Moscow unlikely to give up Niger toehold as threat of ECOWAS military action looms

Moscow unlikely to give up Niger toehold as threat of ECOWAS military action looms
Gen. Abdrahmane Tchiani claims the junta does not aim to 'seize' power, but preside over a transitional government / RTN - Télé Sahel via YouTube
By bne IntelliNews August 21, 2023

The ongoing political turmoil in the West African nation of Niger holds far-reaching significance beyond its borders, transcending what started as an internal conflict. While the situation in Niger and the war in Ukraine are not directly linked, both are part of a broader global confrontation between East and West, and Russia is not ready to cede ground or influence.

On July 26, Niger suffered a military coup that has reverberated well beyond its borders. The Presidential Guard, a unit tasked with safeguarding the palace, orchestrated the overthrow of the government of President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been under house arrest ever since.

This led to the establishment of a transitional governing body, named the Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland. The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc is now engaged in trying to reestablish order and reinstate the ousted president. It has put its stability forces on standby for a possible military intervention while the rebel leaders have started recruitment to resist any incursion. Tensions in the region remain high.

The Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal – has been plagued by jihadist insurrectionists and experienced a string of coups in recent years.

Moreover, lingering resentment towards France, the former colonial power, remains prevalent today. One of the stated goals of the current coup leaders in Niger is to expel the French, who continue to maintain a large military base in the country, looking instead to Moscow for support.

While instability in the Sahel region has largely been ignored by the West, other than by sending in peacekeepers, Niger has found itself in the spotlight thanks to the global clash between East and West.

With Niger a major source of commodities, including gold, lithium and uranium, France does not want to be sidelined, for economic reasons. In addition to the raw materials, Nigeria was planning a 30bcm gas pipeline that would have traversed Niger and Algeria on its way to the European gas market; that is now in danger.

UN and US diplomats have visited the capital Niamey to try and begin negotiations but to little effect. Acting US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in the capital earlier in August to meet with coup leaders and reported that she had “difficult” talks.

However, as detailed by bne IntelliNews, Russia is trying to increase its influence  in Africa and it supports adding members for the BRICS+ non-aligned alliance in an attempt to counter Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine last year. For the coup leaders, they are seeking not only peacekeepers to quell insurrections but overt military support to crush the jihadists – something that only Moscow is willing to provide through arms sales and its Wagner PMC (private military company), which is already operating in many of Niger’s neighbours.

The geopolitical implications have put the Nigerian coup under the international spotlight as the great powers vie for influence in what is otherwise a vast, but extremely poor country in Central Africa.

Moscow has firmed established a toehold in the country and is unlikely to give it up. Offering trading, money, arms and technology, many African states have welcomed the Kremlin with open arms and the anti-colonial message espoused by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov resonates strongly across all of Africa, but especially in the Francophone countries which are amongst the poorest.

Of the problems the country is facing, poverty is one of the most difficult, with Niger among the world's poorest predominantly rural nations. Over 40% of its population, which equates to approximately 10mn people, subsist below the poverty line, earning less than $1.90 per day.

The country's scorching Sahara Desert-dominant landscape coupled with a young population, where half are children under 14, compounds the challenges. Moreover, almost 20% of Niger's population faces difficulties in meeting their basic daily needs, while access to education is a struggle for over 50% of children due to violence, lack of schools, or infrastructure. These factors cultivate a fertile ground for social unrest and discontent.

France has also taken a lot of the blame for the country’s woes. French companies, often operating under unfavourable conditions, tap into strategic resources like gold, tungsten, and uranium. The country's national currency, pegged to the euro and managed by France, provides Paris with substantial fiscal control. At the same time, Niger's foreign exchange reserves find their home in French banks.

These conditions contribute to widespread resentment, with allegations of exploitation and interference in internal affairs. Anti-French sentiment, historically rooted and partly justified, played a significant role in the coup, fuelling anti-French sentiment and shaping its anti-French character.

Internal politics also play a big role in the instability. Niger is a mosaic of diverse ethnic groups including the sedentary Hausa, the pastoral Zarma and Songhai, the nomadic Tuareg and Toubou, the Fulbe and Kanuri, and the Arab communities. President Bazoum himself is an ethnic Arab, a group composing only 1.5% of the country's population, a small minority, as opposed to his predecessor, Mohamed Issouf, who was a Hausa, the dominant ethnic group in the Sahel region.

President Bazoum's reshuffling of his administration and appointment of associates to crucial positions stirred discontent within other ethnic groups. This reshaping of power dynamics, seen as favouring his inner circle, instigated apprehensions and instability among groups that perceived their influence as diminished.

And, finally, a power struggle between the president and the presidential guard has made things worse. The conflict between President Bazoum and coup leader General Abdrahmane Tchiani, the former commander of the presidential guard, emerged as a  catalyst. The president's decision to remove the general triggered the coup. Tchiani's dismissal, after years of unwavering loyalty to Niger's presidents, embittered him and led to a showdown. The perceived slight culminated in an open confrontation with the president.

Niger's political crisis extends beyond its borders, resonating within the global context of power dynamics. While not directly connected, this episode forms part of a larger narrative, shaping the dynamics between the collective West and the non-West. The implications of Niger's political struggle underscore the interplay of historical legacies, socio-economic challenges, and personal ambitions in shaping the course of nations.