Until this past week, Niger was the bastion for the United States and its Western allies in the volatile central Sahel region of Africa. Not only does the country host more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel on two airbases and some 1,500 French troops engaged in anti-terrorism operations, but in the wake of coups in Mali (2020) and Burkina Faso (2022), and an improvised succession in Chad (2021) after the assassination of that country’s longtime leader, Nigerian president Mohamed Bazoum led the last democratically elected government in the region. Niger was also a key development partner. Yet with the overthrow of the Nigerien government announced by the commander of the Presidential Guard and the European Union cutting off its budget support for the country in response, years of patient effort and billions of dollars of investment to support what was thought to be an anchor for regional security and stability seems to have been lost in the blink of an eye.
While the situation remains fluid, the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), met in an emergency summit on Sunday and decided to impose sanctions on the coup leaders, freeze financial transactions with the Nigerien government, close land and air borders between members of the bloc and Niger, and give the junta a one-week deadline, after which it would take additional measures which “may include the use of force.”
Policymakers need to keep in mind four points in the days ahead:
First, avoid facile narratives and simplistic conclusions about a complex political-military situation. The putsch was barely underway when headlines like “Niger Coup Leader Joins Long Line of U.S.-Trained Mutineers” began appearing. Aside from being simply wrong—the commander of the Presidential Guard, Brigadier General Abdourahamane “Omar” Tchiani, emerged at the head of the junta, not Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, the Fort Moore- (formerly Fort Benning) and National Defense University-trained chief of the Nigerien Special Operations Forces as the Intercept headline proclaimed—those repeating these tropes also evidence a lack of basic understanding of internal dynamics within the armed forces of a country like Niger.
The clichéd accusation of American training leading to coups is particularly inapt in the case of Niger, where much of the $500 million that the U.S. government spent on military assistance to the country since 2012—one of the largest security assistance programs in Africa—has gone to training and equipping specialized units such as the Special Operations Forces as well as aerial medical evacuation teams, logistic companies, and even two battalions for United Nations peacekeeping operations. The unintended, but foreseeable, consequence of this intensive program was to create new elite units within the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN), which rose in prestige as they accumulated resources. At the same time, the 2,000-strong Presidential Guard, hitherto a quasi-Praetorian corps, declined relatively, giving rise to tensions within the FAN. Ironically, however, while the Special Operations Forces units are dispersed across the country combating jihadist insurgents, the Presidential Guard is stationed in the capital of Niamey, where they were well-positioned to act on their frustrations. (Until things clarify, I would caution against reading too much into General Barmou’s sullen appearance on Nigerien television, standing silently with other senior officers behind the spokesman of the putschists as the coup declaration was read: he may have had little choice in the matter since the only personnel he normally has in his headquarters are operations planners, intelligence analysts, and logisticians—hardly the force with which to resist, much less launch a countercoup.)
Notwithstanding the self-justifying claims of General Tchiani about the “continuing deterioration of the security situation” leading to “the gradual and inevitable demise of our country,” the evidence is that the sustained investment of Niger’s partners in FAN Special Operations Forces seems to have been paying off. As The Economist reported: “While death and destruction have soared in Mali and Burkina Faso, less than a tenth of the deaths in the three countries last year were in Niger, despite its also having to deal with separate jihadist violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, a group that spills over from north-east Nigeria. Deaths from conflict in the first six months of this year in Niger have been the lowest of any similar period since 2018.”
Second, while security is a necessary precondition for state legitimacy, it is by no means sufficient. While serving as U.S. special envoy for the Sahel, I repeatedly emphasized: “The heart of the crisis in the Sahel is one of state legitimacy—a perception by citizens that their government is valid, equitable, and able and willing to meet their needs. Absent states’ commitments to meeting their citizens’ needs, no degree of international engagement is likely to succeed.”
To their credit, both President Bazoum and his predecessor, President Mahamadou Issoufou, understood this and made building up Nigerien state legitimacy a center of their domestic political agenda. America and its allies have generously supported these development efforts. Until last week’s coup caused the European Union to cut off budget support to Niger, the EU allocated approximately €125 million per year for improved governance, education, and sustainable growth programs. France, acting through the official French Development Agency provides approximately €100 million per year. In fiscal year 2022, the United States provided $101 million in development assistance, primarily through the U.S. Agency for International Development, plus $135 million in humanitarian aid.
Moreover, last year, the Nigerien government adopted a five-year Economic and Social Development Plan (Plan de Développement Economique et Social) built around three pillars: developing human capital, inclusion, and solidarity; consolidation of governance, peace, and solidarity; and structural transformation of the economy. At an international conference in Paris in December 2022, the Nigerien government received pledges from various international partners amounting to some $23.4 billion of the estimated $30 billion price tag for the ambitious plan, to be paid out between 2022 and 2026.
The problem, however, is that transformative change takes time and that was one commodity that the Nigerien government not only did not possess much of—but clearly had even less of than it thought it had. The critics of “militarization” of the response to the crisis in the Sahel may be wrong in their instinctive disparagement of security assistance, but they have been not entirely incorrect in observing the often-stark disparity between military and non-military aid programs.
Third, be realistic not sensationalistic about the involvement of malign outside actors. The coincidence of the coup and the opening of the second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg—a meeting that President Bazoum was pointedly not attending—immediately raised suspicions of possible involvement of the Wagner Group, which is entrenched in the Central African Republic and Mali and has its tentacles in Burkina Faso, Sudan, and elsewhere in the Sahel belt. Researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab have documented how, as the coup unfolded, Russian Telegram channels stepped up longstanding propaganda campaigns that “portrayed Bazoum as a vassal of the West, and Niger under Bazoum’s leadership as being ‘directly dependent on France’ and ‘part of the remnants of the French neo-colonial empire.’” Some channels even claimed that the coup leaders were associated with Wagner. Yevgeny Prigozhin did not go that far, but did not shy from making what amounted to a sales pitch to the Nigerien junta for the services of his mercenary company, posting on social media:
What happened in Niger has been brewing for years. The former colonizers are trying to keep the people of African countries in check. In order to keep them in check, the former colonizers are filling these countries with terrorists and various bandit formations. Thus creating a colossal security crisis…The population suffers. And this is [the reason for] love for PMC [private military company] Wagner, this is the high efficiency of PMC Wagner. Because a thousand soldiers of PMC Wagner are able to establish order and destroy terrorists, preventing them from harming the peaceful population of states.
While it would be a mistake to ascribe too much to Prigozhin’s screed or overestimate his ability to deliver after the tumult within his global criminal network since his own short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin in late June, it would also be one to discount his ambitions (or those of Russia) as simply bravado or to overlook the role that foreign actors have played in a long-running, sophisticated effort on social media to discredit the Nigerien government. It was not by accident that Russian flags and signage have popped up at pro-coup demonstrations from the very first day of the mutiny. (What I replied to one high-level U.S. official when asked three years ago for my take on Russian flags appearing after the coup in Mali applies equally to the white, blue, and red colors now seen in Niger: “Where does one buy large quantities of industrially-produced Malian flags in Bamako, let alone Russian ones?”)
But even if Prigozhin is not able to deliver on his boasts of expansion in Africa, that concern in Washington, Paris, and other Western capitals that he might prove sufficient to divert resources to counter the potential threat on the continent and away from where they might otherwise have been deployed. It is a risk that will require sober assessment.