On Wednesday, July 26, President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger was forcibly removed from office by the military junta National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP). Bazoum’s detention at the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger’s capital, marks the sixth military takeover in a succession of coups plaguing the Sahelian region since 2020.
Military rule in Niger is likely to further internal instability but will also have an overarching impact on regional and international military security cooperation against terrorism in the Sahel.
What Motivated This Coup?
Niger, like some of its neighboring countries in West Africa, has experienced political instability and multiple military coups in the past.
The insurgent junta, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, announced that the coup was intended to strengthen Niger’s allegedly faltering security status and economy. International observers have suggested that it was an opportunistic power grab by a reluctant-to-retire general, since reports state that Bazoum was seeking to replace Tchiani as the head of the presidential guard.
Regional dynamics also seem to have played an important role in Niger’s coup. A string of military coups in the region has served as an impetus to toppling civilian governments that are struggling to resolve their population’s grievances. Military governments took charge in Mali in 2020, Guinea, Chad, and Sudan in 2021, and Burkina Faso in 2022. Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali are vocal supporters of the CNSP and declared their support for the junta in its fight against outside interference that aims to restore Bazoum to office.
Contrary to widespread belief, the coup did not garner total support of the public. In the week following the coup, pro-democracy protests in Niamey called for the reinstatement of President Bazoum. However, coup supporters demonstrated more fervor in their support for the junta, drawing international attention by displaying Russian and even pro-Wagner flags.
Another factor seen as a potential trigger of the coup is the growing anti-France discourse in Niger. Movements such as M62, the Sacred Union for the Safeguard of the Sovereignty and the Dignity of the People, have eagerly adopted this sentiment. This umbrella organization of civil society organizations formed in 2022 has led campaigns criticizing the Nigerien political elite for their ties with France, the country’s former colonial ruler, and called for the withdrawal of the French military forces stationed in Niger. The movements call for greater cooperation with Russia on several fronts to take over France’s role, specifically in the war against jihadist movements. Western observers see this support as an additional tool in Russia’s arsenal to expand its influence in Africa.
However, there has been no evidence of Russian interference in the coup. Above all, internal factors such as the dire living conditions of Nigeriens, perceived corruption, economic mismanagement, and ethnic and community tensions played a crucial role in Nigerien politics.
What Is the Impact of the Coup on Regional Security?
Some fear that the coup will spill over to other countries in West Africa and other regions. Since July, another successful military takeover has occurred in the central African country of Gabon. With a number of elections on the horizon in Africa, democratic processes and participation will be put to the test.
To stop this spread of military takeovers, regional actors are attempting to use Niger as an example. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body of 15 West African states founded in 1975 to promote economic integration in the region, immediately imposed sanctions on Niger. It suspended the country’s membership, closed borders, and cut off its electricity supply. ECOWAS also threatened to use military force to restore Bazoum, the country’s first president to take office after a peaceful transition of power since Niger’s independence.
However, the junta’s recent announcement of its intention to charge Bazoum with high treason means that the situation will remain turbulent. The junta has consolidated its power by establishing a civilian-led government with generals from the CNSP heading many of its administrative functions.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council responded tepidly to the activation of the ECOWAS Standby Force (ESF), disapproving of the use of force to solve the crisis. Not all ECOWAS members agreed to support the ESF in the event of its intervention, and according to the AU an internal conflict would give radical organizations room to grow and worsen the already precarious situation in the area.
How Has the Coup Impacted Niger’s Cooperation With France and the United States?
Before the coup, Niger had been regarded as a crucial strategic ally in the international community’s struggle against jihadism in Africa. Because it is landlocked among nations that are all subject to attacks from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Boko Haram, Niger is a key player in the battle against violent extremist groups. Its key partners in security prior to the coup were France and the United States. In addition to peace and security measures, Washington promotes food security, democratic governance, human rights, education, and the civil society sector in Niger to build a more resilient West Africa.
Following the coup, the United States halted funding for Niger’s counterterrorism efforts and for programs that supported military training. While Paris denounced the coup immediately and halted all bilateral aid to Niger, Washington first referred to the takeover as a “coup” only after two months—restricting Niger’s rights to duty-free exports to the US market and halting most US foreign aid.
The United States has 1,100 soldiers stationed in Niger as part of its strategy to project influence and preserve its position against China and Russia. However, in response to the growing protest against foreign military presence, Washington has moved US military personnel to its northern outpost near Agadez and has evacuated non-essential troops from Niger. As of this writing, the US has no plans to withdraw its troops from the country.
While tolerating the American military presence, the military junta has asked the French army, which has 1,500 soldiers stationed in Niger, to leave the country. After a two-month standoff, France’s military collaboration with Niger has come to an end. French troops are expected to leave by the end of 2023. The French ambassador departed Niger on September 27. In another blow to France, the junta stopped uranium shipments to France. Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium and one of the main exporters of the metal to Europe. France relies on Nigerien uranium for its nuclear power plants.
What’s Next for Niger and Its International Partners?
The crisis in Niger leaves significant uncertainty as to how it may end and whether Niger will see a transition to a democratically elected civilian government in the near term.
If this transition does not occur, three eventualities are worth watching for in the coming months: ECOWAS leads a military intervention to reinstate Bazoum, which would violate AU’s decision to not use force; ECOWAS and the military junta agree on a transition plan that gives the military junta de facto recognition; or the military junta adopts a long-term strategy to consolidate a military state. Recent developments seem to be steering towards the latter scenario. On September 16, Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma charter with Mali and Burkina Faso, forming the Alliance of Sahel States, a defense and economic partnership and framework of mutual assistance in the war against violent extremism and foreign interference. This act entails further international isolation and may expose Niger to greater instability against a backdrop of jihadi expansion.