Moving Beyond the Impasse in Niger

Moving Beyond the Impasse in Niger

A willingness to bear the burden of some difficult decisions while considering the long-term regional interests—as well as America’s own strategic interests—will be needed in the coming days and weeks.


In the two weeks since the disgruntled commander of Niger’s Presidential Guard set in motion events that culminated in the effective overthrow of the country’s democratically elected president—leading to a standoff with the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc, which threatened the use of force to restore constitutional order, as well as with Western donor countries, including the United States, which suspended various aid programs—there is now more need than ever for a realistic response of the sort that I previously called for.

With Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland making an unscheduled stop in Niamey on Monday on her way back to Washington from Jeddah—and having what she described as “extremely frank and at times quite difficult” talks with representatives of the junta and “a first conversation in which the United States was offering its good offices”—there is a narrow window in which to find a path forward that preserves some of the gains from years of patient effort and billions of dollars invested—to say nothing of lives of military personnel sacrificed—in support of what has been the linchpin for security and stability in the volatile Sahel region.


It would be useful to begin by summarizing the key conclusions from how events have played out so far:

First, while the coup was launched by a very small group of officers and elements of the Presidential Guard, the junta subsequently managed to consolidate the backing of Niger’s military and security services. Caught off guard and lacking significant forces of their own within the capital of Niamey, most of Niger’s senior military and security commanders decided to avoid bloodshed and dropped what limited resistance there was to the detention of President Mohamed Bazoum within forty-eight hours of the start of the putsch. Before he was replaced by the new junta, the chief of staff of the army, Major General Abdi Sidikou Issa, declared that he wanted to avoid “a deadly confrontation ... that could create a bloodbath and affect the security of the population.” This acquiescence deprived any potential outside intervention of an essential internal partner for a counter-coup.

Second, the junta successfully exploited popular sentiments, notably among youth, to garner support—especially after ECOWAS threatened the use of force. If waves of disinformation attacks had been undermining Bazoum in the months leading up to the putsch, the threat of military intervention from some the regional bloc of its West African neighbors following its July 30 extraordinary summit in Abuja, Nigeria, was exploited to galvanize support for the putsch, with large crowds marching through Niamey that same day, voicing support for the junta while denouncing both the former colonial ruler, France, and the regional bloc. A week later, as the ECOWAS deadline for the restoration of constitutional order came and went, thousands of youth packed Niger’s largest football stadium to cheer members of the junta while waiving both Nigerien and Russian flags. While one should be careful to read too much into mass mobilizations like these, especially when the few attempts at demonstrations against the coup were met with bullets, there is no reason to doubt that the putschists have also managed to rally many to their side. It is particularly notable that Niger’s large youth population features prominently in these crowds. Many of these youths, lacking education and facing bleak economic prospects, are susceptible to manipulation by the sort of externally-fueled social media campaigns that have benefited West Africa’s coup leaders—not just in Niger, but also in Mali and Burkina Faso, where elected governments were overthrown in 2020 and 2022.

Third, the ECOWAS threat of military intervention proved to be premature, to say the least. Perhaps he was trying to replicate the plaudits which he received for his bold action on longstanding domestic challenges early in his tenure—including ridding Africa’s largest economy of the twin albatrosses of its costly fuel subsidy and its complex exchange rates—but Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, current chair of ECOWAS, spectacularly raised expectations beyond what he or any other West African leader could deliver with his forceful rejection of the Nigerien coup. A number of very rooky mistakes were made, including giving the putschists an extended deadline of a week that they used to entrench themselves and failing to secure actual commitments to join the military action bruited about by senior ECOWAS officials. These included Political Affairs, Peace and Security Commissioner Abdel-Fatau Musah, who boasted to the media that, “All the elements that will go into any eventual intervention have been worked out here, including the resources needed, the how and when we are going deploy the force.”

As it turns out, only two of ECOWAS’s fifteen members, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, were willing to commit military personnel to the threatened intervention. Two of Niger’s neighbors with whom it shares long borders—Algeria (951 km) and Chad (1,196 km)—are not members of ECOWAS and opposed military action, with Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune deeming it “a direct threat” to his country while Chad’s defense minister said that his nation “would never intervene militarily.” Tinubu even failed to get the support of the Nigerian senate, where his All Progressives Congress holds a majority. Nigeria’s umbrella Muslim organization, the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI, “Society for the Support of Islam”), led by the Sultan of Sokoto, traditionally the senior Islamic figure in the West African country, and other prominent northern Nigerian groups likewise publicly rejected the idea of military action, as did the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.

Fourth, while the military regimes in Burkina Faso and Mali expressed solidarity with the freshly declared junta in Niger, their ability to act is limited. Despite proclaiming that any intervention in Niger would constitute a declaration of war against them, the actual military capabilities of Burkina Faso and Mali are constrained by the jihadist insurgencies which engulf them both. Notwithstanding the bravado of thirty-something Burkinabè leader Ibrahim Traoré—who stood next to Vladimir Putin in combat uniform for the “family picture” at the recent Russia-Africa Summit and gave a belligerent interview to Russian propaganda organ Sputnik—his country’s military, which largely hunkers down in garrisons, has lost almost two-thirds of his national territory to jihadists from the regional affiliates of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Global Terrorism Index 2023 found that Burkina Faso had the largest increase in terrorism deaths in the world and only Afghanistan scores worse in terms of terrorism impact.

Fifth, ECOWAS sanctions are unlikely to bring about the change that the regional bloc seeks. While a whole raft of sanctions has been imposed since the coup, including border closures and freezes on state assets in regional banks, these same measures had little effect when deployed against Mali except to rally the population around the country’s military rulers and, prudently, were not even attempted by ECOWAS with anywhere near the same rigor following the coups in Guinea and Burkina Faso. More biting may be the cutoff of electricity—Niger’s state-owned utility purchases about 70 percent of its power from Nigeria and the latter country cut off its—but Nigeriens, even in the capital, are unfortunately used to power outages and it appears that the junta has coped by diverting power to Niamey from other places. Moreover, the coercive measures have led the regional bloc to be increasingly viewed as a hostile party to a conflict, rather than a mediator, as witnessed by the joint ECOWAS-African Union-United Nations delegation being turned back without being received by the junta on August 8. (The vicious cycle continued as, in response to the rebuff of the delegation, Nigeria’s President Tinubu slapped new sanctions on Niger through the Nigerian central bank.)

Sixth, aside from social media efforts, there has not yet been any move to introduce Russia’s Wagner mercenaries or other similar malign actors into Niger. Despite all the Russian flags recently brandished in Niamey, as well as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s provocative comments, this would be a clear red line for the United States, which has more than 1,000 military personnel and two airbases in Niger. Part of the explanation may be that the mercenary outfit is overstretched, especially since its abortive mutiny and march on Moscow in late June. In fact, the government of the Central African Republic, which was counting on the arrival of several hundred additional Wagner operatives to assist in the July 30 referendum—one that would both remove the constitution’s two-term limit on President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and extend the five-year term to a seven-year mandate—was on tether hooks until their disembarked less than two weeks before the vote.

This résumé of the current realities leads to the question of what might constitute the contours of a practical resolution of the crisis that the United States might use its “good offices” to facilitate in the interests of Niger and its people, other countries in the region, and its own strategic interests and those of other allies. A few elements might include the following, among others: