Events are moving quickly in Niger. On Wednesday, members of the presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum. By Thursday, the country’s army command declared its support for the coup. The president and other civilian officials continue to call for the restoration of constitutional order, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has launched mediation efforts while warning that an unconstitutional transfer of power will not be tolerated. But time is clearly not on democracy’s side.
These long-feared developments are obviously a blow to attempts to shore up democratic governance and the rule of law in a region characterized by insecurity, state fragility, and geopolitical competition, and they expose the wishful thinking in U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s characterization of Niger as “a model of resilience” in the region just a few months ago. A fallen Niger could link the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso to the wobbly military regime in Chad, creating a stretch of military regimes from Guinea’s Atlantic coast to Sudan’s Red Sea ports. This band of military governments will likely continue to export insecurity, undermine African governance norms, stoke anti-Western sentiment as they seek scapegoats for their own failures, and grow the influence of malign actors in the region.
It’s important not to conflate the self-interested and self-aggrandizing actions of a group of military officers with popular opinion. After all, the people of Niger elected President Bazoum, not the coup plotters, and reports from Niger indicate that citizens have demonstrated both in favor of the detained President and in favor of the military’s seizure of power over the past two days. But it’s equally important to acknowledge the depth of Nigerien dissatisfaction with the status quo. Life for most Nigeriens is extremely hard. Over 40 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, climate change is squeezing the agricultural sector that used to provide livelihood for many, and rapid population growth has increased pressure on land and generated demand for education and job opportunities that the state has been unable to meet. A February 2023 analysis from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies found that Niger had experienced a 43 percent increase in violence events in the previous year. Much of the population associates this status quo with a French, or more broadly Western, agenda. The vulnerability stemming from Bazoum’s alignment with Western security partners has always been undeniable, even as it is equally undeniable that the track record of the region’s other military regimes suggests that this coup d’état will deliver neither greater security nor greater economic opportunity to the people of Niger.
If the United States wishes to prevent more crises like the one unfolding in Niger, it must reckon with the population’s urgent desire for meaningful, tangible change. For years policymakers have noted that decades of investment in a security-focused approach to the region have been ineffective. But populations on the ground have not discerned any real difference in the nature of Western engagement, or any meaningful response to their priorities. It should be obvious by now that multiple other forces have seized on the desperate desire for change in the region, and will continue working to exploit it.