The July 2023 Niger coup was the sixth one in a former French colony along the Sahel in West Africa. However, the Niger coup got more attention than preceding military coups due to some driving interests by some actors who have called for a return to constitutional order.
On 26 July 2023, the Nigerien presidential guard announced that they had put the nation’s president under house arrest and had suspended the national constitution. This was an announcement of a sixth coup in the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) region since the August 2020 coup in Mali. The announcement of the coup generated various responses from Western powers dominated by France, the former colonial master, the United States of America (US), the European Union (EU) and also the regional body, ECOWAS, who all called for a return to the constitutional order. ECOWAS went as far as declaring that failure to return to the constitutional order, which in other words meant the reinstatement of the deposed president, Muhamed Bazoum, there would be a military intervention. These efforts have been resisted by the Nigerien military rulers who went on to appoint a new government on 10 August 2023. However, pushes have continued for the ‘return to the constitutional order’. These projected calls have not been heard in other earlier coups that took place in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan. It is therefore imperative to understand the reason why Nigeriens deserve more constitutional order than other countries in the region that experienced coups. Or to understand the importance of Bazoum which makes him more deserving of being returned to power than others who were also removed through coups. Or to understand the various geopolitical interests of the regional and global powers who are making efforts to reverse the changes that have taken place in Niger.
THE NIGÉRIEN COUP
The Niger coup started with members of the presidential guard putting the president under house arrest in the early hours of 26 July 2023, with the Presidential Guards, under the command of General Abdourahmane Tchiani, announcing that they had taken over. The military later confirmed its support of the takeover explaining that it had been forced to take action due to poor socio-economic governance and the continued deterioration of security in the country. It informed that Niger would respect the country’s international obligations but warned against external intervention.
The coup and the support it got from the population informed of the deep socio-economic fissures that were inherent in Nigerian society. While the ousted president was praised for having reduced terrorist attacks and brought stability, there were still a few recorded cases leading to displacement. There was also rising and growing dissent against the French army personnel in the country which attracted some isolated protests from members of the public for the withdrawal of French forces and French domination.
RESPONSES TO THE NIGER COUP
The military takeover of power in Niger attracted various responses from the global community. The responses were mostly influenced by the various interests of the respective countries or regional blocs and also the geopolitical importance of Niger. There was the usual condemnation, especially from the EU, ECOWAS, and the UN. These condemnations are based on the established norms of not encouraging the various unconstitutional changes in governments as enshrined in various constitutive charters of the multilateral and regional institutions. There were also unique responses to various players in the region.
The ECOWAS region took a hard stance against the coup. The regional body ordered that the military relinquish power to the ousted president and return the country to ‘constitutional order’. The regional body threatened that failure to return the country to constitutionality would drive it to use any means necessary including military intervention. The threat was continuously repeated without much move from Niamey. What was clear was that the region was divided on the subject of using military force. The pro-France members of the bloc, comprising Benin, Ivory Coast and Senegal, pushed hard for a military intervention. However, this was countered by senatorial opinion in Nigeria, where members of the senate advised against the military intervention on 5 August 2023 and recommended the use of all possible diplomatic channels and options. The coup governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea also informed of their support to Niger in case of any military intervention. On 16 September 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed a mutual defence pact to mutually assist each other against insurgency and external aggression to any one of the member states. The mutual defence pact targeted both the threat of any increase in terrorism that may also be externally sponsored to destabilize the military rules and also the threat of military intervention in Niger from ECOWAS which was seen as also a threat to Mali and Burkina Faso if ever it succeeded in turning over the Niger coup. Niger accused France of releasing terrorists who were in custody, a move seen as an act of destabilization of Niger to create a façade of increased terrorist threat after the coup. Algeria, a non-member of ECOWAS but a strategic country in the unfolding events due to its bordering with Niger and also being on the belt of the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline from Nigeria announced its disapproval of a military intervention. The military intervention proposal and threat was therefore a monumental failure which only helped to embolden the coup leadership which secured support from the civilian population against any military intervention and threatened to kill Bazoum if there was any military intervention.
