Samuel Ramani unpacks the Niger Coup d’état

Samuel Ramani

Can you provide an overview of the recent coup that transpired in Niger? What are the potential ramifications and implications of these recent events for the broader regional context?

On July 26, the Nigerien Presidential Guard Brigade launched an insurrection against the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. The head of the presidential guard was General Abdourahamane Tchiani, and after a 48-hour standoff, where Bazoum was essentially put into house arrest, it lead to Tchiani becoming the head of Niger. He’d been the head of Niger along with the junta military structure that was called the CNSP. Ever since then, the international community has been putting immense amounts of pressure on Niger’s junta to agree to either a democratic position or to return power back to legitimate authorities, including President Bazoum.

We’ve seen the United States and France strongly stand firm in support of Bazoum’s legitimacy. We’ve seen the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, and its largest member, Nigeria, impose economic sanctions on the Nigerien junta, including the suspension of electricity shipments from Nigeria to Niger. The threat of military intervention against the junta has declined over the past 24 hours because the Nigerien Senate overruled the President, and the President needs Senate approval to authorize the move at this time. Also, it seemed as if the ultimatum that they gave of one week was not honoured by the junta, but ECOWAS didn’t retaliate with the use of force in any way, shape, or form. The Alliance also is divided and split over whether that military intervention is the ideal horse to follow.

I would say that the general response has been that the Niger junta is illegitimate, and it should step aside. The one exception appears to be coming out of Russia. Whereas the Russian Foreign Ministry has made some current statements discussing how Bazoum should be released from prison, the Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has welcomed the coup as some kind of anti-neocolonial uprising, and he has actually asked the Wagner group forces to get Niger to give him a call for them to come in.

Other countries are kind of sitting on the sidelines because they have economic interests that they don’t want to see disrupted, regardless of who stays in power. Chief among those is China, which has a few-thousand-kilometer pipeline that it’s trying to build in Benin, and it just wants stability there whether it’s under an authoritarian junta or under a democratically elected president. Its preference would be for Bazoum, but it can be flexible. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates, which condemned the coup—partially because of rumors in the Arab world that they were behind it—most of the Middle Eastern states, like Turkey in particular, have either endorsed Russia’s anti-neocolonial narratives or stayed on the sidelines to preserve their investments. So that’s the general reaction to it.

In terms of how it affects the region, it’s a serious blow to the regional stability because it really means that there’s only one quasi-representative democracy that’s in the region, that is, Mauritania. Mauritania had a peaceful transition of power, but even Mauritania, as a country, has a long history of military coups as well—its current president was empowered by the 2008 one—and up until recently, a history of slavery and forced labor. So, for human rights and democracy in the Sahel, this is a disaster.

It also could lead to an upsurge and spiral of violence in the only country in the region where civilian casualties have actually been on the decline. Mali had a 270% increase in civilian casualties, Niger saw a decline, and now it’s really unclear what’s going to come next. If Wagner comes in, they have a terrible track record when it comes to counterinsurgency, and also civilian deaths. If the Americans and the French leave in some way, shape, or form, then we’ll be potentially looking at a total power vacuum and an extreme amount of chaos.  The military cooperation agreement with France and their 1,500 troops has been suspended, but not the cooperation agreement with the United States. No troop withdrawals have been reported yet, but still, this could happen.

The economic sanctions from ECOWAS could lead to people going to the streets because of a lack of electricity, a lack of food, and rising prices. This would lead to another major refugee crisis in that region, putting more pressure on countries like Chad, which already has taken in 377,000 refugees from the conflict in neighboring Sudan. So, in terms of the refugee crisis, in terms of counterterrorism, in terms of democracy, and human rights in the region, this is a calamitous development.

I think that it’s going to be a major testing point for the strength and stability of African leaders to be able to see whether African leaders can promote African solutions to African problems. We’ve seen Chad’s Mahamat Déby try to mediate, we’re seeing the African Union and ECOWAS getting more assertive—so this is a big test for them. It seems as if Nigerien public opinion is not very trusting of African institutions, we’re seeing an African Union intervention gaining maybe 14% support amongst those who want intervention against the junta, and ECOWAS intervention gaining 4% support, Russia gets 50%, the U.S. gets 16%.

The point is, it seems as if Nigeriens are trusting foreign powers, especially now Russia, more than their own institutions. So that is a blow to the standing of African regional institutions, which are trying to make this a crisis where they’re playing a decisive role. This is a setback compared to how African institutions resolved a similar crisis in Gambia, where a dictator, Yahya Jammeh, was trying to claim power after a fraudulent election and was ultimately taken out. So, this is a blow to African regionalism, and to African institutions and African solidarity. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind here.

