Main Image Credit What comes next in the Nigerien coup? Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Regional and international actors were unprepared for the coup in Niger. They should now plan for further instability.
In a shocking turn of events, an attempted coup has thrown Niger into turmoil as President Mohamed Bazoum found himself held captive by the very people meant to protect him – the Presidential Guard. The crisis began to unfold at approximately 10:00 on 26 July when reports of the detention of the president emerged. The situation escalated rapidly, with the Nigerien Presidency issuing a communiqué at noon, warning that the National Army was prepared to take action against the coup plotters if they did not abandon their illegal actions. International organisations and neighbouring states swiftly responded, condemning the attempted coup. The EU, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union, as well as other trusted partners of Niger such as France and the US, issued statements expressing their disapproval of the coup and support for the democratically elected government of Niger. As the day progressed, tensions continued to rise. Demonstrations in support of President Bazoum erupted in the capital. The situation turned violent when the Presidential Guard fired warning shots at pro-Bazoum demonstrators. In an attempt to mediate and defuse the crisis, ECOWAS sent Patrice Talon, the president of Benin, to engage in dialogue with the coup leaders. However, despite these efforts and previous mediation attempts by former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, the situation remained deadlocked.
Following a chaotic day of events, the coup leaders went to National Nigerien TV and made their move official at around midnight, announcing the coup's success and declaring the establishment of the Conseil National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, CNSP). In their first declaration, the leaders justified the coup citing reasons such as the deteriorating security situation and poor economic and social governance. They suspended all state institutions and the constitution, closed land and air borders, imposed a night-time curfew and requested external partners not to interfere in the country's affairs. In the meantime, Bazoum was still being held captive and had not resigned.
The initial observation about the coup was that the international community and analysts were completely unprepared. Despite the long history of coups in Niger – since gaining independence in 1960, the country has experienced four successful coups and several attempted ones – the international community had hoped that Bazoum would remain in power and be an anchor for the stability in the region, especially after multiple coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. This is why in the past year, French troops have moved to Niger and US military and humanitarian assistance has grown substantially. The Western international community was significantly engaged in Niger and trusted the country as a solid partner.
During the first few hours after the coup, analysts stated that the main reason behind the coup was the internal power struggle in the security forces, and that rumours of the impending dismissal of the head of the Presidential Guard triggered the coup attempt. There were even credible signs that military forces loyal to Bazoum could potentially reverse the coup. However, the military leaders presenting the communiqué include commanders from the Air Force, the special forces in the Army, the Gendarmery and the police, among others. This shows a significant miscalculation of how much support the coup leaders had generated within the security sector. The next morning, the military leadership of the Nigerien armed forces decided to not oppose the coup, averting a potentially lethal confrontation among different forces.
The initial observation about the coup was that the international community and analysts were completely unprepared
Besides President Bazoum’s inability to manage the various power groups within Niger's security forces, there are other factors that have triggered the successful completion of the coup. It took place against a backdrop of political, social and security challenges. Within one day, there were already demonstrations in support of the newly proclaimed CNSP, in front of Bazoum’s political party headquarters and over the weekend thousands of protesters gathered outside the French Embassy in Niamey, expressing support for the military. The demonstrators chanted anti-France slogans and displayed Russian flags, expressing their desire for new partners such as Russia to support their country's independence. Therefore, even if Bazoum was close to the Western international community, this was not necessarily reflected among the wider public and civil society. The M62 movement has been actively opposing the government, demanding the departure of French forces from the country. The deteriorating security and humanitarian situation, particularly in the Liptako Gourma region, has also contributed to the discontent of the population. It is important to remember that compared with the coup in Mali and Burkina Faso where the situation was worsening quickly, in Niger, the incidents involving violent extremist organisations have, in recent years, remained relatively stable. According to ACLED data, during the first six months of 2022, 223 incidents took place involving Jama'at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the Islamic State or Boko Haram in Niger. This number rose in the second part of 2022 with 285 incidents but decreased again in the first 6 months of 2023, with 256 incidents so far. To put this in perspective, during 2022 there were over 2,300 incidents involving JNIM and the Islamic State in Burkina Faso.
Another key observation was the international community’s reaction to the coup which rapidly shifted over the weekend. As mentioned previously, ECOWAS (through sending various diplomats) tried to mediate with the junta authorities to try to reach an agreement to restore Bazoum as president. This is a stark comparison with the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso where the international community tended to immediately recognise (but also sanction) the transitional authorities.
In the case of Niger, the international community has made considerable efforts to reverse the coup and on 31 July President Idriss Déby (also not democratically elected) was in Niger and met with Bazoum. He also met with CNSP leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani. Furthermore, during the weekend, the regional and international community decided to apply harsh sanctions against the junta to try to overturn the coup.
France immediately suspended all development aid and budgetary support. The African Union has demanded that the military junta immediately and unconditionally return to its barracks and restore constitutional authority – giving the coup leaders 15 days to do so. In a communiqué after an extraordinary meeting that took place on 30 July, ECOWAS has threatened to use all necessary means, including the use of force, to restore power to the legitimate authorities, which marks a significant escalation compared with previous coups. ECOWAS has given the CNSP a deadline of one week to restore constitutional order and already Côte d’Ivoire has declared that if the diplomatic solution fails, it will take part in an armed intervention to restore constitutional order in Niger. France, Spain, Italy, the UK and several other European countries have successfully evacuated the majority of their civilians in Niger. The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) imposed stronger sanctions than in the second coup in Mali in 2022. These sanctions include restrictions on all commercial exchanges, including petroleum and electricity, which were exempted from the sanctions against Mali. Nigeria has already cut electricity supplies as a mean of increasing pressure on the country's coup leaders.
The hope of maintaining a level of stability in Niger is slipping away as public support for the junta increases further
Sanctions on individuals are also threatened, affecting not only the junta members directly but also their families. However, there are risks to this type of approach. The last time ECOWAS and the international community took such a harsh approach in Mali, this only contributed to granting more legitimacy to the junta in the eyes of the population. The military juntas of Burkina Faso and Mali have issued a warning, stating that any military intervention targeting the recent coup leaders in Niger would be seen as a direct declaration of war against their respective countries and that they would withdraw from ECOWAS. Former Nigerien Chief of Staff ‘Mody’ is reported to be in Bamako and then will go to Burkina Faso, where, according to trusted journalistic sources he is seeking the swift deployment of Wagner forces to Niamey, although there has been no official confirmation of this yet.
The hope of maintaining a level of stability in Niger is slipping away as public support for the junta increases further, particularly following its decision to isolate itself from key international partners such as France and the US. This will have a direct impact on counterterrorism operations on the ground particularly where Niger and France were conducting joint operations to deter both the Islamic State and JNIM. As the new junta strengthens its control, the absence of French security forces and their operations in the region may further expose Niger to exploitation by non-state armed groups, including jihadists. This poses a significant threat to Niger's stability and raises the possibility of a larger spillover effect into neighbouring states, including Benin.
The final outcome of the coup is, of course, still uncertain. For example, it is unclear whether these mediation attempts will help to ensure a smooth transition, or if the new junta will decide to diversify to non-Western partners such as Russia, or if ECOWAS decides to employ force, and we might be confronted with a scenario of armed conflict or regional war. Given this uncertainty, only time will tell the future of Niger. However, an essential lesson that the international community must take is that the situation on the ground can change overnight and it is therefore critically important to prepare for all potential scenarios.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Beatriz de León Cobo
Associate Fellow - Conflict, Justice and Security Advisor at First Call Partners