The Niger Coup Could Threaten the Entire Sahel

In Brief

The Niger Coup Could Threaten the Entire Sahel

The coup in Niger, once seen as the cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in West Africa, now threatens wider regional instability and could potentially open the door to further Russian influence.

On July 26, a faction of the Niger military overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum, citing a “deteriorating security situation” in the ongoing fight against extremist groups that has drawn in the United States and other Western powers. Appearing to have the support of the full military, the coup plotters installed General Abdourahmane “Omar” Tchiani as Niger’s new leader. From captivity, Bazoum has called for resistance to the coup, raising worries of civil conflict. The country’s prime minister and other leaders in the region say the situation could prove to be a “litmus test for West Africa’s democracy.”

Demonstrators gather in Niamey to show support for Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum after he was held captive on July 26, 2023.
Demonstrators gather in Niamey to show support for Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum after he was held captive on July 26, 2023. AFP/Getty Images

Mediation efforts are underway, led by Nigeria and other regional powers. But the junta has warned against outside intervention, and with neighboring Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali expressing support for the coup, fears of a broader conflict are mounting.

What led to the coup?

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Niger’s politics have been unsettled since its independence from France in 1960, with five successful coups against the government in the capital, Niamey. When President Bazoum took office in 2021, it marked the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence. Bazoum had been replacing senior officers in the security services in recent months, and reportedly had been considering replacing General Tchiani as head of the presidential guard in the days before the coup took place.

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Contributing to the instability are numerous ongoing crises. Rates for extreme poverty are over 40 percent, while a changing climate is exacerbating drought and imperiling the country’s agriculture. At the same time, Niger has been embroiled in a battle against insurgent groups since 2011, when chaos in Libya scattered fighters throughout the Sahel region, including in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali. The conflict has killed more than one thousand people across the region since 2019 and displaced more than 2.8 million others, leading experts to call the Sahel the “global epicenter of jihadist violence.”

The escalating fight against extremist groups has deepened tensions between Niger and Western powers, which have intervened with money and personnel. Niger has been called the “cornerstone” of regional antiterrorism efforts by the United States and France; both countries have deployed more than one thousand troops across the country and maintained military bases there from which to target insurgents and gather intelligence. But reports indicate that Niger’s military leadership has grown increasingly disgruntled with this level of support and the campaign’s apparent lack of progress.

A map of Niger showing the location of the capital, Niamey, and noting the presence of U.S. drone bases in Niamey and Agadez.

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Bazoum’s overthrow is the latest in a pattern. It marks the seventh coup in West and Central Africa since 2020, as militaries in Mali, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere have reacted against what they see as failing civilian leadership. 

A map of Africa showing that many countries in the Sahel have experienced coups in recent years.

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What are the regional and international implications? 

Observers worry that this growing trend of military rule could augur worsening regional instability and backsliding in the fight against extremist groups, potentially spurring more migration and opening the door to greater Russian influence.

They note that the fight against insurgent groups is already weakening as Western countries are sidelined. In Burkina Faso and Mali, which expelled intervening French forces last year, violence has soared. An isolated Niger could make security matters worse for the insurgent situation. The United States, European Union, and United Nations have all condemned the coup, while the World Bank has suspended some development aid and the Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc, has imposed sanctions and threatened military intervention to restore Bazoum. 

With a breakdown in democracy putting the U.S.-Niger partnership at risk—Washington has warned that it could cease aid, and Niamey has confined U.S. troops to their bases—other analysts see an opportunity for Russia to fill the gap. Moscow has positioned itself as an “anti-colonial” alternative partner for countries across the region, and its Wagner Group mercenaries have deployed in Mali and elsewhere. Niger has so far held out against seeking similar ties with Russia. But the incoming junta could take a different view, experts say, and as Africa’s second-biggest uranium producer, Niger is an attractive ally for Russia as it seeks to gain influence in resource-rich African countries. 

Meanwhile, insecurity could also undermine efforts to curb illegal immigration and human trafficking, as Niger is situated along a major northward migration route to the Mediterranean. The country that once embodied the region’s hopes for stability now appears to be teetering. “I’m very worried that Sahelian Africa is going to melt down,” Oxford University’s Paul Collier tells the New York Times

Will Merrow created the maps for this In Brief. 

Correction: This In Brief previously referred to President Bazoum as the first democratically elected leader. This error was corrected on August 3, 2023.

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