Also, I think we should be focusing on the humanitarian aspects of this for Niger and its people. Already, there were four to five million Nigeriens who were food insecure because of the Ukraine war, the Black Sea grain export deal collapsing, and pervasive violence. That number is bound to surge. And Niger is already a country that ranks at or near the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). It’s got the highest fertility rate in the world, so seven children per woman, even though Mohamed Bazoum has been trying to try to rein that in. This crisis is going to be a humanitarian catastrophe, and that’s something we should really also be thinking about. It’s a landlocked country, it doesn’t have very many trade routes—so if Benin and Nigeria cut them off, where are they going to be able to get goods and food and supplies? So, while it’s a good thing to do aid cuts to stand up for democracy, those aid cuts are not going to influence the junta’s conduct, and the junta is just going to stay regardless. In the long run, I think we need to see how we can get humanitarian supplies to the people because just punishing the Nigerien people because of a junta that they had little to do with is not a fair outcome.

How does the international response to Niger’s coup underscore the potential clash between Western democratic norms and the so-called ‘pragmatic engagement strategies’ pursued by certain regional powers in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, particularly China and Russia?

What I think it does is underscore a clear divide over here, and that divide was also occurring in previous crises because there have been many other coup d’états in this region—we’ve seen them in Guinea, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Time and time again, Western countries basically back off and establish frosty or suspended relations with these governments, and the non-Western countries take advantage and capitalize on that. So that’s been the enduring trend throughout the region, and it does speak to the clash between authoritarian countries and non-Western countries which seem to prefer to embrace the policy of non-interference, and Western countries which attach a lot of strings and conditions to aid and tie it to the promotion of democratic norms. That’s what we’re seeing unfolding again in Niger.

However, the scope for the Americans and the French in the long term to isolate the Nigerien junta is more limited than, let’s say, in Mali or Burkina Faso, because France has nowhere to go in terms of counterterrorism. It’s wound down Operation Barkhane, but it’s used Niger as its flagship counterterrorism model—using local commanders instead of French forces, using training and equipment and assistance, but being careful about getting too involved in frontline operations like they were in Mali. There are polls showing that 78% of the people of Niger approve of what the junta has done.

It will be interesting to see how far France goes in terms of pressuring the junta to push for regime change, and also how far the United States goes in terms of pressuring the junta for regime change. Now we’ve seen Victoria Nuland trying to make outreaches to the junta. We’ve seen other American officials do it with not much headway at all, but the Americans have 1,000 troops in Niger that are based in Agadez. They use their two drone bases to conduct surveillance not just in the Sahel, but all over northern Africa, and all over eastern Africa—and that would be gone if they left.

Given the fact that Western countries have not necessarily been opposed to working with autocracies in the Sahel, in spite of their high-minded rhetoric, they were pretty happy. France was happy to have a military cooperation agreement with Chad since 1976—Idriss Déby was one of the most brutal dictators in that region, and they still worked with him. I think that it is possible that if the junta is here to stay, the Americans and the French might choose to try to pragmatically engage with it or strike a bargain with it, rather than completely abandon it and cede yet another country to Russian influence, and to a lesser extent, Chinese influence, in the ventures of Middle Eastern regional powers. So right now, there’s a clash between democracy and authoritarianism, but if the Niger junta stays on I think the West would be a little more pragmatic in this case than it was in Burkina Faso, Mali, or Guinea.

To what extent does Russia’s military involvement in Africa impact the situation, and how does the presence of Russian forces and paramilitary groups like Wagner impact the balance of power between Western-led initiatives and multilateral security arrangements like NATO? What are the further implications of Russian involvement for collective defence and regional stability?

Russia’s involvement in the Niger crisis is quite concerning. There was a clash between Wagner’s response and the official response, and we should be paying close attention to how they’re reacting to this crisis. I think that with Russia there was no evidence that they actually were involved in initiating the coup or in causing this to happen. This coup was caused by local dynamics. That’s the first point I want to make. General Tchiani was fearful of his dismissal—his age is 62. He was fearful of being dismissed for a younger rival, and also, he was a loyalist to Mahamadou Issoufou, who was the president before Bazoum. Many members of the presidential guard don’t hold Issoufou very favorably—he’s a very divisive and polarizing figure, and Tchiani, due to his loyalty to him, was also a divisive figure. Tchiani was rumored to have taken part in a coup in 2015 against Issoufou, but the charges were dismissed. So, he’s always had a bit of an opportunist streak, and now he’s launching this coup for his own survival.

This is not a coup that’s necessarily motivated by anti-Westernism, it’s not necessarily a coup that’s motivated by any kind of allegiance or loyalty or sympathy towards Russia. Tchiani wasn’t trained in Russia, he doesn’t have experience living there, unlike some of the Malian junta officials—one of the senior ones calls himself a Malian Muscovite because of his time studying in Moscow. So, he doesn’t have those kinds of personal connections to Russia, but he’s an opportunist.

If the West were to pragmatically engage with the junta, it’s possible the Russians will have no way in—and the Russians have a lot of liabilities inside Niger. Number one is a poor track record in Mali, which I don’t think that Tchiani will want to replicate. He’s engaging with the Malian junta for help and solidarity right now. He’s talking about how violence deteriorated under the French, which is manifestly false, which I stated earlier—he still will be looking next door and seeing that that’s not what we want to have happen here.

