Coup in Niger a tussle for influence between East and West rivals in Africa

Coup in Niger a tussle for influence between East and West rivals in Africa
Niger President Mohamed Bazoum issued a defiant message on Twitter the day after soldiers announced a coup in the West African nation calling on the people to support democracy. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 2, 2023

West African leaders issued a stern warning of potential military action against the junta responsible for last week's coup in Niger at the weekend as tensions rapidly rise.

Protests escalated as demonstrators, some carrying Russian flags, stormed the French embassy in the capital city, Niamey. The military junta, now identifying itself as the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Fatherland, made an announcement on July 26, claiming that it had seized power and detained democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum. The junta cited national security concerns and alleged corruption as the reasons for their actions.

The coup is under the leadership of General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who is the commander of the presidential guard and a close ally of Bazoum's predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou. The swift and dramatic takeover has raised serious concerns both within Niger and across the West African region.

President Mohamed Bazoum issued a defiant message on Twitter the day after soldiers announced a coup in the West African nation. The 64-year-old, who was elected Niger’s president two years ago, said: “The hard-won achievements will be safeguarded. All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom will see to it.” But almost a week later the coup seems to have successfully ousted the president.

In response to this unlawful seizure of power, West African leaders are now considering the possibility of military intervention to address the situation. The situation remains tense and uncertain as the international community closely watches developments in Niger.

The storming of the French embassy by protesters carrying Russian flags adds another layer of complexity to the crisis. The reasons behind this specific action remain unclear, but it underscores the volatile nature of the situation in the country.

The coup is a direct threat to long-standing French influence in the country and Western interests in general as Russia seeks to increase its already strong influence in the region thanks to the Soviet legacy ties. On July 31, the junta ended all exports of uranium to France, a major supplier of the nuclear fuel that accounts for 80% of France’s power production. Anticipating trouble, France has already diversified supplies away from its former heavy dependence on Niger as a supplier, but the disruption will only add to the fears of a new energy crisis.

Ever since Russia's emergence as a significant player on the world stage, underscored by its military interventions in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), and Syria (2015), it has been re-establishing old Soviet channels of influence in Africa as part of a strategy for vertical geopolitical expansion spanning the Arctic, Eurasia, the South Caucasus, the Middle East, and increasingly Africa, geopolitical analyst Velina Tchakarova said in a tweet.

Russia signed military cooperation agreements with several Sahel countries, including Chad, Niger, and Nigeria in August 2017; Guinea in April 2018; Burkina Faso in August 2018; and Mali in June 2019. And the Sahel region has been particularly unstable with over half a dozen coups in just the past three years.

“Niger's strategic importance has grown exponentially for several reasons. Firstly, the country boasts vast uranium reserves. Secondly, France, the US, and Russia are actively involved in counterterrorism efforts in the region. Thirdly, Turkey and the UAE view Niger as a crucial player in their ongoing rivalry in Libya,” Tchakarova said.

In 2021, Russia worked to promote anti-French narratives in Africa and boost its soft power in Mali, the CAR, and Niger at France's expense. Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up this campaign, hosting the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg at the end of July that was attended by almost all the African countries, although most heads of state were pressured by the US to stay away.

“With Mali and Chad under military rule, Niger has become an increasingly crucial part of the US and France's Sahel strategies, but the coup suggests the Western powers are losing the battle for influence in the region. French President Emmanuel Macron toured francophone Africa earlier this year but was met by angry demonstrations in nearly every country he visited, as demonstrators protested again France’s colonial past relations with those countries,” says Tchakarova.

Niger has increasingly come into focus in the Sahel region as its instability has grown and it suffered another coup attempt in late March 2022, refugee influxes, and a rise in terrorist attacks, enhancing its geo-strategic profile.

“The military junta in Mali's alliance with Russia and its strained relations with France have turned Niger into the central hub of European counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. Burkina Faso and Guinea, despite their military regimes, have avoided the sanctions that Mali received from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as they have been granted extra time to negotiate,” says Tchakarova.

Russia’s influence in the region is underpinned by the activities of Russia’s Wagner PMC, which has provided military aid to many African regimes. The recent armed mutiny on June 24 by the company’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has had little effect on its African operations. Moreover, in little-noticed comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the insurrection, the veteran diplomat said that the Kremlin would continue to work with Wagner in Africa where it has become an important foreign policy tool.

The Wagner Group's activities in Mali, which Chad and Niger oppose, may have influenced this disparate treatment. However, as we moved into the end of 2022, Russian media highlighted the potential for Wagner contractors to be deployed in Niger.

“Russia's long-term goal is to prevent Niger's uranium mines from falling into French hands. The coup in Niger has been a topic at the Russia-Africa Summit. Mohamed Bazoum's absence from the summit was interpreted on Russian media as indicative of Western pressure on Africa, a point made by Nikolay Patrushev,” says Tchakarova.

Rather than a coup instigated by Russian machinations, it appears to have been driven more by local dynamics, such as the allocation of resources to the military and disagreements between Bazoum and the military over counter-terrorism tactics. The Wagner Group's experience in Burkina Faso suggests that they face a challenging road ahead in Niger, according to Tchakarova.

In the aftermath of the coup, Niger finds itself under a new regime. The pro-French president Bazouma has been overthrown, with Colonel Amadou Abdraman announcing the coup on behalf of the army and security forces. The military now holds power, controlling key administrative buildings in Niger's capital.

“With Niger being part of the vestiges of the French sphere of influence in Africa, the stakes are high. Given its uranium reserves and strategic position in the region, a potential intervention by Wagner could have far-reaching implications,” says Tchakarova.