Niger's future in limbo after the coup


After the military coup, Niger's future hangs in uncertainty driven by terrorism, necessitating the presence of Western allies in the Sahel region....

On July 26, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was detained by a guard regiment led by Abdourahmane (Omar) Tchiani. The next day, after the coup statement was read, some ministers in the Bazoum government were also taken into custody. Many countries, especially France and the United States, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), showed significant reactions to the putschists. In fact, France and ECOWAS said that the putschists should release Bazoum and return to constitutional order; otherwise, military intervention would be possible.

There are both local and international elements in the background of the coup. The Niger coup was actually carried out in the region defined as the "coup belt" that took place before, for similar reasons to the coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. France's influence and prestige in West Africa have diminished during French President Emmanuel Macron's tenure.

Important factors such as the failure of France in the fight against terrorism and its indifference to the gradual deterioration of the economies of its former colonies in Africa were effective in this. The counterterrorism operations of the "G5 Sahel Initiative," which was established in 2014 with the support of France and of which Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad are members, caused great criticism in the region. While the units of this formation carried out unsuccessful operations against terrorist organizations, they caused great damage to the civilian population and increased the anti-French opposition in the region.

France, along with local political elites prioritizing their interests, is encountering coups and coup attempts due to their perceived failure to address internal issues, exacerbating the situation. Some claim that the coup took place within the scope of Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani's personal interests and ambitions. Tchiani, who had served as the commander of the Presidential Guard for 12 years, was worried about losing his position under Bazoum. For this reason, it is also claimed that Tchiani attempted a coup against Bazoum, whom he thought would dismiss him.

Besides the local reasons outlined above, it is possible to say that the international motivations behind the coups in Niger and other West African countries are much more effective. Foreign actors who come to the region with the promise of combating the threat of terrorism and other security issues do not serve a solution but rather a deadlock. Because their aim is to have natural resources in the region and to have political influence here, they offer the option of military cooperation by obtaining concessions on natural resources from regional states that cannot pay cash to ensure security. This is seen as a reasonable proposition for African leaders who are not getting what they expect from their traditional partners. Traditional and emerging actors in the continent, who can turn to illegitimate strategies, are also making efforts to eliminate the political elites in the region that are not willing to cooperate with them. As a result, this spiral of interests frequently leads to coup attempts and political crises in the Sahel.

West's exit created opportunities
So, while foreign actors were content to only condemn the coups in West Africa and the Sahel belt in the past years, why did the reactions to the Niger coup include the possibility of military intervention? Because the actors that influenced the region as part of counterterrorism operations, such as France and the U.S., had to withdraw from African countries such as Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, which limited their relations with the West and increased their cooperation with Russia after the coup. Accordingly, they can only carry out their activities in and around the Sahel through Niger.

France has approximately 1,500 military units in Niger. On the other hand, the U.S. has two military bases, along with an army drone base that it built for $110 billion in Niger, where 1,100 military elements are located.

Not able to withdraw, the putschists in Niger will negatively affect the political power and prestige of Westerners like France and the U.S., as well as their military presence in the region. In fact, when these actors, which were defined as an unwanted presence in many countries in past years, lose their influence in Niger, their failures in their foreign policies will become even more clear. As a result, the region will be left to the influence of emerging actors such as Russia and China. For this reason, these actors have taken the risk of pushing back the Nigerien putschists with ECOWAS led by Nigeria. But here, a split between blocs has emerged as anti-intervention and pro-intervention states speak out in ECOWAS. As a result, it is possible to say that the divide-rule policies implemented by the colonial states in the colonial period have evolved into divisive (or blocking) policies within regional organizations in Africa today.

Another factor that makes Niger important is its natural resources. Niger has rich gold, silver, coal, tin and uranium resources. Of these sources, especially uranium draws attention. In the late 1950s, the French company Azelik discovered uranium resources in Niger. In 2022, Niger, known for having the highest-quality uranium ores in Africa, contributed around 5% of the global mining output by producing 2,020 metric tons of uranium. This was a decrease from its production of 2,991 tons in 2020. Among the world's leading uranium producers are Kazakhstan, Canada and Namibia. The primary mining activity in Niger is conducted by France's state-owned company Orano, with another significant mine shutting down in 2021 and a new one in the development phase.

