An anatomy of the Niger coup
The recent military coup d’état in Niger was the fifth the West African country of 26 million people has experienced since its independence from France in 1960. Land-locked Niger is among the poorest countries in the world, despite the oil-rich nation being the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium. Both civilian and military governments have failed to develop the country, and been accused of widespread corruption. General Abdourahamane Tchiani’s coup two weeks ago, thus repeated a historical pattern. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) suspended Niger’s military regime from their institutions, and announced sanctions.
Of Political Godfathers and Military Brass Hats
Niger has remained stubbornly stuck at the bottom of human developments league tables. But despite widespread claims of the country benefitting from huge amounts of aid, it is clear that much of this assistance has not gone towards poverty reduction, but disproportionately benefitted foreign interests who tend to channel aid through their own citizens and institutions, and sell goods and services produced in their own countries.
President Mahamadou Issoufou held power for a decade from 2011, before handing over to his protégé: the recently deposed Mohamed Bazoum. A political godfather, Issoufou, has unsuccessfully sought to mediate this dispute between his successor and the former head of his presidential guard, General Tchiani. Bazoum narrowly survived a coup attempt on the eve of his assumption of office in April 2021.
His saviour at the time was ironically Tchiani, the decade-long head of the 700-strong presidential guard who has just overthrown him. Bazoum had caused discontent within the military by sacking chief of staff, General Salifou Modi, and reportedly preparing to replace Tchiani. The putsch thus appears to have been a pre-emptive strike, though Tchiani was able to mobilise support within the military and population by exploiting grievances over continuing challenges in battling jihadists across the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso tri-border area, as well as over the rising cost of living.
Regional Sound and Fury amidst Gulliver’s Troubles
With newly-installed Nigerian president, Bola Tinubu, having recently been elected ECOWAS chair, the subregional body announced the severance of trade and electricity to Niger, banned flights, froze financial assets, and – without apparently having properly consulted their military defence chiefs who met a week later – ineptly gave Niger’s military junta a week to surrender power to Bazoum or face a military intervention. This ill-conceived ultimatum has now come and gone, leaving ECOWAS with egg on its face.
On August 10, its leaders contradictorily ordered a subregional force to restore constitutional order in Niger, while simultaneously stressing the need to use peaceful means to achieve this outcome.
One of General Tchiani’s first acts after declaring himself president, was to announce a renewal of military cooperation with anti-French military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso. Bamako and Ouagadougou reciprocated by announcing that they would regard any ECOWAS military intervention in Niger as a “declaration of war” on them, promising to come to Niger’s aid. The military regime in Guinea has also been supportive of Niger’s putschists.
The new regime in Niamey further announced the end of defence accords with France, demanding that Paris withdraw its troops from among its last Gallic staging posts in the Sahel.
Nigeria – under the military dictatorships of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha – had acted as a regional hegemon in the 1990s, deploying troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone under the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), in which it provided 80% of the troops and 90% of the costs. An announced $8 billion left the Nigerian treasury for both peacekeeping missions (though the figure is probably closer to $2 billion), while the country suffered about 1,500 fatalities. Even these two praiseworthy missions, however, represented “hegemony on a shoestring,” eventually requiring UN interventions to stabilize Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Unlike Babangida and Abacha, president Bola Tinubu has to contend with parliament and public opinion in launching what would clearly be a deeply unpopular military intervention into Niger. Amidst a $100 billion debt and cost of living crisis triggered by the removal of the country’s fuel subsidy, Nigeria’s ill-equipped and under-funded military is now a shadow of its former self, struggling to pacify Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) militants in Nigeria’s northeast, as well as stem attacks by Fulani herdsmen and kidnappers across the country.
Nigeria has thus massively scaled back its peacekeeping activities, also following the constant breakdown of its armoured personnel carriers in the AU/UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur. A Nigerian-led military intervention has been vociferously opposed by several Nigerian Senators and religious leaders, with the country sharing a 1,600-kilometre border with Niger, and many Hausa groups – an ethnicity to which General Tchiani belongs – in Nigeria’s Kano and Sokoto states enjoying close family links and lucrative trading relations across both countries’ common border.
Amidst these existential regional divisions in which a quarter of ECOWAS states are now under military rule, the viability of the recently completed Niger-Benin pipeline set to transmit oil to Europe, could be under threat. Further afield in Central Africa, Chadian leader, Mahamat Idriss Déby, has tried rather unconvincingly to mediate the dispute. But having himself assumed power through a French-backed coup, he continues to commit gross human rights abuses by killing protestors and jailing opponents of his rule. In the Maghreb, Algeria’s military-dominated regime – which has a 1,000-kilometre border with Niger – has publicly cautioned against an ECOWAS intervention.
The Demise of Pax Gallica and Pax Americana, the Rise of Pax Russica?
During its military intervention into Mali in 2013, French troops were sent to guard uranium mines in neighbouring Niger. At the time of the Niger coup, Gallic soldiers were still protecting uranium mines in northern Niger, controlled by the Orano Group which has 17 industrial sites in France. Paris currently has 1,500 troops and an airbase in Niger, having earlier been expelled from Mali and Burkina Faso for utterly failing to wage an effective counter-terrorist insurgency over the last decade. French leadership of the G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania) has now spectacularly collapsed, having used regional soldiers as cannon-fodder to fight jihadists, while itself adopting a more cautious but domineering approach. Very noticeable in pro-junta street protests in Niger – as earlier seen in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso – was the waving of Russian flags, and strong condemnation of the former French colonial power.
Under US president, Barack Obama, Washington had heavily militarised the country’s Africa policy. The Kenyan-Kansan initiated the $110 million drone and air base in Niger, which now has 1,100 American troops. Uncle Sam has thus committed himself, in this crisis, to restoring Bazoum to power, with the ousted president penning a clearly ghost-written piece in the Washington Post seeking US assistance to restore his mandate, while raising the spectre of Russian intervention through Wagner mercenaries.
The US-dominated World Bank has cut off annual aid of $600 million to Niamey. With strong anti-Western sentiment in Niger, a Franco-American backed ECOWAS military intervention could be perceived as an effort to protect Paris and Washington’s military and economic interests in Niger.
Moscow, like Beijing, has adopted the majority African position criticising the coup, and called for a return to constitutional order. Russia’s Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin – whose mercenaries are supporting regimes in Mali and Central African Republic – has however welcomed the junta, offering assistance to the putschists in battling what he portrayed as Western neo-colonialism in Niger.
The Return of the Men on Horseback
The Niger coup has glaringly exposed the fragility of many African governments. As US president, John F. Kennedy, famously noted in 1962: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Many democratically elected governments in Africa have traditionally closed off political systems by autocratically clamping down on genuine opposition – what regional civil society activists often term “civilian coups d’état – making the military the only viable alternative for political change. Self-serving soldiers have, however, failed as spectacularly as politicians to transform African societies. Within ECOWAS itself, current regimes in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Togo, and Sierra Leone could all be vulnerable to future coups if democratic governance is not properly practised. Even the kleptocratic regional Gulliver – Nigeria – must get its own house in order to prevent the return of military “Men on Horseback”.
Professor Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.
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