Crisis in Niger: Coup Unleashes Turmoil and Uncertainty

On July 26th, 2023, the Presidential Guard in Niger executed a swift coup, taking President Mohamed Bazoum and his family into custody. Senior officers from diverse defence and security sectors formed the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP) and announced their assumption of power via a nationwide broadcast.

The public’s reaction was a mixed bag, ranging from initial demonstrations in favour of President Bazoum to subsequent displays of support for the CNSP. This shifting sentiment was underscored by scenes of mutinous soldiers dispersing early pro-Bazoum rallies, followed by later gatherings in support of the new junta. Just a day later, the Nigerien Armed Forces aligned themselves with the CNSP, underlining their commitment to a peaceful transition and the protection of President Bazoum and his family.

However, the coup has not escaped the condemnation of the international community. Powerful players like the United States, France, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have raised their voices in unison against the power grab. During a summit in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, ECOWAS contemplated military intervention and brandished the threat of sanctions to pressure the junta. The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) was quick to impose stringent sanctions, freezing state assets. In a display of regional division, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali rallied behind the Nigerien junta and defiantly declined to enforce any external sanctions. Burkina Faso and Mali even issued a joint warning that any military intervention in Niger would be deemed a declaration of war against their own nations, pointing to a widening chasm in the West African collective.

The reverberations of this coup are far-reaching, harbouring the potential for internal strife, external conflict, an upsurge in militant activities, democratic erosion, civil liberties curtailment, and severe socio-economic repercussions due to international sanctions. As the dust settles, the nascent military junta struggles to solidify its hold, besieged by mounting opposition from various quarters. President Bazoum retains not only the backing of international allies but also garners significant local support. Signs of a counter-mobilization for mass demonstrations against the junta have begun to emerge.

Delving into the underlying factors that fomented this turmoil, it becomes apparent that Niger now stands as the final domino to fall among the central Sahel states grappling with military coups. While speculations have arisen about external influences, the driving forces behind the coup are deeply rooted in domestic dynamics. General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the coup’s orchestrator, was reportedly facing an imminent dismissal as the head of the Presidential Guard. This role had seen him fend off numerous coup attempts during the tenures of both former President Mahamadou Issoufou and his successor, Bazoum. A cumulative dissatisfaction within the defence and security forces likely contributed to the junta’s swift emergence, aided by a convergence of senior military officers.

The timing of this coup coincides with rising anti-French sentiments in neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso, and within Niger itself. Strikingly, despite its role as a counter-terrorism hub, Niger found itself at odds with its Sahelian counterparts. President Bazoum’s frank rhetoric, while occasionally valid, strained relations, particularly his criticisms of Mali’s affiliation with the Russian private military company Wagner Group and Burkina Faso’s embrace of self-defence militias. These policies seemed to exacerbate security challenges and violence in these neighbouring nations. Bazoum’s recent assertion, as the supreme commander of Niger’s armed forces, that militants had grown “stronger and more battle-hardened” than regional armies, likely exacerbated tensions and undermined morale within the military, possibly contributing to the coup’s brewing.

As Niger navigates these uncharted waters, the repercussions reverberate across the Sahel. The nation’s fate hangs in the balance, teetering between a return to stability and deeper chaos. As the international community grapples with how to respond, it remains to be seen whether Niger’s nascent junta will consolidate its grip or succumb to internal and external pressures. The implications, both within Niger’s borders and throughout the region, are profound and hold the potential to reshape the Sahel’s political landscape for years to come.

Escalating Violence in Niger: A Precarious Landscape

The intricate web of violence and conflict in Niger paints a grim picture, as the nation grapples with an array of security challenges that have now been exacerbated by the recent coup. From the west to the southeast, from the central regions to the borders, the nation confronts a spectrum of threats that test its stability and security apparatus. The coup, which removed President Mohamed Bazoum from power, not only deepens the pattern of instability across the Sahel but also threatens to reverse the progress made in fostering democracy within the region.

