The West African nation of Niger has been in the international spotlight since July 26th, when the elite military force of the Presidential Guard seized power from President Mohamed Bazoum in a coup d’état that many Western media outlets have portrayed as surprising. However, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the man who has named himself the new leader of the nation, has been the military mastermind behind several recent coups, foiled, but not forgotten by the populace.
This latest political upheaval is but the result of a number of symptoms that have been brewing for years, and reflects an intense, and frequently suppressed, public dissension fuelled by the bad taste of blatant economic exploitation after gaining independence from France in 1960.
The uprising is also not out of character for the region, with coups in Mali in 2020, Guinea in 2021, and two in Burkina Faso in 2022. For all of these coups, the angel of peace on the scene was ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), currently headed by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu. ECOWAS have since 1990 intervened to uphold cease-fires, quell rebellions, and maintain peace.
However, this time around the block hasn’t been as kindly in its approach as it has previously, perhaps in reaction to the unique recklessness present in the Nigerien junta’s actions, or perhaps due to Tinubu’s desire to stamp ECOWAS with a distinct Nigerian military and economic superiority. After the past three years, Niger may just be one coup too many.
The response from ECOWAS took the Nigerien Junta by surprise, with threats of military intervention, economic sanctions, and the cutting of Niger’s electricity supply, over 70% of which comes from Nigeria. Outraged, the Junta have recalled ambassadors, and cancelled or broken off various agreements. The West and ECOWAS are doing everything in their power to force the return of civilian rule in Niger, and in the worst possible scenario, the region will be plunged into a vindictive and unnecessary war.
The West and ECOWAS are doing everything in their power to force the return of civilian rule in Niger, and in the worst possible scenario, the region will be plunged into a vindictive and unnecessary war.
The almost complete lack of investigative journalism (and general press freedom) in Niger, due to the liberal use of bribery, threats, and other economic tomfoolery by the state means that reporting on the specific causes of the coup is painfully difficult. Thus, one can only ever come to speculative conclusions, especially at this highly volatile time. So, what do we know about the coup’s origins? Why did it come as such a surprise to the world, but not to Nigeriens?
Answers may be found in the PNDS’ (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism), method of politics. The PNDS has dominated Nigerien politics for over a decade, and through extreme state surveillance, complete control of press freedom, and the suppression of any social-political action, it has managed to create a completely depoliticised public sphere. All criticism was seen as a radical threat to their order.
Political disorder being silenced with such an effective iron fist created the illusion to diplomats that Niger was functioning as a relatively stable democracy. Yet, as Rahmane Idrissa makes clear in reference to the public protests in Mali and Burkina Faso pre-coup, if the Nigeriens didn’t express their discontent in the same way as Malians and Burkinabe’s, it didn’t mean they were any more satisfied with their government, it simply meant they were less organised because the PNDS and their police force didn’t allow them to be.
The most significant organised effort was made in 2022 with the formation of M62 (in reference to Niger’s then 62 years of independence from France), a coalition formed against the regime, but it was foiled with ease. The change Niger so desperately needs to regain control of its resources and economy, and in the process uproot the insidious post-colonial economic measures which have presided over its underdevelopment for the 63 years since its independence, has materialised in this current coup. However, they tread a dangerous road by not playing by any of the world’s rules.
We get the picture that the feeling on the ground was a suppressed version of what the people of Mali and Burkina Faso felt in the run up to their coups, but these feelings were endemic all the way through to the highest military spheres, and crucially, to the Presidential Guard, the only military body with enough power to take any significant action. As I’ve mentioned, General Tchiani had already been involved in two previous coup attempts, and why he was successful this time, is too early to tell.
Further dissatisfaction with the government has been fuelled by a general discontent surrounding the presence of French and other Western nations’ troops stationed in Niger, and the quasi-economic empire built by France across West Africa referred to as ‘Françafrique’. This post-colonial nexus goes well beyond mere military presence, rather, it is a system of economic, political, and cultural control set up by France to maintain global power after it nominally released nations from its official control.
It is the rejection of Françafrique that has fuelled several coups across West Africa, most notably this one. The largely urban populace is conscious of the fact that it is but a restructured colonial nexus set up to exploit and dominate. Uranium takes centre stage in the Niger debate; the country being the world’s seventh-largest producer. France is one of its largest importers, relying on nuclear energy for 70% of its power. However, the French control its exports, and through consistent infiltration of Nigerien governments by France, no leader has effectively questioned this exploitation of resources. The French’s quasi-empire is crumbling rapidly, and this is reflected in Macron’s brazen, and somewhat fearful, response to the coup.
A cause for great alarm to the West, and a further reason behind the international focus on the crisis, is the growing support for Russia amongst Nigeriens. Despite the Junta rejecting claims of Wagner and Russian involvement in the coup, others such as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have claimed Wagner remains a threat. Upon the coup, the capital was ablaze with French flags, while Russian ones were flown in jubilation. Protesters cheered coups outside the French embassy while chanting pro-Russian statements. President Putin has condemned the coup and had called for a ‘peaceful resolution’, but Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mastermind behind the Wagner group, and also the leader of last month’s armed mutiny in Moscow, praised it, and Wagner troops stationed in neighbouring Mali.
Upon the coup, the capital was ablaze with French flags, while Russian ones were flown in jubilation.
The presumed death of Prigozhin in a plane crash on Wednesday may do something to change Wagner’s organisation and its potential involvement in the Niger situation. However, Mali and Burkina Faso have pledged their military assistance, and both have sent delegations to the country in solidarity, claiming that any foreign move against Niger as a “declaration of war” against them too. If Wagner are involved, what we have on our hands is the latest chapter in the new story of imperialism which is dominated by private militaries funded by billionaires. But with or without Wagner, ECOWAS is still left with a dangerous decision on its hands. If a conflict between the Nigerien junta and its allies and ECOWAS, and ergo the west, was to ensue, then the stakes would be higher than ever before, a huge amount more dangerous and bloody than previous conflicts, and dominated by misinformation, corruption, and political coercion.
For now, we are past the ECOWAS deadline for threat of military invasion, Niger has closed its airspace, extreme sanctions are still in place, and the US and France have threatened to cut aid, but will this break the Junta? Tchiani doesn’t think so.
In my opinion, neither military rule nor foreign intervention are going to solve the problems of Niger; the fate of the country lies with the people, and the people only, the only hope is the coup will release the political anger pent up in the Nigerien populace, and pave the way for a more people-powered future, not dominated by the insidious legacy of Françafrique, or any other foreign power.