Officers from Niger’s elite presidential guard last week detained the West African country’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, and declared themselves the nation’s new leaders. The coup came as a shock to U.S. and European governments that have worked closely with Bazoum and Niger’s military in the fight against Islamist militants in Africa’s Sahel region. Washington considers the West African nation as a bulwark against jihadist groups in the region and an ally to contain the Russian advance in the Sahel.
France has huge interests in the country too. Following Niger’s independence in 1960, France maintained several hundred advisers at all levels of Niger’s government and military. Overtime, France-Nigerien relations continue to be close, with France as Niger’s top export partner (in value), and the French government being almost entirely dependent upon Niger for the uranium – which fuels its extensive Nuclear Power system – mined in the northern town of Arlit.
Why is Niger geopolitically relevant?
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world: more than 40 percent of the 22 million population live in absolute poverty and hunger. According to the UN human capital development index, Niger ranks last.
The election of Bazum in the presidential elections in 2021 was the first “democratic” transfer of power in the country. For some time, Niger has also been called one of the West’s few “hope” in Africa, and the only one in the highly unstable Sahel region. In this area, there has been a sharp rise in the presence of Islamist terrorist groups during the last few years. For the US and France, Niger has become a stronghold for military operations against ISIS-affiliated groups. This is particularly relevant for France, which was forced to leave Mali and Burkina Faso for Niger under pressure from the Wagner PMC. The Bazum regime received fairly regular support, including for security purposes from the US and France. Niger is also an EU’s key ally to stop migration flows from sub-Saharan Africa.
Joe Biden has called for the immediate release of Niger’s elected president and for the country’s democracy to be restored, in the highest profile statement by the US since the coup that removed Mohamed Bazoum from power, as Senegal also ramped up the pressure by saying its troops would join a military intervention if necessary. The coup against Bazoum was the seventh in the West and Central Africa region since 2020.
This comes while rumors indicate that General Salifou Mody, one of the Niger officers who seized power in a military coup last week, visited Mali on Wednesday to meet with the Russian PMC Wagner representatives. Hundreds of Wagner contractors are stationed in Mali at the invitation of the country’s military junta, to quell an Islamist insurgency brewing in an area where the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger meet.
Russia has been expanding its influence in the Sahel in the last year’s thanks to cooperation with local warlords, businessmen, and intermediary that operates in the region as well as with governments.
Russia and Africa
Last week, the Economic and Humanitarian Forum Russia-Africa 2023 was held in St. Petersburg. Vladimir Putin pointed out that the focus was not only on expanding Russian-African strategic cooperation, but also on such core topics as global and regional stability, ensuring the sustainable development of the continent, and strengthening the sovereignty of African states in all its dimensions. At the end of the summit was drafted the final declaration and the Joint Action Plan between Russia and African countries until 2026.
Of particular interest these clauses that say
1) Develop cooperation in ensuring financial security and training specialists in the field of countering money laundering and terrorist financing; in-person or remote participation of officers from African intelligence units, as well as members of the academic community and interested agencies of national systems for countering money-laundering and terrorist financing
2) Develop contacts between high representatives for security issues, to share international security information, experience, and best practices in countering threats and challenges.
West Africa’s regional bloc known as ECOWAS led by Nigeria has threatened the use of force in reinstating the president of Niger after was deposed by his military but how the bloc would carry out the threat remains unclear.