On Wednesday evening, a group of Niger’s military officers announced the toppling of President Mohamed Bazoum and the suspension of the country’s institutions. Since then, Mr Bazoum appears to have been detained by the junta in his own residence. Taking place less than six months after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s historic visit to Niamey, the coup is sending shock waves across the Sahel and in western capitals.
Mr Bazoum was a major partner of western countries in the regional fight against terrorism following his election in April 2021. Niger took centre stage in French and American strategies for the Sahel after governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso collapsed. Military coups in both countries forced France to withdraw the armed forces that were sent in 2013 to defend the Malian capital against Islamist extremists.
Eventually, diplomatic crises with the new military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso left French President Emmanuel Macron with no choice but to withdraw 1,200 French soldiers to Niger. As a result, Niamey became a vital partner for Paris. The US followed a similar path with Mr Bazoum. Eight hundred soldiers from the US African Command are stationed in the country and help to train Niger’s armed forces. Germany and Italy also have small military detachments in the country.
In a region prone to military coups, western countries looked at Mr Bazoum as a democratically elected leader that needed their support. The threat of being overthrown was not new in Niamey. Since its independence in 1960, Niger has experienced no fewer than four coups. Soldiers attempted a coup against Mr Bazoum after his election in 2021, although it failed within hours.
From the beginning of his presidency, Mr Bazoum faced a series of challenges that exacerbated the tensions with the military establishment. The first and most obvious issue was the deterioration of the security environment in several areas of the country. On the western side of Niger, in regions bordering Mali, groups like Jama’at Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimin launched repeated attacks.
In the north, Niger suffers from instability coming from Libya following the collapse of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011 and the growth of ISIS inside the country. Both Niger and Libya have struggled to control their shared border. Finally, in the south, Nigerien forces face another spillover conflict from the Lake Chad basin, where groups like Boko Haram and ISIS have been engaged in a turf war for several years.
Niger’s armed forces have contributed to several counterinsurgency campaigns, but with a modest annual budget of $244 million, they are fundamentally unable to respond to the country’s security demands. In addition to its operational deficiencies, Niger's military has also been repeatedly accused by NGOs of carrying out abuses against citizens.
Finally, the budgetary constraints of the armed forces have been worsened by numerous corruption cases. In 2020, an audit revealed that $129 million, more than half of the annual defence budget, had been misappropriated by government officials. In the following years, Mr Bazoum stood firm on his desire to fight against endemic corruption, leading him to antagonise many officers in the old guard.
The scenario unfolding since Wednesday has been – sadly – predictable. However, its conclusion remains open. In the coming days, the officers behind the self-declared National Council for the Safeguard of the Country may not be able to maintain their grip on power. Meanwhile, Mr Bazoum’s supporters tell the media and social networks that other military units will not side with the junta.
Western countries again face a crisis in the Sahel. The US quickly called for the immediate release of the president, while France condemned the use of force. But Washington and Paris must tread carefully: their involvement in the crisis could be used against them by the putschists, especially as Niger’s public opinion has grown suspicious of the West’s military presence.
If the junta was then to truly replace Mr Bazoum, this would present French and US officials with a difficult dilemma: cutting ties with the new power in Niamey to condemn the coup or keeping channels of communication open to preserve their counterterrorism operations.
For Mr Macron, this would be a familiar dilemma, one that he has faced in Mali and Burkina Faso. Eventually in both cases, and despite initial French efforts to maintain ties with the juntas, this proved diplomatically impossible and forced Paris to leave the countries.
This could well be the same conclusion in Niger.
In the longer term, such a scenario would dramatically compromise the fight against Islamist extremists in the Sahel. In the past two years, the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso have proved unable to secure better results on the battlefield than the civilian leaders they toppled. This would imply a retrenchment of western forces in other Western African countries such as the Ivory Coast, Benin or Ghana that may also fear the spillover effects of the events in Niger. Eventually, the crisis in Niamey will have consequences that go far beyond the borders of the country.