Niger: from palace revolution to world stage

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05 aout, 2023
Leslie Varenne

The events that have been unfolding in Niamey over the past week are breathtaking. If the situation was not so ominous, it would be comical. How could we have gone in the space of a few hours from a highly predictable purely Nigerien coup to a Cold War episode, with the potential to set Niger and the whole of West Africa ablaze? It's a cocktail of blindness, analytical errors, self-fulfilling prophecies and emotions, beyond reason.


Putting an end to the myth...

First and foremost, to understand the current situation, we need to put an end to the myth of "Niger as an example of democracy". It is not the case. The 2021 presidential election was not free, credible and transparent. It was a transfer of power between former President Mahamadou Issoufou, who could not stand for a third term, and his ally and friend of 30 years, Mohamed Bazoum. Condemning the coup is one thing. Repeating like a mantra that "the democratically elected president" must be reinstated is quite another. Not only does this formula irritate Nigeriens, who consider this election to be the most fraudulent in the country's history, but it also fails to provide solutions to the crisis. How can we find the right answers based on a false premise?

The former President in ambush

The second element is the weakness of the President, currently retained by the CNSP (National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, a body created by the ruling military). After two years ruling the country, he has not been able to establish his authority. Mahamadou Issoufou continued pulling all the strings and remained indispensable. For instance, no foreign leader ever visited Niamey without passing through the former President's residence. If the Nigerien people, especially in Niamey, support the junta, it's not so much because of Mohamed Bazoum, who was not unpopular, but because they massively reject the former President and the PNDS system, the ruling party that has held the country hostage for over a decade.

What role did Mahamadou Issoufou play in the coup? His proximity to General Tchaini, head of the Presidential Guard, author of the coup and Niger's new strongman, legitimately aroused suspicions. The scenario according to which Abdourahamane Tchiani first acted on behalf of the former President, but then betrayed him, being threatened by the rest of the army, is the most commonly accepted by those who follow Niger closely. Mondafrique has described the hypotheses explaining why the former President betrayed his friend since 30 years: Mohamed Bazoum's strive for independence; his involvement in the uranium gate which closed the doors to the position of United Nations Secretary General, which he coveted ; the desire to keep a firm grip on state affairs.

Another crucial element is hardly ever mentioned: Niger's oil. The pipeline between Niger and Benin, which should be operational in the coming weeks, is a major turning point for the country's economy. Niamey is poised to become a bigger exporter of black gold than Malabo. It is no coincidence that Sani Mahamadou, the former President’s son now detained by the CNSP, was appointed Minister of Oil in the last government. The stakes are much higher than the much-discussed uranium, which is of no strategic importance to either France or the European Union. Niger is the fifth-largest supplier, far behind Kazakhstan and Canada.


From the outset, it was therefore a palace revolution internal to Niger that none of Niger's partners had anticipated. According to Le Canard enchaîné, at the last Defense Council, Emmanuel Macron was furious with the head of the DGSE (the French intelligence agency): "Niger after Mali, that's a lot". He can rest assured, the Americans, who have over 1,000 men on the ground in Agadez at their largest drone base, in Niamey and at their CIA base in Dirkou in the north of the country, didn't see this coming either. Nor did the Italians and Germans, who also have troops on the ground. Yet it was predictable, as researcher Rhamane Idrissa writes: "In Niger, a coup d'état is not a surprise, but a statistical probability." With four successful coups in its history, how many failed ones? The latest took place on the eve of Mohamed Bazoum's inauguration. How then can we understand this blindness? The answer: the myth. How could a putsch be considered in a country that "is an example of democracy"? How could Mahamadou Issoufou, winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for good governance, be suspected?

Another element of the answer is the professionalism of the coup leaders, who were trained at all the right school. Salaou Barmou, head of Niger's special forces, sat on the benches of the National Defense University in Washington, and last month only, he was talking to the head of the US Army's Special Operations Command in Agadez.