Perhaps the regional body was more successful with economic sanctions. Being one of the least developed countries in Africa and a landlocked country, Niger was vulnerable to regional economic sanctions. It depended on Nigeria for approximately 70 per cent of its electricity needs. ECOWAS and the West Africa Monetary and Economic Union imposed financial sanctions that saw the freezing of all commercial transactions with Niger, suspended all financial assistance with regional banks, and froze all state and state enterprises’ assets in various commercial banks and also state assets in the regional central bank. Due to its leverage on electricity supply, Nigeria cut off electricity which saw Niger losing 70 per cent of its electricity supply. All borders were closed, a situation which had also been commanded by the junta after the threats of military intervention. The sanctions system was meant to act as a form of modern-day siege against an uncompromising member. However, sanctions would hurt more on the civilians and this was true in Niger where even the UN noted that the humanitarian crisis was worsening.
Externally, the strongest condemnation came from France, the former colonial master. France enjoyed post-colonial trade preferences in Niger. The coup leaders rode on the anti-French sentiment that engulfed not only Niger but a number of the former French colonies in the region. Having legitimized its actions on anti-French sentiment meant that the leaders had to be hard on France, which meant France had to be hard against the coup. France, like all other countries, condemned the coup and called for the return to the ‘constitutional order’ by unconditionally restoring toppled president, Bazoum.
France went on to reject various orders which were being given by the new leadership as it argued that they recognized the ousted president who was the legitimate leader. A long standoff was experienced when France refused to withdraw its military forces from Niger and also to withdraw its ambassador in Niamey, as had been ordered by the military leadership. France only capitulated to the orders on 24 September 2023, after prolonged protests as well as de-facto sieges on the ambassador and the military base by the pro-coup protesters. France encouraged Bazoum not to resign as had been the trend in Mali where ousted presidents resigned under house arrests, thereby giving partial legitimacy to the coup. With the president still holding on to the claim of presidency, France would claim to be working with the legitimate orders from Bazoum and not from the illegitimate military rulers.
The EU responded by condemning the coup and noted that it would not recognize the military rulers. The regional body suspended all financial aid and cooperation on security. The EU imposed sanctions against the new military leadership and noted that it would continue taking cues from ECOWAS on further punitive measures that would help return the country to ‘democratic order’. Josep Borrell, the foreign policy chief of the EU also revealed that the regional body might consider financial assistance to ECOWAS military intervention.
The EU had a cocktail of aid to the country that included Official Development Assistance. Among these was the EU budgetary support of US$ 554 million which targeted improvement of governance, education and sustainable growth. This support was for the years 2021-2024. Additionally, the bloc, through the European Peace Facility, had approved €70 million for support to the armed forces since July 2022. The bloc also had a small contingent of military personnel, numbering between 50 and 100 under the EU Military Partnership Mission in Niger. The personnel were tasked with training programmes on anti-terrorism.
The various sanctions which were imposed by the countries and regional groups were meant to squeeze out the resilience of the military so that it would withdraw its takeover of power and capitulate to the demands of restoring power to Bazoum. The sanctions by the operation mostly affect civilians more than the leadership. It might therefore be concluded that the sanctions meant to bring hardship on the people so that they would withdraw their support for the government. Such a move is just a modern way of implementing medieval sieges.
The US took a somewhat, middle of the line response to the coup. The government made spirited attempts to convince the military to restore Bazoum to power by dispatching diplomats. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State made public statements that the US was against the military takeover and that it was in communication with both Bazoum and the military leadership. Among the known top diplomats who were dispatched to Niamey in attempts to restore the Bazoum presidency was the then-acting deputy secretary of state, Victoria Nuland. While the details of the meeting between Nuland and the representatives of the military government leadership were not made public, one can conclude that Nuland’s mission included issuing threats and seeking concessions with the military leadership on safeguarding US interests in the region, as shown by her statement to the media that her conversations with members of the military were extremely frank and at times quite difficult, adding that if they took the path of military rule then that path would threaten US cooperation with Niger going into the future. Among the US interests to be guarded included ensuring the continued active operation of the US bases in the country and concessions that Niamey would not invite the deployment of Russian military personnel in the country.
