An abrupt end to Niger’s long-running democracy
There has been a dramatic increase in the sighting of Russian flags throughout Niger, especially in the country’s capital, Niamey. This phenomenon is observed among large-scale demonstrations, where fervent expressions of support for Russia, such as chants of “long live Russia” and “down with France, long live Putin” have been enthusiastically spoken.
The prevailing instability and upheaval can be predominantly attributed to the recent coup orchestrated by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who assumed the position of head of state on July 28th. Ten days after the arrest of democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum, the country witnessed a coup that shocked and surprised many people in Niger and beyond West Africa.
Over the past five decades, Niger has seen at least five successful coups, but there have also been numerous unsuccessful coup attempts. In the wake of an attempted coup in 2021, which took place just 48 hours before the planned inauguration of president-elect Bazoum, the nation’s longstanding period of democratic rule was nearly brought to an abrupt end, causing concerns about the potential for additional instability.
Increasing instances of terrorist and extremist acts
The geopolitical location of Nigeria assumes a pivotal role and gives rise to two noteworthy developments in the overarching narrative of the growing crisis. Firstly, the crisis has the potential to escalate into either a conflict across West Africa, or what some observers have referred to as ‘Africa’s world war.’ Secondly, Niger, situated in the Sahel region, occupies a pivotal position not only in terms of terrorism and violent extremism within western Africa but also within a continent that has emerged as a global focal point for terrorist activities and Islamic extremist violence.
Using data sourced from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) (2023), Figure 1 illustrates the temporal variations and upward trajectory of terrorist incidents that have transpired in Niger from 2010 to 2021. Figure 2 provides a comparable depiction of the steady upward trend in terrorist occurrences observed in sub-Saharan Africa from 2010 to 2021.
Twists and turns aplenty
However, there is a twist: the deposed president was regarded as a key ally by Western nations in their fight against and mitigation of Islamic extremism in a dangerous region. Various states within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) area have issued declarations asserting the imperative of reinstating the president or, alternatively, employing military intervention to restore the deposed leader to authority. However, not all ECOWAS member states hold these opinions in unison.
In a second turn of events, the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso have publicly stated their support for General Tchiani’s plans to form a new government and assume the presidency. In the event of regional military troops being sent, both nations have expressed their commitment to protect the coup and aid its participants. The military administrations in the adjacent countries of Mali and Burkina Faso also stated that any potential military intervention by ECOWAS, the United Nations, or Western powers in Niger would be interpreted as an act of aggression, tantamount to a formal declaration of war against their respective governments. The correlation can be observed in the method through which the leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso ascended to power. Both administrations came to be via coups and have comparable political trajectories and histories to those of Niger. They perceive Niger’s development as a gradual progression towards self-determination and liberation from external influence and colonialism.
The third nuance involves the close ties that both Mali and Burkina Faso maintain with Russia, augmenting the regional complexities of the coup and the potential for regional hostilities to gain an international dimension encompassing Russia and Western nations. Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger’s military regime all share a common antipathy towards the West. This view results from ontological anxieties brought on by what is perceived as Western powers’ violations of their sovereignty, historical vestiges of oppression, national interests, and social and economic coherence.
The West and ECOWAS react
The evolving dynamics in the region have contributed to increased regional and international tensions, leading Western nations to terminate their economic ties with Niger and impose sanctions. Additionally, Nigeria has taken the step of discontinuing the supply of energy to Niger. These moves are arguably driven by concerns that Russia may potentially form a new alliance in the region. Therefore, it might be contended that Niger is becoming more entangled in an emerging proxy war between Western powers and Russia, all the while confronting a regional crisis that has the potential to escalate into armed confrontation, as it becomes further involved with the Wagner Group.
In light of ECOWAS’ activation of its standby forces in anticipation of intervening in the coup-affected nation, the leaders of the coup have proclaimed that any prospective invasion or military intervention targeting the country will lead to the demise of the deposed president. The remark presents a certain irony and complexity, as the initial threat acted as the catalyst for foreign African action. Nevertheless, as time passes, the likelihood of Nigeria and Ghana mobilising ECOWAS seems increasingly unlikely.
The United States’ (US) claim, which continues to support African solutions to African problems, has additional irony. The coup in question does not solely pertain to Africa, nor does the involvement of the US in foreign intervention provide a comprehensive answer for Africa. The US has officially expressed its intention to initiate diplomatic engagement with the junta using special emissaries, with the aim of persuading the junta to relinquish power, restore democratic governance, and uphold constitutional principles. In addition to this, the junta has implemented the closure of Niger’s airspace and has actively encouraged a sense of nationalistic fervour, urging the populace to safeguard Niger against potential colonial incursions.
The return of Wagner’s mercenaries
As expected, the Wager group has established a presence in Niger, offering guidance on defensive strategies in the case of military conflict. Wagner demonstrates a continued focus on exploring potential opportunities in Africa after its involvement in Ukraine and strained relations with Russia. Anthony Blinken has made allegations against Wagner, suggesting that they are capitalising on the coup crisis in Niger. Meanwhile, some Western media sites maintain that Yevgeny Prigozhin is leveraging the growing anti-France sentiment in the country.