The international junta and fear of the Bear

Unanticipated, the July 26 coup had a staggering effect on Niger's partners. The cumulative effect - there have been five coups in West Africa in less than three years (two in Mali, two in Burkina Faso and one in Guinea) – has also exasperated them. The fear of seeing an network of juntas established in the region also played a role. But their greatest apprehension was the Malian scenario being repeated with the arrival of Russia on Nigerian soil and the consequent departure of their military forces. It doesn't matter that the coup was carried out in Niger without Russian involvement, and that Moscow condemned it. The anxiety remains. The scenario is a political nightmare for Emmanuel Macron, after his humiliations in Burkina Faso and Mali. The Americans also have a lot to lose. Strategically, the area is important: they have invested hundreds of millions in their bases in Niger, which enable them to control part of the region, and above all, Libya. For the moment, Washington has been careful not to declare what happened as a coup, as such a legal qualification would force them to leave.

Martial posture

The United Statas and French response to the coup matched their anxieties. Under cover of ECOWAS, they pushed for the toughest sanctions since those imposed on the Ivory Coast in 2010. The fact that this State is one of the poorest in the world, and that its population will be the first victim of these sanctions, is of little importance. Nor does it matter that, as in Mali, these measures are counterproductive, giving the military a chance to push a victimized narrative and call for national unity. Alongside Alassane Ouattara, the new Nigerian President, Bola Tinubu, who holds the presidency of the sub-regional organization for this year, is spearheading the hard-line camp. Abuja, which supplies 70% of Niger's electricity, has disconnected its high-voltage line. In retaliation, the CNSP cut the power to Mohamed Bazoum's villa. Nigeriens, for their part, will be little affected: according to World Bank data, only 21% of the population has access to electricity!

But the hardest part is yet to come. ECOWAS has given the CNSP one week to reinstate the "democratically elected President" Mohamed Bazoum, and is threatening military intervention. The organization's chiefs of staff met in Abuja. At the end of their conclave, one official declared that such intervention "would be the last option on the table". However, it seems that everyone is planning the intervention, even before the end of the ECOWAS negotiations and the ultimatum date. According to a tweet by journalist Georges Malbrunot: "French forces have been put on alert in the Ivory Coast, Chad and Djibouti." For its part, through the voice of its Secretary of State, Washington clearly alerted the CNSP should it refuse to return to the barracks, and Catherine Colonna, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, asserted "her unity of views with Antony Blinken". In consultation with the Nigerian army, France repatriated its nationals and any Europeans who wished to leave the country. At the same time, the United States ordered the evacuation of its non-essential personnel. Is this a sign of the conflict to come? The direction of this military intervention would be taken by the Nigerian army, with Paris, Washington and the European Union in support.

The cataclysm

At a time when Sudan has been facing a devastating conflict since May 15, and Chad is suffering the serious consequences, a new war is really the last thing the continent needs!

How can we fail to appreciate the absurdity of the situation? ECOWAS and its allies are going to open fire on a country already at war on two fronts, Boko Haram in the southeast and the Islamic State in the Three-borders. They will therefore be waging war on their brothers-in-arms, whom they support in the fight against terrorism. Moreover, Nigeriens and Nigerians are fighting together against Boko Haram. As a bonus, at the first shot, Mohamed Bazoum's life will be threatened, so there will be no "democratically elected President" to put back in place. What's more, wouldn't it be odd, to say the least, to use the military option for a putsch potentially fomented by one of their best allies, former President Mahamadou Issoufou?

Finally, the conflict will become internationalized. Algeria and Russia are on the same positions, both denouncing the coup but viscerally opposed to military intervention. On August 2, the Algerian Chief of Staff, Saïd Chanegrina, visited Russia, and Moscow underlined Algiers' role in regional security.

Should military intervention actually take place - the worst is never certain - the conflagration would be large-scale. African public opinion will not accept a new war waged by the West, even if it is waged under the umbrella of ECOWAS. As a reminder, the 2011 wars in the Ivory Coast and Libya marked the beginning of a massive rejection of French policy. A new war would eject Paris from the Continent for decades to come. What's more, in the current context of West Africa, it would be an earthquake, setting the whole sub-region ablaze, with terrible consequences for civilians. Not to mention the risk that this destabilization would benefit the jihadists, or even... that Russia would be called in as reinforcements! We've come full circle...

Leslie Varenne

niger; ouest africa; ecowas