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8 August 2023

The curse of stability in Niger

For many West Africans, the word is synonymous with economic and political asphyxiation.

By Bruno Maçães

There are plenty of reasons for what we normally call the developed world to take an avid interest in the military coup in Niger. When military vehicles started surrounding the Presidential Palace in the capital, Niamey, on 26 July, it felt like both the first and the final piece of a complicated line of dominoes.

The final piece: since 2020, in quick succession, there has been a series of successful coups in a belt extending from Sudan on the Red Sea to Guinea on the Atlantic. Only Niger escaped. In Mali and Burkina Faso, those coups created something of a geopolitical fracture, with the new regimes breaking their political and military links to France and embracing Russia. In Mali the Wagner Group is now effectively in charge.

For the United States, these were ominous developments because the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel region remains a priority. For Europe, things might be considered more ominous still. Countries such as Mali and Niger are regarded as transit corridors for illegal immigration across the Mediterranean, which is expected to grow exponentially in coming decades. According to some projections, Niamey could be one of the world’s ten largest cities by 2100. There has been a concerted effort from the European Union to reach out with money and diplomacy. Niger was the apotheosis of these efforts, which seemed undone when General Abdourahamane Tiani staged his coup and replaced Mohamed Bazoum, the president, as the de facto ruler of the country. There are also concerns about control over critical minerals for the energy transition. China is a fierce competitor in this area. In the background, of course, are Vladimir Putin and Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary leader quickly released an audio message on 28 July expressing his support for the new junta in Niger.

The coup in Niamey attracted attention for a second set of reasons. While in Mali in 2021 many considered a coup more or less inevitable, in Niger it arrived as a surprise. Western diplomats in the capital that I spoke to in recent days have told me the coup had an accidental dimension. Mahamadou Issoufou, the former president who voluntarily ceded power to Barzoum in 2021, tried to keep control over the military leadership. But Bazoum had been slowly replacing key military figures since then and this dangerous game suddenly got out of hand when Tiani, who led the elite presidential guard, decided to move before his turn came. 

[See also: Is China’s economy turning Japanese?]

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Some version of this story is almost certainly accurate, but the region reacted with alarm. If Niger, which had remained relatively stable and boasted a peaceful transition of power, could have a coup, then no country was safe. For the wealthier coastal countries such as the Ivory Coast, Nigeria or Senegal, 26 July was a final warning. The three countries have used their overwhelming influence inside the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, to issue an ultimatum to the junta. Unless the status quo ante was restored by 6 August, Ecowas would act and a foreign military intervention could not be ruled out. Nigeria’s recently elected president, Bola Tinubu, is particularly keen to impose his mark and influence and has been pushing for a military solution to the crisis. The main goal is to remove any chance of political contagion. Links between Niger and northern Nigeria are very close, and practically ignore national borders. Mali and Burkina Faso have vouched to join any military conflict on Niger’s side.

The Ecowas deadline has now expired. The accidental coup could well culminate in a regional war involving countries with a population of more than 400 million.

From Europe and America, there are repeated calls for stability, although the appetite to intervene seems absent this time, even in France, Niger’s former colonial ruler. But what can stability offer? For Western democracies, an emphasis on their interests to contain jihadist violence and illegal immigration far from their shores. For many people in West Africa, however, stability has become a cursed word, expressing little more than the attempt to lock in the same structures of terrorist violence and the same patronage networks that young Africans blame for their economic and political asphyxiation.

The example of Burkina Faso is revealing. In some respects the 2022 coup in the country was more of a revolution than a military coup. The new interim president, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, 35, often looks like a reincarnation of the country’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in 1987. Society has been mobilised rather than pacified, and political ideologies such as Pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism are experiencing a rebirth. Like Sankara, Traoré does not hide his sympathy for the West’s geopolitical adversaries. In a meeting with Putin on 27 July, the day after the Niger coup, Traoré told the Russian president that events offered an opportunity to create a new front in the region close to Russia and disconnected from the West. In Niger, the personal rivalries that triggered the coup were combined with the same kind of revolutionary fervour, represented by M62, a political movement also known as the Sacred Union for the Safeguard of the Sovereignty and Dignity of the People. When the junta denounced Niger’s military agreements with France on 4 August, it was following M62’s lead. It is M62, it seems, guiding the military officers and mobilising the public in Niamey and other cities.

Stability is unlikely to return to West Africa any time soon, but there is a difference between recent events and those at the time of Sankara in late 1980s Burkina Faso or Jerry John Rawlings in 1990s Ghana. Unless Emmanuel Macron – in a moment of madness – decides to send French special troops to occupy the Presidential Palace in Niamey, this time the great questions about the region’s future will be decided by Africans. There seem to be two sides at the moment. Continuity will be favoured by authorities in Senegal or Nigeria. In Niger and Burkina Faso, the mood is very different. Continuity offers little hope and people like Traoré and many of the young officers in Niger see their future as intimately connected to a new wave of political revolution in Africa.

[See also: Anarchy unbound: The new scramble for Africa]

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