There were similarly rich natural resources in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the putschists took power in the past years. In 2021, Mali secured its position as the fourth-largest contributor to Africa's gold production, achieving an output of 63.4 tons. Following suit, Burkina Faso held the position of the fifth-largest gold producer, closely trailing with a yield of 45 tons. The magnetism of gold doesn't just captivate foreign investors but also beckons foreign armed factions aiming to capitalize on the regions abundant in resources. At this point, Wagner has recently increased the Russian influence in the region by having a concession on the natural resources of these countries. France, the U.S. and ECOWAS are worried that a similar situation will occur in Niger. They even voiced the option of military intervention to prevent this.

What will be the effects?
First of all, due to the increasing global competition in the region, conflicting actor interests reveal the possibility of a counter-coup against the Tchiani junta. As a matter of fact, on Aug. 9, Rhissa Ag Boula, a Nigerien Tuareg politician and a key figure in the Tuareg revolts of 1990-1995 and 2007-2009, declared a counter-coup. This environment of political instability will deepen the current political and economic structural difficulties in Niger, leading to the country's security and instability. Immigration will increase with the corruption, crime and terrorist organizations in the country, which will be in a more difficult situation due to the Western institutions and actors cutting their foreign aid and applying economic sanctions. This will affect the security of Niger, the region and the international community.

These potential threats, especially terrorism, have a complex effect potential. As it is known, Boko Haram, ISGS, ISWAP, JNIM, Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar al-Dine, the Macina Liberation Front and some other al-Qaida factions are active in Niger. In the past years, these organizations have carried out terrorist acts in some parts of the country. In addition, after the developments in the Middle East, two different global terrorist organizations, Daesh and al-Qaida, competed for footholds in sub-Saharan Africa. The terrorism problem there became more complex. The turmoil caused by the Niger coup and possible ECOWAS intervention will offer these terrorist organizations an expansive living space. On the other hand, large communities of people struggling with economic and political difficulties and ignored by the state mechanism may have to interact with these terrorist organizations to survive.

The increasing threat of terrorism will necessitate the continuation of the military presence of foreign actors here in the future. As a matter of fact, whether it is a democratic or putschist regime, the Niger state will not be able to fight this problem alone. At this point, it must carry out counterterrorism activities with its traditional partners or new actors such as Russia. This, in the end, accelerated the global competition in the country and revealed the potential for recent crises.

Another possible outcome of the coup in Niger is Russia's increasing influence in the region. Niger is actually a country where the influence of Russia in the region is less than that of other West African countries. However, at this point, the people of Niger may turn to cooperation with Russia, which is very eager in this regard, to end the French exploitation that has been looming over them for many years and to ensure national security. The Russian flags that were unfurled in public demonstrations supporting the putschists can also be interpreted in this way. Although there is a possibility that those flags will be distributed as a Russian propaganda tool, it is known that some of the people of Niger and some political elites view cooperation with Moscow positively.

The possibility of military intervention by foreign actors after the coup may damage democracy in Niger. This is because, at the beginning of the coup, some groups held pro-Bazoum demonstrations in Niamey. However, after ECOWAS and France's threats of military intervention against the putschists, the people of Niger started to support the putschist leader Tchiani this time. On Aug. 6, approximately 30,000 Nigerien people gathered at Seyni Kountche Stadium to support the putschists against the interventionist attitudes of ECOWAS and other foreign actors. At this point, it is possible to say that the interventionist rhetoric of other states and ECOWAS increased the legitimacy of the putschists led by Tchiani.

As a result, the situation in Niger must be concluded with a peaceful and final solution-oriented dialogue process before the emergence of more threats to national and regional security. Otherwise, both the putschist regime and the military interventions planned to eliminate it will have heavy consequences for the people of Niger and the states in the region, and the region will sink into chaos that will last for many years.
AUG 11, 2023
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