There's little the West, or even West Africa, can do to roll back the Niger coup

The crisis is a symptom of a much larger problem affecting the Sahel

Supporters of Niger's junta gather in front of the National Assembly in Niamey on Sunday. AFP
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More than a week since Niger’s armed forces overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum, the putschists led by Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani have consolidated their grip on power.

The takeover was initially fomented by the presidential guard, but the country’s other military services have since rallied behind Gen Tchiani, who had made no secret of his disagreements with Mr Bazoum.

International reactions to the events in Niamey have been varied, with western countries facing a dilemma on what to do next.

Mr Bazoum had backing from the US and France, as he was seen as their most reliable partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.

Elected in 2021, he was the lone democratic leader in a region reshaped by coups in recent years. Niger also made significant progress on the battlefield under Mr Bazoum’s leadership, with the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies reporting a reduction in the number of terror fatalities – particularly in the south-western region of Tillaberi, which borders Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin – over the past 18 months.

US and France also relied on Niger for their own military deployments, with 1,100 American troops and 1,500 French troops stationed inside the country.

Clearly, western powers will have much to lose from the current crisis. So, it’s little surprise that France, Germany and the EU have condemned the takeover and called it a “coup”. On Tuesday, Paris initiated a humanitarian operation to evacuate French citizens and suspended development aid to the Nigerien government.

Western powers have trodden carefully. Regional actors, on the other hand, have been more assertive

The US State Department has so far described the development as an “attempted takeover” – and not a coup – as this will legally require President Joe Biden to suspend economic and military assistance to Niger. Washington has called for Mr Bazoum’s immediate release, but it hasn’t elaborated on its demands regarding the restoration of the democratic institutions.

On the whole, western powers have trodden carefully, by sanctioning the junta while resisting any talk of withdrawing their own forces from the country.

Regional actors, on the other hand, have been more assertive.

The African Union has denounced the putschists and given them a 15-day ultimatum to “return to their barracks and restore constitutional authority”. The Economic Community of West African States – better known as Ecowas – has gone even further by issuing a one-week ultimatum and suspending commercial and financial ties with Niamey.

The army chiefs representing Ecowas member states met this week in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to discuss the feasibility of a military intervention in Niger. While the meeting signalled the grouping’s resolve to pressure Niger’s armed forces, there was no suggestion that a military response had been activated.

The convening of such a meeting reflects the West African leaders’ concern about the situation, particularly after military takeovers occurred in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea in recent years – but a hawkish position on their part could backfire.

First, Ecowas’s credibility has been undermined ever since its ultimatums to military rulers in Bamako and Ouagadougou, following coups in both capitals, were summarily ignored.

Second, the West African states are hardly united on the issue of Niger, with junta-led Guinea having publicly opposed the communique. Ecowas’s ability to launch a military operation on Niamey is uncertain, too. This has less to do with operational requirements – Niger’s armed forces are much smaller than those of neighbouring Nigeria – than with a lack of political trust among Ecowas’s member states.

Rumours of a French-led operation have been swirling in Niamey, which will only benefit Niger’s military leaders who will use the threat of foreign intervention to ramp up domestic popular support. For what it’s worth, they have already received messages of solidarity from Mali and Burkina Faso. The two countries have called Ecowas’s statement a “declaration of war” and suggested they might respond by lending support to the Nigerien junta.

Against this backdrop, Niger’s future could prove consequential on three counts.

The first relates to the competition between the West and Russia in the Sahel.

Moscow has benefited from the disputes between Sahelian countries and the French government. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have ceased military co-operation with Paris and reportedly welcomed Russia’s private Wagner group. Its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, pinned the development in Niger on its “former colonisers” – namely France – although the Russian government has since called for Mr Bazoum’s “prompt release”.

Still, Prigozhin’s remarks add to speculations that Niger could follow the path chosen by Mali and Burkina Faso in ousting western forces and replacing them with Wagner.

In addition to this Russia-West competition, one shouldn't forget the coup's impact on counterterrorism operations.

Since the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the security situation has worsened in both countries, leading to an increase in civilian casualties. This goes against the putschists’ argument that the military is more efficient in tackling terrorism than civilian leaders.

The events in Niger don’t bode well for regional military co-operation either.

They will jeopardise the ability of the G5 Sahel – an entity founded in 2014 that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to conduct joint operations against terror outfits in the region. Moreover, if western partners such as the US and France are forced to withdraw their forces, this would galvanise groups such as ISIS and Jamaat Nusrat Al Islam Wal Muslimin to launch more attacks.

Finally, the coup in Niger is a symptom of the eroding rule of law in West Africa. The frequency of military takeovers in the region over the past decade is evidence of a deep crisis in the way governments have been responding, not only to the security crisis but also to the social and economic demands of the citizenry.

Mr Bazoum’s fall is the latest episode in the broader civilian-military crisis unfolding in the region, but it might not be the last one.

Published: August 04, 2023, 7:00 AM