A. What sparked the coup?
1. The issue of national sovereignty.
The military takeover in Niger is part of a trend of dissatisfaction among Francophone African countries about French neo-colonial policies which has been disadvantageous in terms of these countries functioning as fully sovereign entities.
The exploitation of the mineral resources of these former colonies (in Niger’s case that of uranium), as well as the stranglehold over the monetary apparatus of their nations has bred a deep-seated resentment of France.
2. The question of national security.
The Nigerien junta specifically referred to the failure of the French and American military presence in their country to combat jihadist-inspired terrorism within Niger.
The Nigerien junta has seen France’s counter-terrorism operation in Mali which was codenamed “Operation Barkhane” end in abysmal failure. It cannot be overemphasised that this French military operation has been universally considered to have been an unmitigated disaster.
And the people of Niger can see that the presence of U.S. troops has also failed to stem the tide of jihadist violence.
When in 2002, at the outset of its flawed “War on Terror”, the United States made its first military presence in Niger, the level of jihadist violence was low. But since the U.S. has widened its presence on the African continent under the auspices of AFRICOM, Islamist terrorist attacks have risen by over 30,000 per cent on the continent.
The Nigerien junta and the other countries in the Sahel consider the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) to be more effective in combating Islamist insurgencies. That is the view in Mali. And it should be noted Wagner certainly played their part in defeating the Islamist insurgency in Syria.
What is more, the military regime in Niger is quite aware that the NATO operation which destroyed Libya in 2011, of which the US and French militaries played key roles, is directly responsible for the expansion of jihadism in the Maghreb and Sahelian region.
The Nigeriens are not stupid. They can see that the role of French and U.S. forces inside their country is not to fight jihadism but to protect their own interests and assets, in the case of France, the flow of cheap uranium to their nuclear plants, and in the case of the United States, its 280-million-dollar drone base near Agadez.
So while the idea of viewing a coup d’état as an occurrence which should be treated with suspicion and even hostility justifiably resonates, we must not lose sight of the fact that coups are not always the product of an adventurism that is predicated on a lust for power or with a backdrop of tribal or ethnic feuding.
On the contrary, many coups have been undertaken to serve as “corrective” endeavours, and the Nigerien one is clearly an example of this kind of a putsch.
Its rulers are acting with the overwhelming approval of the population of Niger.
B. What will be the consequences of pursuing the military option?
If ECOWAS chooses to eschew the path of diplomacy and opts for military action, it will be risking unleashing a wave of unintended consequences that will destabilise the West African region.
Intervention may lead to any combination of the following results:
1. An all-out war in the Sahelian region.
The military regimes of Mali and Burkina Faso have stated that any intervention will be seen as an attack on their respective nations. Algeria has also pledged to support Niger in the event of war breaking out.
The Nigerien regime also appears to be soliciting the help of Wagner PMC which is composed of seasoned veterans who have successfully fought in war theatres such as Syria, eastern Ukraine and Mali. They will be more battle hardened than any troops of ECOWAS or of the US and France.
2. A guerrilla or Insurgency-type of resistance.
The Nigerien army is a small one. It may decide to disperse and fight a guerrilla-type of campaign. They will have the capacity to do a great deal of damage to a larger and better equipped force by choosing where and when to fight on terrain that they know better.
3. Population displacement and an ensuing refugee crisis.
When war comes the affected population will seek refuge in other countries. This, in the first instance, will affect neighbouring countries such as Nigeria. It would also likely increase the numbers of poverty-stricken Africans who undertake the perilous journey through the Sahara to the Mediterranean shores from where they hope to get to Europe.
4. Rise in Islamist terrorism
Each Western-promoted intervention on the African continent has led to a steep increase in Islamist terrorism.
. In 2006, the U.S. encouraged Ethiopia to invade Somalia to combat Islamism but the operation led to an expansion of the terroristic power of Al-Shabaab.
. In 2011, U.S.-led NATO forces utilising proxies in the form of al-Qaeda militias, prominent of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), used UN resolution 1973 as a pretext to overthrow the government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and in the process destroyed Libya. It led to the raiding of the armouries of the fallen Libyan Army which developed into an arms supply network across the Maghreb, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin, thus facilitating the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).
. Now in 2023 the United States and France are encouraging a Nigerian-led ECOWAS force to invade Niger, a course of action that would invite an expansion in the violent activities of militias such as AQIM and ISWAP whose numbers would be swelled further by any overt military actions on the part of France and America.
C. Summing up.
While it is true that ECOWAS member states such as Nigeria are correct to construe the Niger coup as a threat to the development of democratic institutions in the region, their decision to eschew the route of diplomacy as a means of peacefully managing the crisis is highly suspect given the fact that military action was not pursued after coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Conakry.
The “last straw” argument is a less convincing one than that which posits the United States and France as foreign powers which are desperate to hold onto their interests in Niger. France is seeing its long standing “shadow empire”, the construct of Gaullist-era figures such as Jacques Foccart, collapsing around it and the United States, its status as the sole global hegemon under threat from the rise of China, wishes to preserve intact its network of military bases.
The loss of access to cheap Nigerien uranium for its nuclear plants would be disastrous for the French economy, while the United States, reliant for years on a not insignificant amount of Uranium produced by Russia, wants to redirect its uranium consumption to that produced by Niger.
There is ample evidence that the coup in Niger is supported by the overwhelming majority of the country’s population. The regime arguably embodies the will of the Nigerien masses to be rid of the French whose military presence in their country is seen as threatening. President Charles de Gaulle evicted NATO from France in 1966 because he knew the Atlantic military alliance posed a threat to French sovereignty. Similarly, the Nigerien military regime construe the presence of French troops on their soil as an infringement on their economic and political sovereignty. And the refusal of the French government to abide by the order given by the junta that its forces leave Nigerien territory is seen as evidence of France’s longstanding imperial attitude to its former colonies.
The French government asserts that the junta's renunciation of existing security pacts is void due to its constitutional "illegitimacy", while failing to appreciate that the foundational pact regarding technical military cooperation of 1977 which was signed by the military regime led by Lt. Colonel Seyni Kountche would by the same reasoning also be void.
The anti-French sentiment expressed in the policies of the Nigerien junta and its counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso, mirror the change in perspective of many other African states who believe that they will be able to better develop their economies using the alternative model of international trade being offered by China and Russia. To them, the BRICS system represents a new and more equitable method of economic interaction in the burgeoning multipolar world.
It is on issues concerned with ensuring the respect for national sovereignties, increasing security cooperation, and devising an overarching economic development plan with the objective of transforming their minerally rich but poverty-stricken nations into self-sufficient countries possessing an industrial base that the leaders of ECOWAS ought to engage with the Sahelian juntas.
An engagement based on waging war is a recipe for disaster. It would likely trigger a tsunami of events which would surpass the bitter aftermaths of the aforementioned operations in Somalia and Libya.
Speaking to RIA Novosti on August 9, 2023, Antinekar al-Hassan, political adviser to Mohamed Bazoum, the ousted president of Niger, opined that he did not think that ECOWAS will “make the mistake of intervening militarily in Niger, because if they intervene militarily, that means all of Africa will be at war.”
It remains to be seen if Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, egged on by his Western backers, is able to appreciate the lessons of history.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer and lecturer with an interest in international security and geopolitics.