Making Sense of the Niger Coup
Is Niger the next battlefield?
Is the coup in Niger a critical move in the world’s geopolitical scene? Or is it just another African coup in a region that has seen several coups in the last few years
On July 26th, the presidential guard launched a coup and captured Niger President Mohamed Bazoum and his family. Senior officers of the Niger military formed a National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP).
The coup was condemned by the US, UK, France, the European Union and the UN.
While some have claimed that the coup was a reaction to French involvement in a former colony, others saw it as a move by Russia and the resurgent Wagner Group to expand Russian influence in Africa. Some saw growing American military influence in Africa.
Or it could be palace politics
The coup leader was General Tchiani, who was the head of the Presidential Guard and was rumored to be on the outs with the president and on the verge of being fired. General Tchiani had been the head of the Presidential Guard for President Bazoum and his predecessor Issoufou and had stopped several coup attempts.
The fact that several senior military officers quickly joined the junta indicates that there was discontent amongst many Niger military officers. Although there are elections in Niger, the political establishment is entrenched and there has been unrest towards the former colonial power, France. IS Sahel and Al Qaeda backed JNIM are found in Niger and neighboring countries. There are also armed groups that are involved in smuggling and gold mining (gold is Niger’s largest export).
No wonder the junta noted the “continually deteriorating security situation,” as a reason for the coup. However, there is a question if the Niger military junta can defeat IS Sahel and Al Qaeda backed JNIM. In 2019 and 2020, the Niger military suffered heavy losses from IS Sahel. Losses from IS Sahel have dropped as that group has focused its attention on Mali, as French forces have withdrawn from that nation.
As of this time, the junta hasn’t asked for the withdrawal of the 1,500 French forces or the 1,000 American forces even though the US and France have condemned the coup. Given the unrest in the Sahel region, it’s likely that Niger will not push for a French or American withdrawal.
There are several reasons that Niger will continue to keep French and American forces in the country. One is the close relationship between American and Niger officers.
Brigadier General Barmou is American trained and is currently the chief of Niger’s Special Operations Forces.
“We have had a very long relationship with the United States,” Barmou said in 2021. The US has a drone operation in Niger that is considered the “linchpin” of US Army Special Operations in West Africa.
Although the US has condemned the coup, the drone operations are considered critical to monitoring groups like IS Sahel and JNIM. America has stated that it is not contemplating a withdrawal from Niger. Therefore, the US will be very careful to avoid upsetting the junta so much that they will lose this critical African military outpost.
If there is to be military action, it will come from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the West African group of nations. On Thursday, at the end of the emergency summit on the Niger issue, ECOWAS ordered the activation of its standby military force.
ECOWAS may have ordered activation of its standby military force, and many might consider it a bluff. However, ECOWAS has successfully carried out a military intervention in order to defend a democracy.
In January 2017, ECOWAS military forces from six nations entered Gambia in Operation Restore Democracy. Senegal provided the most soldiers, although it has a very small military. Nigeria provided the second largest expeditionary force, which included aircraft and a naval vessel.
If there is to be military action, it will probably rely most on the Nigerian Armed forces, which is considered the fourth most powerful military in Africa and the 35th most powerful internationally. The Nigerian Army has shown that it can mobilize, deploy and sustain brigade sized forces in support peacekeeping operations in Liberia. They have sent more than 20,000 troops in support of various UN missions.
However, currently, the Nigerian Senate has rejected military intervention.
Niger has an army of about 25,000 soldiers. France has been its traditional arms supplier since it gained its independence from France. Russia is the second largest arms provider. The Niger military organization closely mirrors the French model.
To complicate any military planning, the junta has said they will kill the president if ECOWAS takes military action.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group has a presence in Mali, which is a neighboring country to Niger. But, Acting Deputy Secretary of State Nuland has warned the Niger junta from cooperating with the Wagner Group.
From a geopolitical point of view, some wins by the Wagner Group in Africa could help Putin, who is still not winning in Ukraine. In that regard, Niger may be a critical piece on the chessboard of geopolitics.
If ECOWAS decides to take military action, it could be a close thing. The Wagner Group has a long logistical tail and keeping it supplied will be much harder than it was in Ukraine. ECOWAS needs a major military force to put Bazum back in power. If Nigeria doesn’t support a military option, it may come down to the French and Americans to come to Bazum’s rescue. This option seems to be a remote possibility at this stage especially with the popular support that the Military leaders enjoyed, in addition to forming a civilian majority interim government.