Niger in the eye of the storm

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

Another proxy war looks to be in the offing in Africa, this time against the background of the recent military coup in the West African state of Niger, writes Mostafa Ahmady


Another proxy war looks to be in the making in Africa. This time, the frontline is Niger in West Africa, where a coup staged by Commander of the Presidential Guards General Abdourahmane Tchiani against elected President Mohamed Bazoum has left the country and the region as a whole dead in the water.

Grabbing at straws, Tchiani has spoken of the “deterioration of the security situation” in the roughly 26-million people nation as the reason behind the coup, hinting at a failed campaign in the fight against the Islamic State in the Sahel group, a branch of the organisation infamously known in Arabic as Daesh or by the international acronym IS.

Niger is now sitting on a powder keg as a result. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) group, of which Niger is a member, has been quick off the mark and has imposed tough economic sanctions against it. Nigeria, the current chair, has already cut off power supplies that account for some 70 per cent of Niger’s needs. Other ECOWAS member states have closed borders and suspended trade with their neighbour in a bid to push the Niger junta into reinstating Bazoum as president.  

The bloc’s chiefs of staff have also devised a plan for military intervention to unseat the coup leaders in Niger. But divisions have been surfacing within the bloc, and the military councils of neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, both member states, have vowed to stand with Niger’s new rulers in case war erupts.

Algeria, which has a 951 km border with Niger, though it has denounced the coup against the Bazoum-led government, has rejected the military option in reversing it. Even in Nigeria, the idea of military intervention has not been universally welcomed. The Nigerian Senate has “cautioned” President Bola Tinubu against such a move, calling on ECOWAS member states to “strengthen political and diplomatic options” in lieu of the military one.

The Jamaatu Nasril Islam (JNI), Nigeria’s powerful Muslim organisation, has also warned against what it says would be the dire impact on the peace and stability of the Muslim communities in the northern states of Nigeria that share borders with Niger were Nigeria to intervene, and it has called on the country’s government and ECOWAS to look into more “peaceful” ways to resolve the unfolding crisis.

Niger was France’s last major foothold in West Africa, after the French had to endure setbacks in losing their influence in three key allies in the region, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. These three former French colonies have seen unconstitutional changes of government with the installation of interim military councils at the helm of power. Pro-coup demonstrations in all three and in Niger itself have seen the waving of an unfamiliar flag on the African continent: that of the Russian Federation.

Having lost its positions in Iraq and Syria, IS has now mysteriously regrouped in the Sahel and Sahara regions of Africa, where it has banked on two crucial factors. The first is the ineffective governance in a region plagued by limited resources and poor military preparedness; the second is a recruiting campaign that has paid off among young people driven, first and foremost, by outrage against their respective governments and by their adherence to an ultra-orthodox version of Islam.

As a result, IS has managed to hit hard from gas-rich Capo Delgado in Mozambique to Tin-Akoff in Burkina Faso.

Reaction looked inevitable, and this has come in the form of scavenging mercenaries that seek war in the same way that vultures seek dead corpses. In this case, the mercenaries are those of the Russian Wagner Group. Since the national armies in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea have not delivered in the fight against terrorist groups, Wagner has “presented its credentials” to assist them in finishing the job.

Wagner’s services have gone beyond fighting extremists in the Sahel and Sahara, however, and the group’s fighters have played the role of stabilising the new military regimes. As a result, an end to the ruling military juntas in these West African nations is not on the table.

Niger is as important to the West as it is to Russia. For Moscow, it is “ochen kharasho,” very good in Russian, to gain more ground in Africa, particularly as it has already implanted the notion that Russia has never exploited Africans or colonised any African country in the minds of pro-Putin supporters in the region, who hail the Russian president as a hero fighting against the “imperialist West” in the war on Ukraine.

Above all, some “comrades” in many African nations still yearn for the old days when the Communist Soviet Union was their “Big Brother” taking care of and watching over them.  For those sympathetic to the Russian presence in West Africa, France has “stolen” much of Africa’s wealth and orchestrated “coups” in its former colonies when a given government dared to sail against the tide.

However, France cannot let Niger go. France’s nuclear power plants count on uranium extracted from Africa’s uranium capital in Arlit located in northern-central Niger for fuel. “One out of every three light bulbs in France is lit” thanks to Nigerien uranium, as the international NGO Oxfam has put it, even as 90 per cent of the impoverished Nigerian people have no access to electricity at all.

Five decades ago, when France started “milking” thousands of tons of Nigerian uranium for its nuclear power plants, the former coloniser promised to turn impoverished Arlit into a city like Paris. Unfortunately for France, the whole country has been lost since.

For the US, Niger is home to the 1,100 US soldiers operating within the US Africa Command AFRICOM that is based in the country. The US not only wants African resources, whether natural gas from Mozambique or oil from Angola, but it also wants to deprive Russia of its presence in Africa.

The US still recalls the Cold War and the Soviet expansion in critical regions of Africa, with Ethiopia as the worst example. In 1974, the Ethiopian military toppled a key US and Western ally, the former Emperor Haile Selassie I, and installed a Soviet-styled government in his place called the Derg (central committee in Amharic).

It seems that the US, retreating from the trouble-infested Middle East, intends to stalk Russia wherever it goes in the world. Washington needed no more than a carrot-and-stick policy to get Sudan’s military-led government to refrain from hosting a Russian base on the Red Sea for what Moscow said was the maintenance of its nuclear-powered ships, for example. That policy may, among other reasons, account for the current fighting between the Wagner-backed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in Sudan.

The US has also threatened to suspend South Africa from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that provides duty free access to US markets. The move came after the South African government headed into a dangerous territory by holding joint naval exercises with both Russia and China, and, more alarmingly, by shipping, as the US ambassador to Pretoria put it, weaponry to Russia and evading Western sanctions on Moscow.

Pretoria then requested the “virtual” participation of the Russian leader in the upcoming Johannesburg-hosted BRICS Summit meeting against the backdrop of an order by the high court in South Africa for Putin’s arrest, should he set foot in the country, citing obligations under the Rome Statute after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant against the Russian leader for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

How things will now play out in Niger will depend on whether the new authorities in the capital Niamey want to do business with the US and the West or whether they will join forces with their counterparts in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea and form a Russian-dominated bloc against the background of the ongoing chaos in West Africa.

Meanwhile, for the Nigerian people there is not even the flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.


The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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