However, unlike other countries, the US did not declare the unfolding events as a coup. Declaring the events as a coup would have meant cutting off various aid dispensations which included military aid and cooperation. This was not the first time that the US responded to its national self-interests by playing semantics with known facts. In 2013, the Obama government denied accepting that the military takeover of power in Egypt against the democratically elected president, Muhammed Morsi was a coup, and also did not declare the events in Chad in 2021 as a coup. The major concern of the US was the spread of Russian influence in the region, and a fear that the Russian Wagner Group would be invited to fill in the void left by the French troops and also the US troops if they were to be asked to withdraw or if they withdraw on their own. The US government was reported to have dispatched a delegation to ensure that the new military leadership would not seek Wagner or Russian deployments in the country.
VARIOUS INTERESTS IN THE RETURN FOR THE ‘CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER’
The responses to the coup noted above were not out of the desire to see Nigeriens being governed by an elected president, at least one can argue. The various regional and international players had vested self-interests, or at least were responding to some external powers who had vested interests in Niger. Self-interests of various players influenced how they reacted and responded to the military takeover. Of note were the regional economic communities, the leading West African regional hegemony, Nigeria, the pro-France countries and ECOWAS, France as the former colonial master and the US and Russia, all with vested and varied interests in the region.
While the EU argued that its concerns were with the security situation in Niger and its people as well as the spread of terrorism, an undeclared economic interest could be found in the favourable supply of uranium. Niger is the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium and supplies 5 per cent of the world’s uranium needs. In 2022, Niger was the second largest supplier of natural uranium to the EU, accounting for a quarter of the bloc’s needs and together with Kazakhstan and Canada, accounted for 75 per cent of European uranium needs. The EU had been battling to wean off itself from Russian energy and had already imposed broad energy sanctions on Russia. To forestall the loss of supply, the bloc searched for alternative energy sources which included various African countries. The coup presented a challenge to energy stability in the region as it threatened not only uranium supply to the EU but also to France which is an electricity exporter in the EU. As it is in many cases of a fallout between a former colony and its erstwhile colonial master, the EU follows in the stance of the former European colonial master. This was the case when Zimbabwe fell out with the UK and the EU imposed sanctions in a matter that was bilateral. The Zimbabwe government undertook the Fast-Track Land Reform Programme in the mid-2000s when the country legalised land occupations formerly owned by white commercial farmers (mostly of British descent) by the black majority. London and Harare disagreed when Harare asked the British government to honour its colonial responsibility of paying for land reform, while the new Labour Government of Tony Blair argued that it no longer honoured colonial agreements. This case has played out again in the Niger case where the hard stance taken by France, which the US, as explained later, ignored, is replicated by the EU. Relatedly, the coup threatened the trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline which is also part of the grand EU plan to wean-off itself from Russian energy. Hence, the call for the restoration of the ‘constitutional order’ was driven by inherent self-interests.
The interests of ECOWAS as the regional bloc are difficult to decipher given that the responses of various countries varied, and so were the appropriate corrective actions they envisaged. There has been the pro-French bloc which envisioned a military intervention. Other members have chosen to give diplomacy a chance. In general, what all the member states, with the exception of those under suspension for coups, desired to see was the strengthening of democracy in the region and the demise of the view that the region is a ‘coup region’. Those in support of the coups argued that viewing coups as the only threat to democracy was flawed. They argued for an all-encompassing view where issues of flawed elections, elongation of term limits through constitutional amendments and even external interferences should be seen as threats to democracy which in some cases could only be cured by coups.
There were other countries who were pro-France and could be seen as being driven by the broader French interests. The most prominent ones were Ivory Coast and Senegal. The presidents in these countries had cordial relations with Paris. Given that the wave of the coups in the region was anti-France and was seen as sweeping out pro-France presidents, these leaders could have pushed for the military intervention so as to nip out any chances of the wave spreading to their countries, and also send a message that even if their military tried a coup, ECOWAS would come in and restore the ‘constitutional order’.
