The recent military takeover in Niger is the ninth in a long series of coups and coup attempts that have destabilised West and Central Africa over the past three years. Political turmoil in Niamey raises serious concerns for the future of the Sahel, a region that has become the epicentre of terrorism globally, accounting for 43 percent of terrorism deaths in 2022, more than both South-Asia, the Middle East and North Africa combined. Fuelled by a set of complex and interrelated challenges, including poor governance, lack of basic services, increased competition over ever-scarcer natural resources, intercommunal tensions, growing insecurity, and mass displacement, the Sahel has seen a dramatic rise of terrorist violence that multiple international interventions have proved unable to effectively curb over the past decade.
Until the recent power grab by a group of military leaders, Niger not only stood out as the “last bastion of democracy in the Sahel,” but was moreover considered the “last bulwark against jihadis and Russian influence” across the region. Amid continuously deteriorating relationships with the Malian and Burkinabe ruling military juntas, Mohamed Bazoum’s democratically-elected government emerged as a “new privileged partner” for Western allies. Located at the crossroad between the two main terrorist hotbeds in the Sahel and the Lake Chad regions, the country has a central role to play in containing terrorist groups’ expansion, with any further deterioration of its political and security situation risking furthering the arc of instability that terrorists exploit. Considering the broader regional context, this short analysis aims to reflect on how this new political upheaval might impact efforts to curb violent extremism in the Sahel in both the short- and long-term.
Current State of Play
During the early hours of 26 July 2023, the presidential guard sealed off the presidential palace in Niamey, holding Niger’s democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum hostage. Following hours of uncertainty and closed-door negotiations, the situation became more evident when a group of army officials appeared on national television to confirm the military coup. Presenting themselves as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), they declared the termination of Bazoum’s regime, and announced the suspension of all institutions, a curfew, and the closure of the country’s land and air borders. Finally, the group assured that it would safeguard Niger’s international commitments, but demanded external powers refrain from interference. While claiming their actions to be motivated by “the continuing deterioration of the security situation” and “poor economic and social governance,” experts suggest that President Bazoum’s plan to dispose the head of the presidential guard, General Omar Tiani, from his position precipitated the coup. By 28 July, General Tiani had appeared on national television confirming the coup and proclaiming that he had taken over the CNSP, making him the de-facto new head of state.
At the national level, the military takeover has been met with mixed and rapidly evolving reactions, both within military ranks and among the wider population. The Nigerien army and national guard ultimately rallied behind the putschists and declared support for the coup on 27 July – allegedly to avoid “a deadly confrontation.” Yet, they had earlier declared to be “ready to attack the elements of the presidential guard,” pointing to potential fragmentation within the security apparatus. Furthermore, the takeover did not benefit from the same immediate displays of public support as was previously observed in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, with pro-democracy groups spontaneously gathering in Niamey to protest the announcement of the coup. However, in the following days, thousands of coup supporters took to the streets to demonstrate, at times violently, their support for the CNSP, attacking Bazoum’s political party headquarters, waving Nigerien and Russian flags, chanting anti-French slogans, and even targeting the French embassy, in what some officials argue to be organised, rather than spontaneous, demonstrations.
Declaring himself head of state, General Tiani called on technical and financial partners to maintain their support. Yet, the putschists have been under strong international pressure to cede power, with President Bazoum’s detention having prompted a rapid condemnation from regional and international organisations, as well as various Western states. Imposing a set of sanctions, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) notably issued an ultimatum, giving the junta a week to restore the constitutional order, and declaring that all options - including the use of force - would otherwise be considered. Contrasting with what has often been denounced as “ECOWAS’ passivity in the face of democratic backsliding,” this however sparked a strong response from Bamako and Ouagadougou authorities, declaring that any military intervention in Niger would be considered a “declaration of war” against their own countries. In addition to another ultimatum issued by the African Union, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has announced the “immediate cessation of budget support” and suspension of “all cooperation actions in the domain of security.” Meanwhile, French Foreign Ministry has also announced the suspension of all development and budget support, and the US has suspended its security cooperation with Nigerien forces.
