPC nations in Africa, strategic investment and economic cooperation from the West is highly needed. Niger’s current state is a reflection and an alarm to West that they need to acknowledge the relevance of African nations and should widen their perspective when looking at African nations. The locals and external players and powers involved in Niger’s situation need to ensure the developments shouldn’t spill out and become a major issue engulfing and impacting other nations in West Africa. Thus, all channels and means must be used, from diplomacy to ensuring communication is established to deploying hard approaches to bring peace and constitutional order back in Niger.