France as the former colonial power, had more vested interests in Niger than any other country at the time of the military takeover. Like any other former colony, Niger had independence agreements with France which were threatened by the military takeover, especially if one relates the Niger case to the military takeovers in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, which preceded it. The most popular deal was the supply of uranium from mines owned by Orano, a French national company, to France for electricity generation. France derives approximately 70 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear energy. Between 2005 and 2020, ‘Niger was France’s third-largest supplier of natural uranium’, trailing behind Kazakhstan and Australia. Niger supplies 15 per cent of France’s uranium needs for electricity purposes as well as treatment of cancer. French government officials and other analysts have played down the importance of Nigerien uranium to France arguing that the country was losing its market share to Australia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, if analyzed through the various price regimes as well as the Russian-Ukrainian war-induced energy challenges in Europe, one would understand how in the current times, Nigerien uranium was important for France. France accessed Nigerien uranium at concessionary prices against world prices. Former Niger minister of energy, Mahaman Gaya, revealed that in 2010 Niger exported uranium worth €3.5 billion on market prices but only received €459 million. This amounted to 13 per cent of the export value. The discrepancy in the payment was due to various agreements that gave preference to France over the producing country. The pricing issues are shrouded in secrecy but research by Oxfam International showed that exemptions from duties and taxes gave advantages to French companies that accessing the commodity was a great advantage to France and a robbery to Niger. France also acquired the resource from Niger at very low prices compared to developed countries like Canada, which means no matter the percentage, uranium from Niger was of strategic importance to the French economy.
France also had military interests in Niger. France had approximately 1500 soldiers stationed in bases in the country some of whom were deployed to Niger due to cancellation of military cooperation by other former French colonies that had anti-French military coups. Ordinarily and publicly, the soldiers were stationed to help contain the scourge of terrorism in the Sahel. France would argue that it would rather contain terrorism in Africa before it was exported to Europe. However, the deployment of troops in Africa was also meant to protect deeper French interests in the region. France had long been accused of using its military to prop up palatable regimes no matter how locally unpopular, and to topple governments or leaders who challenged its dominance in the former colonies. In the current scenarios, it was, however, not the case as the coups challenged directly its interests and removed leaders whom it saw as allies. France’s relations with African countries allowed it to aid its portrayal as a great power. The loss of influence in Niger following the loss in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso may maintain the ripple effect in other countries like Ivory Coast, Benin and Senegal which would see France totally losing Africa to probably Russian influence. Such a case would be a scathe on its claim to being a great power, hence the end of the empire.
Nigeria’s interests in the Nigerien governance were a subject of extensive discussion. While the President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was in support of the ECOWAS decision for military intervention, the Senate voted against such a decision, choosing to give diplomacy a chance. A military intervention led by Nigeria had the capacity to bring in military instability in the North where the two countries share a borderline and would have aided insurgency and terrorist groups who already operated in the areas. It appeared that the threats of military intervention had more to do with the regional body’s projection of power than actual interests, and also a bidding for France, especially where the push came strong from French allied West African leaders.
The direct interest of Nigeria in Niger relates to the trans-Saharan gas pipeline project which was first conceived in the 1970s. However, it failed to gain traction only for it to be revived in 2002 and go dormant again in 2009. It was later revived in 2022 when the European sanctions against Russian energy saw the continent (Europe) looking for alternative sources of energy. The project has an estimated cost of US$ 13 billion and aims to move 30 billion cubic meters of gas per annum. The pipeline would start from Warri in Nigeria to Algeria, where it will join the already existing Trans-Mediterranean, Medgaz and Maghreb-Europe pipelines into Europe. The Trans-Saharan pipeline would pass through Niger where it would run for 841 km.
The project was seen by Nigeria as a diversification of its exports, especially after its intention to make ‘gas a cornerstone of its energy policy for the 2020s’. Its success hinges on a stable government in Niamey and President Bazoum was seen as a stabilizing leader given his reproached policies that had seen him having peace agreements with the Tuareg while having reduced terrorist attacks on civilians in his first six months by nearly 40 per cent. Niger was gaining regional trust as a stable country for investments and safety for civilians.