Multiple Fronts of Insecurity

Niger’s geography has positioned it as a crossroads of instability, with numerous security challenges converging within its borders. The western front is besieged by the Sahelian insurgency, fueled by groups like IS Sahel and the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM. Meanwhile, the southeastern Diffa region faces the grip of the ISWAP and Boko Haram insurgency, causing widespread suffering and displacement.

In the central Tahoua region, the menace of IS Sahel’s militancy intertwines with rampant banditry, further destabilizing the area. Maradi, located along the southern border with Nigeria, contends with the menace of organized bandit gangs that operate with brazen impunity. The Agadez region’s valuable resources, including gold and smuggling routes, have lured an array of armed groups, from Chadian and Sudanese rebels to drug traffickers and organized criminal networks. These groups have collectively contributed to the spectre of rural banditry that hangs over the region.

A Fragile Balance

Despite the substantial challenges, Niger has, by some metrics, fared better than its neighbours in terms of violence and conflict. The military junta’s core justification for the coup lies in the purportedly deteriorating security situation. The years of 2019 and 2020, during President Mahamadou Issoufou’s tenure, saw devastating losses incurred by the Nigerien Defense and Security Forces due to a series of mass-casualty attacks perpetrated by IS Sahel.

The transition in 2021, marked by President Bazoum’s ascent, ushered in a record year of conflict incidents, coinciding with the nation’s democratic transition. Despite this, lethal violence levels have seen a consistent decline since, setting Niger apart from the intense violence levels experienced by neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.

The ousting of a democratically elected government in a nation as populous as Niger, larger in landmass than Texas and California combined, sends reverberations throughout Africa. Niger’s coup follows a string of similar incidents since 2020, spanning Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan. As the world grapples with the unfolding crisis, there is still much to uncover about the origins of this upheaval and the necessary responses from African and international partners.

The Way Forward: Lessons Learned

Efforts to stabilize the Sahel region must evolve in response to the changing dynamics. Billions of dollars invested in military proficiency have not been sufficient to quell extremist movements and insurgencies fueled by governance failures. This is a key lesson – military power must be complemented by governance improvements to address root causes.

A more effective response requires a shift in focus – moving beyond traditional security assistance to addressing unmet needs and unresolved conflicts. Partnerships must be broadened, involving legislatures, judicial branches, and civil society. Moreover, local populations must be heard to understand their needs and inform policy responses. Economic investment, rather than traditional development aid, should be a cornerstone of the strategy, fostering transparent governance and the rule of law.

Collaboration through African institutions such as the African Union and ECOWAS is crucial. ECOWAS has previously intervened with diplomacy and peacekeeping forces in West African crises. As the world grapples with the unfolding situation, it’s clear that crises in the Sahel cannot be ignored. A setback such as this coup must galvanize action, as the world becomes smaller due to interconnected challenges like terrorism and climate shocks.

Nigeria’s proximity to Niger brings a unique responsibility. The nation, assuming the role of ECOWAS Chairman, is positioned to spearhead coordinated efforts. One potential strategy, discussed during a recent ECOWAS meeting, is armed intervention to remove the ruling junta and restore President Mohamed Bazoum. Nigeria’s commitment to democratic principles, as evidenced by President Tinubu’s inauguration remarks, strengthens the resolve to navigate these tumultuous waters.

As the dust settles from the coup, Niger faces a crossroads. The junta’s consolidation of power remains uncertain, and support for Bazoum’s return could lead to mass unrest. The situation’s ripple effects could impact the entire Sahel region, exacerbating existing security challenges and potentially giving rise to new threats. Niger’s political landscape could undergo further democratic backsliding, joining its neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, where military governments eroded civil liberties.

Additionally, socio-economic repercussions could strike Niger’s already fragile economy due to sanctions and aid suspensions. The immediate future holds daunting challenges, and as the Sahel confronts the spectre of military rule, the need for collective, innovative responses is more pressing than ever before.

About the author

Olivier Noudjalbaye Dedingar

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