Number two, it’s hard to know whether the Niger government will be very adept in using Russian military technology or air defense systems or high-attack helicopters, or anything else that Russia might provide. Niger is not a traditional or historic security partner of Russia—they only have one military tactical agreement MOU, which dates to 2017, that doesn’t seem to have done much substantively in the counterterrorism sphere. So that’s another issue to think about.

Number three, accepting the Wagner group increases the risk of sanctions. We’ve just seen the three senior Malian officials get sanctioned by the West, and it means that Western officials and Western military assistance will likely go. So, if the Wagner group is an uncertain prospect, then I think they hedge and move on it. I think that a lot of what Russia is doing, in terms of supporting the coup, is posturing—supporting any anti-neocolonial propaganda, supporting their narrative that France and the U.S. are just out to plunder Africa. Prigozhin said that 95% of the uranium wealth in Niger is going to the French, only 5% goes to the people, and a country that should be one of the richest in the world is now the poorest. I don’t think their rhetoric necessarily means that Russia is going to step in with ground forces in Niger. That’s an important distinction to make.

Does Russia’s influence and presence in Africa intersect with China’s growing economic and political engagement in the region? If so, how might the dynamic shape the future of geopolitical competition and cooperation in this region of the world?

Russia and China have a tightening bilateral relationship that we’re seeing unfold all the time with the ‘no limits’ partnership. But outside of the dialogue in the UN Security Council, or bilateral summits, or multilateral summits, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, you’re seeing a dearth of substantive cooperation between the Russians and Chinese in global theatres where both are anti-Western rising powers. And that’s been an enduring feature of the Russia-China relationship, not just one that began with the Ukraine war, but one that has actually sharpened since the Ukraine war because Russia and China have gotten closer in so many other respects, but this divergence has not resolved itself.

There are several reasons why Russia and China do not really coordinate or cooperate very significantly in these extra-regional theatres. Number one is that China views Russia as a relatively weak partner, and Russia views its interests as being maximized by hedging against Chinese dominant influence and carving out niches where China is not necessarily getting involved. So, China, for example, when you look at their state media outlets you see a lot of criticisms of Russia’s over-reliance on hard power in Africa, limited economic footprint, and claims that this is not a model they will ever want to replicate. In the Middle East, we see a lot of discussions about Russian opportunism.

On the flip side, Russia seems to sometimes sound the alarm about China’s hegemonic ambitions, and the use of debt-trap diplomacy occasionally pops up which contrasts with Russia’s policy of debt forgiveness and forgiveness of Soviet debt. They always are very, very concerned by any movement of Chinese private security companies or Chinese militarization, including in places like Djibouti. When the Djibouti base was unveiled, for example, Russian media outlets were rife with rumors that Chinese bases were going to pop up all over the world, including in Eurasia, and weaken their sphere of influence.

When China gets involved in diplomacy, Russia is a little wary of that too. There were a lot of bitter feelings inside Moscow when China brokered the Saudi-Iran deal. They cheered it publicly, but privately they said ‘We were working on this kind of brokering within the Middle East for the better part of a decade and we couldn’t get anywhere near, China’s stepping on our turf, and Russia used to have diplomacy as our bag, and now they’re stepping in.’ So, there’s a lot of mistrust. Russia wants to kind of hedge against Chinese influence to carve out niches where China is not so involved, and China doesn’t view Russia’s model of power projection as being very valuable.

The second thing that I think is quite significant is that China is increasingly starting to view Russia as, to some degree, a disrupter. The Chinese actually, in their state media, mock the Wagner group and its failures in Mozambique. For example, they sent people incompetently into a tropical forest—a bunch of drunks—and then they ended up dying IN large numbers—50% of Wagner’s forces died on the battlefield. Some of that censorship was pared in when the Ukraine war began, but they clearly don’t view Russia’s reliance on these kinds of rogue mercenary groups and warlords fondly.

Even during the Wagner mutiny, there were Chinese social media posts that chastised Putin for putting so much trust in a warlord and recalled the Tang emperors and the Han Dynasty emperors who had done the same kind of thing historically. Also, the Belt and Road Initiative is dependent on a degree of stability, whereas Russia seems to be thriving off of coups and chaos.

There is some cooperation in the narrative stream. We saw Chinese media outlets on the Niger coup that seemed similar to their Russian counterparts—they were talking about opposing neocolonialism, they were talking about how Operation Barkhane has failed, they were warning that the ECOWAS military intervention would be a disaster because it would fragment the West African bloc and create a massive conflict. China and Russia have some common views on the Niger coup situation, like anti-Westernism as well as the aversion to foreign intervention, but their overall strategies for power projection are very different and they don’t trust each other. So, it’s not really correct to say that this Russia-China alliance that we’re seeing globally is extending to Africa or other global theatres, like the Middle East or Latin America.

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