The US’s interests in Niger are mostly seen as being under the global fight against terrorism. The US’s Central Intelligence Agency has a drone base in Dirkou for intelligence secret surveillance operations within the Sahel region. The US also invested in an airbase in Agadez, the capital of the northern region and keeps approximately 1100 soldiers in various bases in the country. The US had a joint counter-terrorism operation with Niger that included training of Nigerien forces on counter-terrorism. The bases are viewed as being of unparalleled strategic importance that the US, as was the case with Egypt after the Muhammad Fatah al Sisi coup, could not declare the military takeover as a coup as it would come with legal restrictions on aid and cooperation with Niger including in military terms. The bases are also strategic as they are used by the US as a projection of power in the region and a deterrent against the encroachment of other major powers. In extension, drones are intelligence-gathering tools meant to monitor the various activities of countries in the region and any other actors.
Another major fear of the US is the expansion of China and Russia into Africa. Former French colonies under pliant African leaders had been a bulwark for the West against the rising influence of China and Russia in Africa owing to their maintained umbilical links with France in the post-colonial era. However, the rise of anti-French coups in West Africa saw Russia being seen as filling the security void that was left by the withdrawn French armies. In the aftermath of coups in Burkina Faso and Mali, the Russian Wagner Group was invited to help on security matters. Media reports noted that there were contacts between representatives of the military leadership of Niger and Wagner representatives in Mali in early August 2023. These developments are not acceptable to the Western world, particularly the US and France who are already in a containment war with Russia in the Ukrainian war. A resurging Russia would mean an embarrassment to the Western attrition model on Russia to degrade it from superpower status.
The Russian interests in Africa in general and the Sahel to West Africa in particular can broadly be seen as driven by its desire to supplant Western influence in the regions and replace it with its own influence. In the aftermath of the use of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of 2011 by the US, France and Britain to act as the air force of Libyan rebels against the late Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi, Russia took a hard stance against Western dominance. Vladimir Putin, in a hard comment against Western intervention in Libya, described the resolution and its implementation as ‘medieval calls for crusades’. The post-Libyan intervention saw Russia asserting its position against Western intervention in Syria, and its push-back against EU and NATO membership for Ukraine which led to the Russian annexation of Crimea and later full-scale war with Ukraine which began on 24 February 2022. It has since then moved out of its traditional zone of influence in the Caucasus region and ventured into areas previously carved as Western spheres of influence including Africa.
In Africa, Russia’s policy can be seen as two-pronged: firstly, a pushback on Western interests which would allow it to succeed in it and secondly, being to entrench business deals for Russian benefits. Russia, especially since the fallout with the West on Ukraine in 2014, has sought to increase its diplomatic, political and also its economic relations with Africa. It has presented itself to Africa as a better alternative than the ‘exploitative’ West, hence, former colonial powers like France who did not fully transform their relations with the former colonies have become easy prey for Russia. In collaboration with China, Russia has sought to gain the support of Africa in re-centring the world from the West to the East and de-dollarize global trade. In Africa, Russia has used the Wagner Group to bring in its influence through various military agreements. The Wagner Group is modelled as a private military group but is heavily funded by the Russian government. In Africa, the group has had footprints in Mozambique, Madagascar, Central Africa Republic, Mali, Sudan, and Libya. The spread of the group means that Russia almost has some form of influence in every region of Africa, a situation that would encourage it to do more to take over Africa and push out the West. The West now fears that the group would extend its influence to Burkina Faso and Niger, giving Russia more footprints on the continent at the expense of Western domination, particularly France.
Africa had been among the battlegrounds for geopolitical dominance since the rise of the Cold War. The end of the bipolar world order brought a thaw in global power struggles in Africa. However, the resurgence of Russia’s interests in Africa and the rise of China which also seeks to influence Africa has seen the continent become a battleground of hegemonic dominance. It is from these lenses that the global and regional reaction to the coup in Niger should be viewed. Niger is endowed with natural resources, primarily uranium which had been a strategic resource to France. Its position also means that the transmission of gas from Nigeria to Europe can only pass by it if it is to be economic while it is also strategically located for it to be important for various US, EU and France military interests in the Sahel region. The talk of a constitutional order had therefore been nothing, except for a desire to have a pliant regime in Niamey. The fear of the region becoming fully under the Russian sphere of influence had been enough to send chills into the spines of the Western world. While coups cannot be condoned, it is also important that African heads of state and government respond to the needs of their citizens more than those of the former colonial master to avoid public resentment and create conditions that can be used as justification for an unconstitutional change of government⎈
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