Context and Root Causes
Already hosting American and French bases on its soil, international support for Niger has multiplied in recent years. The EU allocated over EUR 500 million to improving governance, education, and sustainable growth in the country between 2021 and 2024, and launched earlier this year a 27 million-euro military training mission (EUMPM Niger). In addition to around 1,500 Barkhane troops stationed in Niger, France has provided the country with around EUR 120 million in development aid in 2022. The US, who currently has two military drone bases and over 1,000 troops deployed in Niger, had announced in March this year USD 150 million in direct assistance.
While Niger had managed to distinguish itself from its Sahelian neighbours as a “less problematic partner” for Western allies, it nonetheless has a range of structural weaknesses and vulnerabilities that might help explain recent events and their potential implications. First, Niger has a long history of coups (attempts), with this takeover marking the fifth ‘successful’ coup in the country’s history since its independence in 1960. Most recently, its democratic institutions were threatened by an attempted coup in March 2021, just two days before Bazoum’s inauguration. Against this backdrop, experts describe ongoing events as a sad reminder of the factionalism and power rivalries that have plagued Nigerien military and political spheres in recent years; an undermining factor that has for long been underestimated. Even now, the delay between the coup and announcement of Tiani’s leadership hints at internal disagreement within the new junta.
Niger moreover shares with its Sahelian neighbours challenges related to weak governance, lack of state presence, infrastructures and basic service provisions, particularly in remote rural areas. According to the World Bank, over 10 million people, representing around 40 percent of the population, lived in extreme poverty in 2021. Recording amongst the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) worldwide, Niger faces water scarcity and acute food insecurity. Combined with the effects of climate change, as well as a remarkedly high population growth, these dynamics have not only led to dissatisfaction among Nigeriens but have also provided fertile ground for the spread of violent extremism. Recording the first terrorist attack on its soil in May 2013, terrorist violence throughout Niger has since then resulted in over 1800 deaths. The security situation seems to have improved under Bazoum’s regime, especially in comparison to Niger’s neighbours: 90 percent of 2022’s violence related to Islamist extremism in the Sahel occurred in Mali and Burkina Faso. Yet, Niger’s relatively advantaged position may not immediately translate into tangible results for, and be perceived as such by, local populations, creating potential to be exploited by political and military leaders to frame and legitimize a coup.
A disconnect seems to have grown between Bazoum’s official discourse, actively calling for more international troops to be deployed in Niger, and broader public opinion. Some incidents, such as the blockade of a French convoy in Tera in November 2021 that resulted in three demonstrators being killed, signalled and likely worsened the population’s resentment. Similarly, the march against the presence of Barkhane forces that was banned before it could take place on 17 August 2022, points to stronger anti-French sentiments and popular discontent than the political discourse had suggested. Such resentment is believed to be linked to the population’s unmet expectations towards external forces, with experts underlying that “the populations do not understand why the terrorist attacks continue, given the big means available to the French forces,” and exacerbated by so-called “disinformation campaigns,” framing Western imperialism as the root of all issues. Some civil society figures and organisations have also expressed their opposition to an increased international presence. Among the greatest critiques is the movement M62, whose protests were often either banned or violently dispersed under Bazoum’s regime, but have been revitalised in the wake of the President’s removal.
Short- and Long-term Challenges
While those who seized power in Niamey claimed to be responding to the worsening security conditions, their ability to more effectively curb extremist violence than the previous democratically-elected authorities is uncertain. Past experience demonstrates that military takeovers rather result in a further deterioration of insecurity, with the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso having only led in an increase in terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath of a coup, military junta accessing power tend to focus their attention on consolidating their power base in capital cities, distracting authorities from counter-terrorism efforts, and potentially leaving a security vacuum for violent extremist groups to exploit in rural and peripherical areas. Securing a solid power base could moreover prove challenging for the military junta in Niger. As events unfolded on 26 July, internal divisions between the presidential guard and the army—which initially stayed loyal to President Bazoum—became apparent, raising concerns that elements within the military might not be entirely loyal to the new rulers and posing a risk of further disruption.
Moreover, current events will likely impact Niger’s relations with regional and Western partners. Whether ending in the reinstatement of the democratic order or the confirmation of an interim military government, it could at best deeply erode trust between Western allies and what appears as a not-so-stable Niger, and at worst lead to a severe breakdown in the countries’ partnerships. Disengagement of international partners would have severe consequences in a country that, according to the World Bank, relies on close to USD 2 billion a year in official development assistance. Experts moreover warn that isolating military regimes in West Africa “risks entrenching hardliners to the detriment of both local civilians and European interests.” Terrorist groups can take advantage of political uncertainties, leadership crises, and the void left behind by international partners, to entrench their position in marginalised regions. Moreover, an unintended consequence of such coups is to give further credibility to these groups’ discourses portraying state authorities as incapable of meeting populations’ basic needs and demands for security, and presenting themselves as credible alternatives.
Another source of major concerns across Western capitals is the potential shift in Niger’s position towards Russia, and particularly its proxy paramilitary group, Wagner. Niger has so far refused to follow its neighbour’s pathway, with national officials firmly condemning the arrival of Wagner operatives in Mali. Yet, observers fear that Russian flags waved by coup supporters in Niamey’s streets may “symbolize how Russia has positioned itself as the torch bearer of anti-Western, and especially anti-French, sentiment in a swath of Africa in recent years.” Moreover, on the margins of the Russia-Africa summit taking place in St. Petersburg, Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has reportedly “hailed the coup as good news and offered his fighters’ service to bring order.” While experts note that “it is not necessarily a given that every military junta is going to be pro-Russia,” they also caution against the risk that “if the West decides to isolate the new regime, it is possible that it will turn towards groups like the Wagner Group and Russia to support their efforts and gain legitimacy,” in exchange for agreements on the exploitation of Niger’s coveted natural resources. Wagner’s deployment in Mali has led to devastating consequences, including more violence against civilians and serious human rights abuses, notably perpetrated during the Moura massacre that resulted in over 500 deaths in late March 2022.
Any severe deterioration of the country’s security situation could offer jihadists an opportunity to seize control of “a contiguous belt across the Sahel from Mali to northern Nigeria.” Caught in the crossfire of various al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups operating in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, Niger currently ranks tenth as the country most impacted by terrorism globally. Moreover, organised banditry across the border with Nigeria may spiral into armed insurrection, and open a new front for terrorist organisations active in the country. After having recorded the largest increase in terrorism deaths worldwide in 2021, the country had seen an almost 80 percent decrease in terrorist casualties in 2022. Sustaining these short-term gains, which some researchers attribute to “Nigerien security forces hav[ing] stepped up operations against the terrorist groups,” might be difficult due to the ongoing political crisis. Such a scenario could furthermore have devastating consequences for coastal West African states, including neighbouring Benin, which recorded its worst year in terms of terrorist violence in 2022. Close cooperation between Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso is required to tackle the threat posed by terrorist insurgents that have reportedly established themselves in Park W. This nature reserve stretching across the three countries could be used as a rear base to further expand their presence throughout West Africa.
There are still many unknowns at the time of writing, notably regarding the potential impact of pressure exerted by the international community, and the ultimatum issued by ECOWAS. However, the further destabilisation of Niger would certainly pose serious risks for the broader region, as this political turmoil might impact counter-terrorism efforts, benefit terrorist organisations, and eventually impact the broader Sahel’s security landscape. Whatever the outcome, this new political upheaval moreover raises important questions about the effectiveness of the approach of the international community in addressing violent extremism in the region. Over a year ago, in the context of the Barkhane withdrawal from Mali and relocation to Niger, experts already warned that a military redeployment would unlikely resolve the crisis. Rather, past experiences point to an urgent need for a change in paradigm—increased efforts have to be deployed to address the underlying socio-economic tensions that have allowed terrorist groups to thrive in the first place.
In neighbouring countries and elsewhere, history has shown that crises only tend to worsen when met with the disengagement of the international community. A major challenge is to find the right balance between exerting the pressure needed for unlawful power takers to reinstate or transition back to a constitutional order, without jeopardising the resolution of the crisis. Careful consideration must notably be paid to the potential consequences of diplomatic and economic sanctions on already deprived local populations. If causing “severe and serious disruption to economies,” such measures might prove counter-productive. They might exacerbate grievances among local populations, thereby garnering further support for the military rulers, or serving as useful recruitment tools for violent extremist groups trying to position themselves as alternative governance actors. Even if challenging, efforts should be made to maintain appropriate channels for political dialogue, and sustain financial and technical support needed for humanitarian and civil society organisations to continue operating safely and provide assistance for vulnerable populations.