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Niger’s coup and the international community’s opposition, explained

President Mohamed Bazoum has refused to resign despite Wednesday’s military takeover.

ORTN – Télé Sahel/AFP via Getty Images

By Ellen Ioanes

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the head of Niger’s presidential guard, with other members of Niger’s armed forces, on Friday declared himself head of a transitional government he called “the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland,” while international leaders and organizations including the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) strongly condemned the coup.

President Mohamed Bazoum was democratically elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power, and “remains the only legitimate President of Niger,” as European Union High Representative Josep Borrell said in a statement Saturday calling on the coup leaders to release Bazoum. Members of the military involved in the coup meanwhile warned in a television address Friday that ”consequences that will flow” should any foreign forces intervene. The US built and helps run an air base in Niger, and France has about 1,500 troops in the country, according to France24.

ECOWAS authorities will hold negotiations on Sunday to attempt to convince Tchiani to hand power back to Bazoum; the economic body is reportedly considering sanctions against Niger as a form of leverage, though it’s not yet clear what those measures would look like. The EU has already withdrawn funding and military support “with immediate effect” due to the “unacceptable attack on the integrity of Niger’s republican institutions.” The EU had reserved $554 million of its budget for 2021-2024 to support education, governance, sustainable economic growth, as Al Jazeera reported.

It’s the fifth successful military coup in Niger since its independence from France in 1960. A series of coups has toppled the governments of several African countries over the past three years, but Niger is a bit of an outlier among its neighbors, particularly due to the vociferous support Bazoum’s government has enjoyed. Though Niger, like many other western African nations, had suffered from poor economic growth and stunted democratic and public institutions, Bazoum’s tenure produced improvements in education and public health, as well as the security and economic outlooks compared with neighbors like Mali and Burkina Faso.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna is referring to Tchiani’s takeover as an “attempted coup” because “we don’t consider things final, there is still a way out if those responsible listen to the international community,” she said Thursday. On Saturday, she announced via Twitter that France had immediately suspended “all its development aid and budget support actions from Niger” and called for Bazoum’s immediate release and reinstatement.

Wednesday’s coup was tenuous — and the outcome remains uncertain

Tchiani’s claim to power rests on the idea that Bazoum’s government had failed to deal with the violent Islamist extremism that has festered in the region over the past decade. That claim has driven coups elsewhere in the region, such as Mali. Military leaders can present themselves as a strong security alternative in unstable and violent nations, but in the case of Niger, the security situation was actually improving, especially in relation to its neighbors in the Sahel region — the band of north-central Africa stretching from northern Senegal to Sudan.

According to a February report from the Africa Center for Strategic Analysis, the vast majority — 90 percent — of last year’s violent events related to Islamist extremism in the Sahel occurred in Mali and Burkina Faso. And while while the number of violent events in Niger doubled to 214, the number of deaths due to extremism declined by half.

Approximately 40 percent of all violent activity by Islamist groups in Africa occurs in the Sahel — more than any other African region. The terror — summary executions, kidnappings, rapes, and lootings — that groups like the Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) coalition, Ansaroul Islam, Ansar Dine, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is real, and it is devastating. But if the situations in Mali and Burkina Faso are any example, military rule only exacerbates the violence.

Tchiani told Nigeriens on a televised address Friday that he had taken over to stop “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country because “the security approach today has not brought security to the country despite heavy sacrifices.” As Al Jazeera reported, Tchiani told Nigeriens that Bazoum had duped them into thinking the situation was improving, while “the harsh reality [is] a pile of dead, displaced, humiliation and frustration.”

Bazoum had reportedly tried to force Tchiani into retirement, as Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, points out. “The coup justifications have no foundation to stand on in Niger,” Eizenga said, adding that the power grab seems to be due to “the egotistical motivations of this individual.”

Indeed, Tchiani did not initially have the full support of the armed forces, though he has since commandeered the endorsement of some of Niger’s military leaders. Civilian protests immediately after Tchiani’s takeover insisted that Bazoum be returned to office; however, as Eizenga told Vox, those protests were violently suppressed by the presidential guard, Tchiani’s unit — creating a “chilling effect” against further civilian protest.

A tradition of military rule is proving hard to shake

While coups around the world and in the Sahel region have both broad and specific commonalities, it’s critical to understand the differences between these events, Joseph Sany, the vice president of the US Institute of Peace’s Africa Center told Vox in an interview last year.

“I hate the term ‘contagion’ because it’s a blanket term,” Sany said at the time. “You can’t put Guinea in the same group as Mali and Burkina Faso.”

Successful coups often have some common elements like weak democratic institutions, tension between the military and the civilian government, rampant and unpunished corruption, a history of coups, and governments unable or unwilling to provide necessary services.

Niger has a history of a politicized military, as do other nations which have undergone undemocratic changes in government over the past three years. “The recent changes in government, through the coup and counter-coups, is more or less a reflection of the past,” Bonnie Ayodele, a professor of political science at Ekiti State University in Ado Ekiti, Nigeria, told Vox in an interview.

“When you try to change that, there are going to be actors within the military that perceive that as their interests being negatively affected,” Eizenga said. The presidential guard, which Tchaini had headed since 2011, also have a degree of influence and autonomy from the regular military, which can create a sense of exceptionalism.

Though Russia’s Wagner Group has been linked to military regimes in Mali, the Central African Republic, and potentially to Sudan, there’s no evidence that the proxy force headed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin was part of Wednesday’s coup. Prigozhin did, however, issue a statement that appealed to the anti-colonialist sentiment Wagner has stoked in neighboring Mali. “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers,” Prigozhin posted on Telegram Thursday, according to Reuters. “With colonizers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.”

As Ayodele told Vox, threats from France and the EU are unlikely to sway Tchiani and his fellow coup-plotters. “It has never deterred them — sanctions, banning them, slamming them with a lot of punishments, it doesn’t work. They did that against the Junta in Mali, they did that against the junta in Burkina Faso […] so I’m not sure this will work.”

The emergency ECOWAS summit needs to take forceful action to follow Nigerian president and ECOWAS Chairman Bola Tinubu’s condemnation of the coup attempt, Ayodele said. Tinubu dispatched Benin’s President Patrice Talon to Niger to assess the situation on the ground and said in a statement that, “I believe that all means will be used if necessary to restore constitutional order in Niger, but the ideal would be for everything to happen in peace and harmony.”

As for what ECOWAS can actually do, “nothing is off the table,” Abdel Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs and Security told Daybreak Africa.

There is a protocol that many West African countries have signed to with regards to unconstitutional changes in government, that that particular country is no longer part of ECOWAS bloc,” Ayodele told Vox. “But we’ve seen some of these countries relapse into a military regime again, and ECOWAS is incapacitated to respond in a way that can bring about a democratic regime.”

Ultimately a united international front and stronger action from ECOWAS, particularly Nigerian President Ahmed Bola Tinubu could prove decisive for Niger. President Bazoum has refused to resign and has broad and forceful support not only from Western nations but within ECOWAS and the African Union.

And it’s those blocs and African nations, particularly Nigeria, , that have a strong interest in returning civilian rule to Niger. Even deeply flawed civilian regimes are better than military rule, and garner more international support while also being more stable and less violent. If Niger’s can be overturned or reversed, it would send a strong signal of support for civilian government in Africa, and would help to reverse recent democratic backsliding.


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