Niger’s political situation is as uncertain as ever, over two weeks after a group of military leaders detained the elected president in a coup.
Diplomatic efforts on the part of West African nations and the United States have thus far failed to encourage the military junta now running the country to step down and reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum, as military intervention to reverse the coup becomes increasingly likely.
The Nigerien military has closed its airspace and deployed reinforcements to the capital, remaining defiant as the external pressure mounts. What comes next — for Niger and the region, which has seen militaries seize power in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea over the past three years — is unclear, but the situation has become increasingly dire for Bazoum, his wife, and his son, who have been held hostage in their residence for more than two weeks.
This all started at the end of July, when members of the Nigerien presidential guard seized Bazoum, while Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of Niger’s presidential guard, declared himself head of a transitional government with other members of Niger’s armed forces called “the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.”
That weekend, leaders from the regional economic bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in an extraordinary summit and gave Tchiani and the other coup leaders seven days to step down and reinstate Bazoum, with the threat of force should they not comply in the timeframe. While that deadline came and went, this Thursday, ECOWAS activated its standby force to begin preparing for the possibility of a military intervention, though preparation for such an action would likely take weeks. Defense chiefs from ECOWAS nations were set to meet in Accra, Ghana Saturday to discuss possible intervention strategies, but the meeting was reportedly called off indefinitely for technical reasons.
Meanwhile, ECOWAS chair and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on Thursday continued to push for a diplomatic resolution to the coup, saying after an emergency meeting in Abuja that “all is not lost yet.” The political and economic bloc has already closed the borders between Niger and ECOWAS countries, instituted a no-fly zone for commercial flights in and out of the country, froze the country’s assets in ECOWAS central banks and commercial banks, and instituted a travel ban and asset freeze for those involved in the coups and their families, among other actions.
But time is running short for Bazoum and his family, who are reportedly without electricity and running water in Niamey, where temperatures will hover around 90 degrees this week. France 24 reported Saturday that the president’s doctor had been permitted to see the family and bring them fresh food, one positive sign amid the troubling events of the past two weeks.
Most alarmingly, the junta has threatened to kill Bazoum should a military effort to reverse the coup go ahead.
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 last week calling on the coup leaders to release Bazoum. Members of the military involved in the coup meanwhile warned in a television address Friday of the “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. France, the country’s former colonial ruler, has called for “the re-establishment of the democratic institutions of Niger.”
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 the 2021 to 2024 period to support education, governance, and 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 was a bit of an outlier among its neighbors. Though Niger, like many other West 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 security and economic outlooks compared with neighbors like Mali and Burkina Faso.
Last week, Bazoum had explicitly called for more international pressure, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post as a self-described “hostage.”
“Niger is under attack from a military junta that is trying to overthrow our democracy, and I am just one of hundreds of citizens who have been arbitrarily and illegally imprisoned,” he wrote. “If [this coup] succeeds, it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world.”
July’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 Studies, 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 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 looting — 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) perpetrate 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 days after the junta detained Bazoum 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. Nigeriens have also come out in support of the junta in the capital of Niamey, with coup leaders seizing on anti-colonialist and anti-French sentiments to legitimize their takeover.
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 Tchiani has 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 Yevgeny Prigozhin was part of July’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 the day after the coup, 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.”
In the immediate days after the coup, ECOWAS put all options on the table. Benin’s President Patrice Talon, dispatched by ECOWAS Chairman Bola Tinubu to Niger to assess the situation on the ground, said in a statement, “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.”
After ECOWAS leaders met in Nigeria this week, the bloc’s commissioner for political affairs, peace, and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said that “All the elements that would go into any eventual intervention have been worked out here and [are] being refined, including the timing, including the resources needed, and including how and where and when we are going to deploy such a force.” The junta vowed to respond to any intervention with “an immediate and unannounced response by Niger’s defense and security forces.” And intervention wouldn’t guarantee a return to civilian rule.
“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.”
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 coup 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. Any intervention, however, would risk massive violence, danger to civilians, and more instability.
For now, the junta remains defiant.
Update, August 7, 11:50 am ET: This story was originally published on July 29 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include details about ECOWAS’ deadline expiring and developments in Niger.
Update, August 12, 11:36 am ET: This story has been updated to include details of the status of President Mohamed Bazoum and ECOWAS’ indefinite delay of military action.