Trouble in West Africa: Niger’s Coup and the Great Power Geopolitics

On July 26, 2023, a military takeover in Niger resulted in the removal of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, sparking a crisis in the West African region. Since the crisis has made intra-African politics truly geopolitical, it has made it easier for foreign powers to meddle in the continent’s internal affairs. Using force to overthrow Niger’s Junta could cause a refugee crisis and a regional war, despite the fact that the situation has caused an unrest in the country. Such unrest and panic in Niger could spread to its neighbours, affecting the strategic interests, financial stakes, and military presence of the majority of world powers in the country and the West African region. Being a landlocked nation with significant oil and uranium reserves, Niger continues to be one of the world’s HIPCs, or highly indebted poor countries, whose economy is dependent on the subsistence farming and the export of raw materials. Such a state of the Niger’s economy and the effects of the coup can only lead to an increase in the refugee crisis and bloodshed in the nation.

Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the country has experienced coups and political unrest. The first democratic transfer of power in the country since independence occurred under President Bazoum in April 2021. Even so, the US and French military bases in Niger were seen by the West as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamist insurgency, chaos, and Russian influence in West Africa. Russian influence in the nation grew in scope and intensity as the military Junta ended such military agreements and cooperation with France and US. The ongoing unrest, violence, and instability in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Libya in particular will have an impact on Niger’s border regions, threatening the security and stability of the entire country. Spill over from these nations into Niger will present another challenge for the Military Junta.

The Coup and its Impact

Given the long history of unrest, violence, and instability in Niger, the 2010 Constitution, which was ratified by referendum, reinstated civilian rule. Despite two failed coup attempts in 2015 and 2021, President Bazoum’s election in April 2021 was seen as a turning point in Niger’s history because it was the country’s first peaceful transfer of power since 1960. The most recent coup in Niger’s history took place in 2023 when General Abdourahmane Tchiani, also known as Omar Tchiani, the head of the President’s Guard, overthrew President Bazoum. The incident has thrust Niger into yet another turbulent period, one that requires careful decision-making.

Although Omar Tchiani’s name and his involvement in a previous military coup came to light, he blamed the Bazoum government for deteriorating bad governance and expressed displeasure with the government’s inability to handle matters of national security. The Russian Wagner Group’s expanding influence in Mali, meanwhile, forced France to scale back its diplomatic and military support for the UN-backed MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali. It enabled President Bazoum to welcome France as part of its updated plan to protect Niger and other west African countries from the destabilising effects of the Islamist state and Al-Qaeda. However, the removal of President Bazoum has been muted by this alliance and the fight against the Islamist insurgency.

Following the removal of President Bazoum, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a group of 15 West African nations, moved to impose sanctions on the Junta government and take necessary military action against it in order to bring peace and democracy back to Niger. The leader of the ECOWAS, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, claims that any interference in the democratic process or cruel treatment of ousted President Bazoum will not be tolerated. At a time when US is praising Tinubu’s leadership and emphasising their support for ECOWAS action to restore constitutional order in Niger, an armed response from ECOWAS against the Junta is still a possibility. However, the prosecution of President Bazoum will force the bloc to use severe measures because the country has been negatively impacted by Niger’s imports, severe financial transactions, and border closures.

President Bazoum is being investigated for high treason for allegedly undermining the nation’s internal and external security, according to General Tchiani. Niamey, capital of Niger, is sending conflicting messages about Tchiani’s claim that it was stunned when it learned of the threats. Such a stance is considered by the ECOWAS to be another instance of provocation as it goes against Junta’s reported willingness to reinstate the constitutional order through peaceful means. The African Union, in contrast, has called for better treatment of President Bazoum and rejects Tchiani’s defiant stance, contending that diplomacy is the only workable solution to the crisis. Removal of President Bazoum, who had previously witnessed two coups, along with the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the Niger event has sent shockwaves through West Africa, upsetting the region’s peace and stability. Tinubu contends that a military takeover of government is no longer acceptable in Africa and that all options are being considered, and use of force being the last resort. ECOWAS has approved the deployment of a standby to restore constitutional order in Niger.

The Great Power’s geopolitics in Niger – Russia and the US

Nigeria is strategically important for the United States, Russia, Europe, and China due to its vast uranium and oil reserves, and it is viewed as a hub for foreign powers such as the United States and France, which have bases in the country to fight regional Islamist insurgencies in West Africa. Since the coup, Western powers and many African governments have called for the release of detained President Bazoum and the restoration of democracy in Niger by the Military Junta. With more African governments falling to the military, the African continent’s rich resources have transformed the continent into a battleground for great power competition. The military coup in Niger has provided the United States with an opportunity to expand its influence and counter Russia and China’s reach and dominance on the continent.

Russia has warned that ECOWAS military intervention would only lead to a protracted conflict that would destabilise the Sahel region, which borders Niger and Mali. The US accuses the group of exploiting the situation as Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin welcomed the military takeover in Niger and offered his services to the military Junta. While the US has called on the Junta to step down and restore the country’s democratic constitution, on the ground, support for the military and Russia, as well as their influence in the country, is visible and cannot be overlooked. Since the coup, the support for Russia has grown in Niger, with Junta supporters waving Russian flags in rallies in support of the military and Russia, while calling on France to leave the country.

Whether in Mali or Burkina Faso in the past, or in Niger today, such coups demonstrate the government’s inability to address the country’s poor economic and social governance, in addition to the threat of Islamist terrorism. Niger’s military close relationship with Russia, whether through arms sales or relationships with the Wagner group, is one example of Russia’s reach and influence in the country. As the West and many scholars argue, coups in Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger all show a similar trend or resemblance of subversion of government and Russian involvement. Consider the second Russia-Africa summit, which will be held in St. Petersburg in July 2023, as it will strengthen the relationship between Africa and Russia while also recognising the importance of the Global South.

However, a rise in coups in Africa highlights Russia’s ambition and their aggressive strategy in the continent. Recent coup in Niger helps to illustrate many issues in world politics like happening in Africa are interconnected and are determine by the great power competition. The growing Russian influence in Niger and Africa has alarmed the West, which has warned the US and French-backed ECOWAS against taking military action against the Junta. With the Junta taking an anti-West stance and moving closer to Russia, locals are waving Russian flags and showing support for the Junta in anti-West protests and rallies. As the military coup clarifies Russia’s instrument of power, tactics, and goals for African countries, it explains why Russia did not disband the Wagner after their mutiny in June because they are central to Russia’s global strategy. Despite the West’s superior aggregate power in all dimensions, they failed to devise a plan to coordinate their efforts in order to develop a comprehensive strategy for Africa, as they haven’t recognised Africa’s growing relevance in the global contest that is currently underway.

Concerning the West’s role in African nations, it is not too late to devise a strategy to counter Russia’s and the Wagner groups’ role, influence, and relevance among Africans. The West must recognise Russia, and Wagner’s popularity and support among many African nations cannot be matched, and should be strategically countered. Given the economic situation in Niger and other HIPC countries in Africa, strategic investment and economic cooperation led by the West is critical. Niger’s current state reflects and warns West that it needs to recognise the importance of African nations and broaden its perspective when looking at African countries. Locals and external players and powers involved in Niger’s situation must ensure the developments do not spill over and become a major issue engulfing and affecting other West African nations. As a result, all channels and means must be used, from diplomacy to ensuring communication to deploying the hard approach to restore normalcy, peace and constitutional order in Niger.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *