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The Coup in Niger and its Russian Backers
The recent coup in Niger is destroying the country's young democracy and upending American interests in the region
The specter of war is looming over West Africa, pitting Western-aligned governments against the expanding coalition of Russian-backed military juntas.
The recent crisis began on July 26, when the presidential guard of Niger under commander Omar Tchiani led a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum. Tchiani declared himself the president of the ruling military junta of Niger, and Bazoum has remained detained on house arrest ever since. On Sunday night the junta announced that the Bazoum would face charges for “high treason,” which could carry the death penalty.
The turn of events may spell the end of democracy in Niger, which was already in a precarious position. After suffering four successful coups from 1974 to 2010, the country experienced its first democratic transition of power in 2021, despite another coup attempt. Now, that progress could be undone in a particularly damaging fashion, plunging the country––and potentially the region––deeper into crisis.
Fearing the potential fallout, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a bloc of 15 West African countries headquartered in Nigeria, united against the overthrow. In a summit on July 30, ECOWAS enacted sanctions against the new regime and gave it one week to restore President Bazoum or risk military intervention. On August 6, the one-week deadline came and went, with ECOWAS stressing that it would prefer a diplomatic solution before a military one, but it continues to prepare forces for a potential mission. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed American approval for these efforts, saying on Tuesday that “we’re in strong support of what ECOWAS is doing” both in regard to a “diplomatic path forward” and in “preparing contingencies” for a military operation.
The military junta controlling Niger, meanwhile, has aligned itself with the pro-Russian regimes in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. The two countries are similarly ruled by military juntas, which came to power through coups in 2021 and 2022 respectively. In a joint statement, they threatened that "any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali."
As the American-supported bloc faces off against the pro-Russia military juntas, the situation in Niger risks becoming a flashpoint in a wider clash.
“With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine,” President Bazoum said in a Washington Post op-ed he dictated over the phone from house arrest.
Russia is expanding its influence in Central and West Africa, taking advantage of fragile institutions, a persistent distrust of Westerners following colonial rule, and these countries’ struggles to contain Islamic terrorism. The Wagner Group is an essential component in Russian strategy.
In Sudan and the Central African Republic, Wagner forces have operated for more than five years, propping up the regimes in exchange for lucrative mining rights and influence. After the 2021 coup in Mali, Wagner forces joined military ruler Colonel Assimi Goïta’s forces to provide military training and fight terrorism. These campaigns are coming at significant human cost. Since Wagner’s entrance into Mali in 2021, non-combatant casualties have risen dramatically. In the spring of 2022, Wagner operatives took part in the massacre of about 400 civilians, with atrocities continuing into this year.
While Wagner is a key player in backing these military juntas after they take power, Russia is also encouraging these coups before they take place.
“In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the coups were preceded by concerted Russian disinformation campaigns that attacked the elected civilian governments, the capability of democratic governments to maintain security, and tying these governments to anticolonial sentiment. Russia has subsequently been the leading external cheerleader (and beneficiary) for militaries seizing power in Africa,” according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The interplay between Wagner’s semi-autonomous operations and Kremlin strategy was put on display in June, after Wagner founder Prigozhin’s mutiny threw the future of the mercenary group into question. Amid the confusion, Russia foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov took it upon himself to announce that Wagner operations in the Central African Republic and Mali would continue uninterrupted.
“In Africa, the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state,” a foreign policy analyst and a former Wagner Group commander wrote in Foreign Policy this month.
The paramilitary organization seems poised to intervene in Niger next. Earlier this month, Niger’s junta reached out to Wagner for support in the potential clash with ECOWAS forces.
The ouster of the democratic government of President Bazoum is a major setback for American interests across the Sahel, the region spanning the southern Sahara. President Bazoum is a rare ally in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes and Russian influence, and Niger has become essential to US strategy.
Since 2012, the US has spent more than $500 million to develop Niger’s military in its campaign against Islamic extremist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which threaten to destabilize the region. The United States also built a drone base in Niger at a cost of $110 million to serve as a hub for counterterrorism operations throughout North Africa. Since the coup, the military authorities have closed Niger’s airspace, grounding American operations, and may force the US out of the country entirely.
The country that Blinken called a “model of democracy” is rapidly becoming the latest authoritarian, Russian-aligned state with potentially disastrous consequences for Nigeriens and American interests. Niger’s best hope of restoring democratic rule may rest on ECOWAS removing Tchiani through force and reinstating President Bazoum.
“I urge the U.S. to support the Economic Community of West African States’ military effort to end the coup attempt while there is still time,” Niger's ambassador to the US under Bazoum, Mamadou Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, wrote earlier this week. “Allowing President Bazoum to die at the hands of his captors would be a strategic error that would empower the terrorist threat to our collective security. Military inaction would signal a turn away from the same democratic values that are under threat from a declining Russia, which is trying to remain relevant by sowing seeds of chaos around the world.”