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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

A dangerous moment for West Africa as Niger coup fuels escalation of regional jihadist wars

A dangerous moment for West Africa as Niger coup fuels escalation of regional jihadist wars
Protesters hold a Niger flag during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey on August 3, 2023. - Hundreds of people backing the coup in Niger gathered on August 3, 2023 for a mass rally in the capital Niamey with some brandishing giant Russian flags. (Photo: AFP)

France is not the prime enemy nor the source of the crisis in the Sahel today. The real menace stalking the region and causing shivers down to the Atlantic Coast is the Jihadists, who have inflicted unimaginable cruelty on vulnerable populations.

If ever there was a miserable reason to overthrow the constitutional order of a country, last week’s coup in Niger was it.

The chief of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, reached the retirement age of 62. His boss, president Mohamed Bazoum, tired of the military officer who resented taking orders from a trade unionist, suggested that this would be a good time for him to go back to his farm.

Instead, Tchiani and his guards took Bazoum and his family hostage at gunpoint, threatened a bloodbath if the military did not fall into line, and Tchiani was declared head of state.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) sent an ultimatum to the coup plotters to release Bazoum and restore the constitutional order by Sunday. A military conflict, even though it is a last resort, is no longer unthinkable.

Tchiani’s vague and lame excuses for his action provided cover for an elite in Niamey resistant to Bazoum’s reforms, who have willingly embraced the coup.

They were further emboldened by a social media avalanche that has successfully presented the coup as representing a higher purpose — a revolt against French neo-colonialism.

An analysis of this week’s cyber activity explains why Russian president Vladimir Putin kept Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, a master of the dark arts, onside after his treasonous march on Moscow.

While Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a show of calling for the constitutional order in Niger to be restored, Russian Telegram channels exulted in the coup, portraying Bazoum as a lackey of the West and celebrating his removal as a defeat for French neo-colonialism.

With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, July 27 2023. Governing bodies in Africa condemned what they characterized as a coup attempt Wednesday against Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, after members of the presidential guard declared they had seized power in a coup over the West African country’s deteriorating security situation. (AP Photo/Fatahoulaye Hassane Midou)

In Niamey, after the coup, several thousand demonstrators rampaged through the capital Niamey waving Russian flags, burning cars and chanting “Down with France” and “Up with Russia”. A protest against the coup was put down violently.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Niger junta says it will not back down despite ‘inhumane’ sanctions

The protestors did a repeat performance on Thursday, marching against sanctions imposed by Ecowas, France, the EU and the World Bank.

The protests have been organised by a pro-Russian coalition of civil society groups known as M62. The street theatre ensured that they got a good airing on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, creating the impression that the coup was wildly popular.

Disinformation spread

To be clear, neither Russia nor the Wagner mercenaries, from what we know, instigated the coup. However, the post-coup stream of lies and propaganda has closely followed the disinformation playbook from Ukraine and elsewhere and has been hugely effective in framing the narrative.

Silas Paigas, a social media expert at the Abuja-based verification platform, Dubawa.org, has investigated the pro-Russian influencers on social media. One of the most prominent is an account on TikTok owned by an individual called Mutapabere.

Posting from Russia last Friday, Mutapabere welcomed the coup: “Good news from home. I must tell the Western puppets that your days are numbered. We are coming to coop (sic) you.”

Mutapabere, who is Zimbabwean, glorifies Russia and China while deriding France and the West as the enemy and urging military upheavals across Africa.

According to Paigas’ research, Mutapabere boasts a staggering one million followers and has produced more than 2,000 videos that have attracted hundreds of thousands of reactions.

His video from Russia was posted on Thursday and by the end of the weekend had been viewed over 600,000 times and attracted 5,000 comments. Followers called for more coups in Africa and advocated closer ties with Russia.

Mutapabere has close ties with other accounts that glorify the “Russia-China coup” in Africa and the military coups. “These accounts resonate across multiple social media platforms,” says Paigas, “disseminating the same captivating content”.

Nigeria clash

Many of those who follow, pick up, comment or repost this content are the same social media accounts and trolls that usually support and amplify Russian disinformation. Unsurprisingly, Ecowas is being cast as the new Nato, scorned as “puppets of the West”, with special vilification reserved for Nigerian president Bola Tinubu. As the chairman of Ecowas, he was the prime sponsor of the tough resolution declaring zero tolerance for coups that was hammered out in Abuja last Sunday.

