Chaos and political upheaval in Niger have opened wide a window of opportunity for U.S. adversaries and could jeopardize America’s counterterrorism mission across Africa, leaving the Biden administration with few good options amid an unfolding military coup in Niamey that has caught the West off guard.
Although not well known or much followed in U.S. policy debates, the Texas-sized central African country has played an outsized role in the great-power strategic game for influence and allies on the continent. And the apparent sidelining of elected President Mohamed Bazoum ranks as an unquestionable setback for U.S. and Western interests in the region.
Pro-military demonstrators on Sunday and Monday reportedly shouted “Long live Russia” and other pro-Moscow slogans on the streets of the Nigerien capital, underscoring the growing influence that U.S. enemies seem to enjoy on the continent. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, has reportedly praised the apparent military coup that ousted Mr. Bazoum late last weekend has even offered assistance from his hired fighters to restore order in the country.
The Kremlin has called for the release of Mr. Bazoum, who is under house arrest, in the latest example of the deep rift between Mr. Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s unclear whether Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters have played any role in the coup itself.
Russia’s involvement aside, analysts say it’s little surprise that Niger seems to be backsliding away from democracy and toward a potential military dictatorship. Despite the presence of U.S. drone bases and more than 1,000 American personnel in the country, some specialists contend that there has been a lack of deep, meaningful U.S. engagement in the country that has contributed to the deteriorating situation. And they warn that Niger may be only the latest domino to fall in a region where U.S. enemies appear to have both the upper hand and the momentum.
“The idea that Russian flags materialize organically on the streets of dusty African cities is naive. Rather, it appears once again the United States has been blindsided,” Michael Rubin, a former Defense Department official and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a recent analysis.
“The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars on diplomacy, defense and intelligence and yet, across administrations, it only reacts after the fact rather than implements a proactive strategy across countries, regions, and continents,” he wrote. “There is no excuse. Russia’s march across the Sahel will be no less consequential for the coming decades as the Soviet march across Eastern Europe was in the wake of World War II.”
Until recently, Niger had been one of the region’s few functioning democracies. In April 2021, the country marked its first peaceful transfer of power from former President Mahamadou Issoufou to Mr. Bazoum. That period of democracy was the first such era in Niger’s history, which was marked by military rule and numerous coups over the past several decades.
In Washington, the Biden administration is still holding out hope. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Monday again declined to label the situation a “coup,” despite the fact that the Nigerien military appears to have forcibly placed a democratically elected president under arrest. Such a designation sets off a series of mandatory steps that could leave Washington without any ability at all to influence the course of events.
“With respect to any determination, I’d say we haven’t made a determination yet because it is still an ongoing, fluid situation,” Mr. Miller told reporters. “We are watching, monitoring the situation and trying to prevent President Bazoum from being removed from office.”
Mr. Miller stressed that the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in U.S. financial aid to Niger is “very much in the balance” and could be cut off if the elected government isn’t restored to power.
But Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani, who spearheaded the coup and is currently detaining Mr. Bazoum in his presidential compound, has shown no signs of relinquishing power in what would be the seventh military coup across the sub-Saharan belt of African countries in just the last three years.
The 59-year-old general, who had headed Mr. Bazoum’s personal military guard unit, is using many of the justifications that military leaders in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have used, in particular that civilian governments have not proven up to the security task of fighting off violent jihadist groups operating widely in the region.
“We cannot continue with the same approaches proposed so far, as it risks witnessing the gradual and inevitable disappearance of our nation,” he said upon seizing power last week.
The next several days will be crucial for both Niger’s political future and the broader security picture in the region. The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, over the weekend demanded that the elected government be restored immediately.
“In the event the authority’s demands are not met within one week, [the bloc will] take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger. Such measures may include the use of force,” the group said.
In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the ECOWAS statement and said the U.S. will work in concert with African allies on the next steps forward. It’s unclear whether the U.S. would back direct military force by ECOWAS.
Either way, the implications for the U.S. could be enormous.
Niger, landlocked with one of the world’s poorest populations, in recent years has become an unlikely cornerstone for America’s war against jihadist groups on the continent, particularly Africa’s northern Sahel region, which has become arguably the global epicenter of extremism.
Niger’s role in U.S. counterterrorism efforts first came into the public spotlight in October 2017, when four U.S. Green Berets and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in an extremist ambush. The U.S. forces deployed alongside their Nigerien counterparts in pursuit of a militant affiliated with the Islamic State.
Unable to locate the target, the forces began to return to their bases but were ambushed near the village of Tongo Tongo in what appeared to be a pre-planned enemy assault.
The incident sparked bewilderment and anger on Capitol Hill, with some prominent lawmakers claiming they weren’t even aware the U.S. had troops in Niger at all.
In the years since, the country’s importance to U.S. military operations has grown. It’s home to two key U.S. drone bases and at least 1,000 American military personnel, in addition to military detachments from France, Italy and other European countries.
Africa’s Sahel region, which includes parts of southern Niger, has become one of the world’s most fertile breeding grounds for ISIS, al Qaeda, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and other extremist groups.
Analysts warn that a full-blown coup by a military junta in Niger, like the ones seen in other Sahel nations in recent years, could fuel even more extremism.
“While much is still unknown about the political-military drama playing out in the capital and what positions the junta will take on critical issues, the junta risks repeating the same mistakes of its neighbors: a Sahelian military, playing on popular frustration with the government for its failure to contain jihadist violence, topples said government only to see jihadist violence escalate,” James Barnett, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a recent analysis.