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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED

A key African democracy bites the Sahelian dust as Presidential Guard seizes control in Niger

A key African democracy bites the Sahelian dust as Presidential Guard seizes control in Niger
Frederick John Dealtry Lugard (1858-1945). (Photo: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images) | A firefighter douses torched cars near the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism headquarters in Niamey on 27 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR) | Yevgeny Prigozhin in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 17 June 2016. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images) | Russian National Guard Service officers in Moscow on 27 June 2023. (Photo: Contributor / Getty Images)

The Niger coup is a massive blow to Western interests. And while there is no evidence that Russia’s Wagner Group instigated the coup, Russian media and Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin have been crowing, characterising it as a huge defeat for the West and a ‘victory against colonialism’.

Lord Frederick Lugard, the man who established British imperial control over Nigeria, once explained why he had no interest in colonising the Sahel: “We would rather leave it to the Gallic cockerel to peck around in the desert.”

This week as yet another military coup occurred in a former French colony, this time in Niger, the French rooster was truly having its neck wrung.

If the coup holds it will be catastrophic for France, which has seen its neocolonial empire disintegrate piece by piece, from the Central African Republic to Mali and Burkina Faso – while placing most of its remaining eggs in the basket of Niger.

Niger is different from the others. It was a genuine democracy. President Mohamed Bazoum was not in the mould of most of the corrupt, recycled old-guard politicians and military officers who were kicked out in the other Sahelian states.

He was a rarity in a harsh region. Long-time Niger watchers interviewed said he was intent on transforming the lives of ordinary people in the seventh-poorest country in the world through agriculture and other economic reforms. There has been no whiff of corruption around him. One source who has worked in Niger extensively spoke of Bazoum having “a project for his country”.

Bazoum is an Arab, a group that constitutes less than 1% of the population of Niger, which frees him from any tribal or ethnic loyalty.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Niger coup widely condemned, countries urge return to order

Bazoum was felled by domestic politics. He tried to break free from the stranglehold of his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who left office in 2021 but still exerted control through the Presidential Guard and his son, Petroleum Minister Sani Mahamadou Issoufou.

The president fired the head of the Presidential Guard, General Omar Tchiani, who instead turned around and fired the president. After a long stand-off, the military joined the coup.

Media reports of the past 48 hours have concentrated on the fact that the coup has been a massive blow to the Americans and the French.

The Russian media and Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, dressed in natty jeans and speaking from the sidelines of the Africa-Russia conference in St Petersburg, have been crowing, characterising it as a huge defeat for the West and a “victory against colonialism”.

As if on cue, hundreds of people, some waving Russian flags, demonstrated in Niamey in support of the coup, vandalising the offices of Bazoum’s ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, looting stores and torching cars.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Roll over Prigozhin – here comes Paul Kagame

But there is no evidence that Wagner instigated the coup, other than the quick-on-the-uptake propaganda spin. Wagner was always better at fake news than real combat.

What should not be lost sight of is that the biggest damage will be to villagers and farmers of a small, vulnerable country who face an uncertain and probably violent future – and that the whole of west Africa down to the Atlantic coast shuddered this week.

Western interests

This is not to deny that the coup is a massive blow to Western interests. The French and the Americans have been helping Niger in combating the various insurgencies from al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram.

French troops forced to leave Mali and Burkina Faso were deployed to Niger, which became France’s mainstay in the region. The uranium mines, the largest revenue producer in the country, are also French-owned.

The US has a drone base near Agadez in the north and several hundred military and intelligence boots on the ground monitoring insurgent activity in the Sahel and southern Libya. The strategic value of this installation can be seen by the fact that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger in March.

American commandos have trained Nigerien special forces, though they might pause to consider what it means that General Moussa Salao Barmou, their protégé and head of special forces, participated in the coup.

Despite being close to the French and the Americans, Bazoum was no one’s lackey, being especially aware of anti-French feeling in the capital. He opened channels, for instance, to negotiate and search for peace with the Jihadists and could be publicly critical of his Western allies.

There does remain one hope of reversing the coup – the diplomatic efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). Its chairperson, Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, was quick to denounce the putsch and his awareness of the seriousness of the threat to the region was seen in his rapid response, immediately dispatching a delegation to Niamey including the president of Benin, Patrice Talon.

The democratic countries along the Atlantic seaboard fear that the coup in Niger will mean the expansion of the Jihadists southwards.

Sources in Abuja say the situation is personal for Tinubu. His early political career was in the struggle against the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. But he is also keenly aware of the impact on Nigeria, which has a long and porous border with Niger.

Cross-border insurgency and banditry between Zamfara state in Nigeria and southern Niger has increased over the past few years while Boko Haram has run operations across the border for more than a decade.

Tinubu has shown a willingness to make tough and painful choices with his economic and security reforms at home. Regionally, he has indicated that he wants to return Ecowas to the policy of zero tolerance for coups. At one point, Ecowas was prepared to send intervention forces into recalcitrant countries.

Ecowas’ lack of political will and feeble responses to the coups of the past six years effectively encouraged further coups.

The challenge for Tinubu and Ecowas will be to talk the military men back to barracks, even if this does not happen immediately but over a longer time.

The democratic countries along the Atlantic seaboard fear that the coup in Niger will mean the expansion of the Jihadists southwards. The insurgencies in both Burkina Faso and Mali have worsened dramatically in the past two years since the coups.

Cameron Hudson, an associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that unlike Mali and Burkina, violence is “much closer to Niger’s capital, Niamey, making the military’s coup even more perplexing since on their own, without Western support, they’re unlikely to counter the threat”.

“The political instability in Niger remains a major concern,” a senior military officer from Benin told the Wall Street Journal. “From now on, we might face increasing activity by terrorist groups along our common border.”

For the Western powers, if the coup succeeds, the last friendly government in the Sahel is Chad, which is distracted by the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the civil war in Sudan and is having to deal with 150,000 refugees from Darfur who have fled across the border into makeshift camps.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bandits on bikes — motorbike trafficking critical to armed groups’ mobility in the Sahel

Without a resolution, Niger could represent a target of opportunity for Wagner – though the apparent “cure” is almost worse than the malady. In Mali, where Wagner stands accused of massacres and extra-judicial executions, the number of casualties in the violence has tripled since their troops were deployed.

From discussions this week it is apparent that few people in west Africa would want to take a leaf out of Lord Lugard’s book and leave the Russian crow Prigozhin with free rein to peck around in the desert. DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla.Africa. Get Unscrambled by signing up here.

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