Nigeria provides 60% of its neighbour’s electricity supply and on Thursday, after Abuja basically switched off Niger’s lights, hacktivists launched an attack on Nigeria’s critical digital infrastructure.

Nigeria’s National Information Technology Development Agency identified the culprits as a religiously motivated group, but sources in Nigeria said the group was a Russian cybercrime gang in disguise.

“The Nigerian government decided to stand with French imperialists and fight Niger,” the group, Anonymous Sudan, posted: “No problem: we will stand with our African and Muslim brothers and you will be f***ked. French plans in the Sahel and West Africa will not succeed.”

Security forces guard on a street in Niamey, Niger, 30 July 2023. Thousands of supporters of General Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the Presidential Guard, who declared himself the new leader of Niger after a coup against democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on 26 July, took to the streets of Niamey to demonstrate in support for the coup. EPA-EFE/ISSIFOU DJIBO

The propaganda is effective among Francophone West Africans who are fed up with the French and are willing to believe conspiracy theories propagated on social media. But while the former colonial power has a lot to answer for its past, France is not the prime enemy nor the source of the crisis in the Sahel today.

Jihadist violence

The real menace stalking the region and causing shivers down to the Atlantic Coast is the jihadists, who have inflicted unimaginable cruelty on vulnerable populations.

Over the past decade, they have murdered tens of thousands of civilians, abducted children, raped women, burnt villages and driven millions from their homes. One of the poorest parts of the world has become the epicentre of global extremist violence.

The failure of governments to prevent the insurgencies from spiralling out of control led to the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali. Military governments in both countries have only seen ever greater gains for the Jihadists, with the number of dead doubling each year since 2020.

It is extraordinary to remember, but only a decade ago a French force was welcomed as heroes in Mali after it defeated the Jihadists who had taken control of the north and were threatening to overrun the whole country.

The French who finally pulled out earlier this year stayed too long, but the West, especially the US, is “losing” not because they are overbearing but because they haven’t provided more help against the insurgents.

US sanctions against the military regime in Mali in September 2021 prevented just one small part — a transponder — from being fitted to a C295 military transport aircraft built in Europe. The Malian government begged the US to lift the restriction but they refused and the regime turned in frustration to Russia. There are now about 1,000 Wagner troops in Mali.

The tragedy of the coup in Niger, if it holds, is that it was the one place where a counter-insurgency was actually working.

Hannah Rae Armstrong, policy advisor for the European Council on Human Rights says Bazoum’s administration was making “the only meaningful security gains in the Sahel region, forging a delicate balance between security operations, dialogue and outreach with Jihadists, and partnering with American and French forces”.

The Joint Multinational Task Force — including Niger and Benin but dominated by troops from Nigeria and Chad — had broken the back of Boko Haram on both sides of the border.

The US, which is prevented by law from working with a regime that stole power through a military coup — though it can get an exception — is watching the situation warily. It is aware that if it departs, its drone bases in the country which are critical to the counter-insurgency battle could fall into the hands of Wagner, which is eying Niger as an opportunity.

But Wagner, while they are good at spreading chaos through disinformation and mining for gold, have not proven themselves to be very adept at defeating jihadists.

“The coup is good news for jihadist groups,” says Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. He told Reuters:  “The support of international forces, the stability in the capital city, all those things are now gone. It is likely that things will go bad.”

As France’s neo-colonial empire of the last 60 years grows decrepit and unwinds, what are the chances of something more positive emerging on the other side?

The Sahel resembles what the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called a “dangerous interregnum” in which “the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”  

Could he have envisaged the Sahelian cast of strutting military dictators in combat fatigues, teenage Jihadists on motorbikes with AK47s or Yevgeny Prigozhin?

The one source of hope is the decision of a rejuvenated Ecowas which has taken a tough line to uphold democratic values, stop the coup contagion and prevent the loss of hard-won gains in the fight against the jihadists. The flip side is that Ecowas’ credibility is on the line and failure is almost existential at this point.

Tinubu does not want a war. He understands the deeper currents in West Africa and the ethnic realities of Niger, which is closely intertwined with Northern Nigeria, in a way that no Westerner could. That’s why military intervention is on the table but only as a very last resort.

This week Tinubu dispatched a delegation to Niamey that included the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Northern Muslims whose influence radiates through the Hausa community of Niger. Can he talk some sense into his kinsmen who are holding the president at gunpoint? DM

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