There is a plausible scenario in which the junta in Niger may pursue an enhanced partnership with Wagner mercenaries to offer significant and long-lasting assistance, particularly in the context of a military intervention and the use of force. This is particularly relevant considering that the deadline of August 6th set by ECOWAS for the reinstatement of Bazoum has expired without any compliance. The presence of Wagner mercenaries and their willingness to provide aid should not necessarily elicit astonishment. Prigozhin extended personal felicitations to General Tchiani for orchestrating the triumphant coup. Following an aborted coup attempt in Russia, the Wagner Group potentially has the capability to secure a triumph for the military junta in Niger.
In the aftermath of the coup, the junta demonstrates a lack of comprehensive vision on the further steps to be taken, particularly considering escalating international condemnation and the looming potential for military intervention. This implies that the overall dictator is relying on Wagner to bolster and reinforce the junta’s fragile grip on authority. In the event that Wagner were to align itself with the junta, it is plausible that such a circumstance would create an environment conducive to the proliferation of terrorism and extremism inside the region.
Wagner, having achieved widespread recognition in the Sahel region, emerged as a prominent representative of Russian involvement in the African continent. According to its statements on Twitter, where it asserts its role as a protector, Wagner has positioned itself as a guardian for Niger in the fight against terrorism and extremist elements. Wagner stated that “a thousand Wagner fighters were able to restore order and destroy terrorists… preventing them from harming the civilian population.”
Power consolidation or rising instability?
The junta’s ability to sustain power and establish legitimacy is uncertain at this critical phase, given the substantial domestic and foreign opposition that is subject to unpredictable fluctuations. The current situation is characterised by instability, and it is evident that the junta has not yet achieved a firm consolidation of its control. One plausible outcome, regardless of the junta’s continuity, is the potential for insurgencies and armed factions such as al-Qaeda, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), ISWAP, as well as Boko Haram (BH) and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS) to exploit and benefit from the prevailing instability and discord. The probable consequences of this situation may include an exacerbation of violence, with the possibility of its diffusion into adjacent areas of Niger.
The Wagner Group appears to be playing a significant role in facilitating the consolidation and perpetuation of power by the junta. Wagner has positioned itself as a quasi-liberator and champion of self-determination, asserting that “we are always on the side of good, on the side of justice, and on the side of those who fight for their sovereignty and for the rights of their people.” Blinken’s statements exhibit indications of a conflict between competing narratives. As he stated, “…every single place that this Wagner Group has gone, death, destruction, and exploitation have followed.” The assertion exhibits a notable sense of irony, particularly considering its origin from the US.
The population of Niger, consisting of around 25 million people, has endured prolonged economic hardship and multiple forms of instability for several decades. Additionally, they have experienced a history of colonisation and oppression by the French, followed by the rule of the junta. The Wagner Group could plausibly exert a significant influence on the country’s course, whether through direct or indirect means. In a manner akin to preceding imperial powers and Western nations which assert or have asserted their commitment to advancing the socioeconomic welfare of Niger, the Wagner Group has discerned a fresh prospect to redefine its position.
The unfolding of these events is happening concurrently, among the prevailing distress among the population in Niger, and the prevailing uncertainty around the potential outbreak of a regional conflict. However, even if such a conflict does not materialise, there is still a significant possibility of persistent insecurity that will last for decades. The post-coup instability and its subsequent events have had a detrimental impact on the Sahel region. These consequences include the worsening of existing security challenges, increased tensions among members of ECOWAS, and the emergence of new domestic and regional threats.
In the framework of what we see as a coup at the crossroads of a potential regional war, a nascent proxy conflict, and the neocolonial goals of foreign powers, at least five possible consequences of the coup and its accompanying events can be postulated.
Firstly, there is the possibility of a decline in democratic governance in the region, which is supported by divisions among ECOWAS members and a negative attitude towards the political and economic union of West African states, especially in Niamey, where Nigeriens denounce ECOWAS’ involvement.
Secondly, it is plausible that other governments within the central Sahel region may succumb to the influence of military juntas or experience state failure.
Thirdly, the socioeconomic repercussions of sanctions—a playbook from the Western strategy towards Russia in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—are likely to have a significantly negative impact on the quality of life for those who live in Niger.
Fourthly, the present conditions may contribute to a schism between Nigeriens’ desire for change and those who would prefer to maintain the current military junta, both of which may manifest through military intervention and the involvement of external actors such as Wagner mercenaries and other foreign forces.
Fifthly, Niger, under the governance of a fragile military junta, might potentially become a breeding ground for extremist activities. This may occur either due to involvement by Western powers with neo-colonialist motives or, conversely, in the absence of Western troops if their absence is perceived as an opportunity to establish operational bases within the nation.
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk is an International Newton Fellow at the University of South Wales’ Faculty of Life Sciences and Education, the United Kingdom, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Taiwan Centre for Security Studies (TCSS), ROC.
Professor János Besenyő is a full professor at the Óbuda University, Donát Bánki Faculty of Mechanical and Safety Engineering (Hungary), and head of the Africa Research Institute. Between 1987 and 2018, he served as a professional soldier and participated in several peace operations in Africa and Afghanistan. He received a PhD in military science from Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University (Hungary), and he received a habilitated doctorate at Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary). In 2014, he established the Scientific Research Centre of the Hungarian Defence Forces General Staff.