Niger: Will the Sahel survive another coup?
An Arab, deposed President Bazoum’s attempts to shuffle his Fulani-dominated Republican Guard, may have triggered the coup. With French and US troops stationed there, and Russia in the background, the coup echoes far beyond Niger’s borders.
The coup that took place in Niger on 26 July – whether it turns out to be successful or not – is a bad omen for the countries of the Sahel and brings into question the very sustainability of democratic governance in parts of Africa.
Are the pressures of economic and climatic adversity, and runaway demographic growth bringing unbearable pressure to bear on still-fragile democracies? If they collapse, how will these countries be governed? Can democracy be reinvigorated or will authoritarianism return? Will jihadists gradually extend the influence of their radically alternative form of government, or will parts of Africa be effectively re-colonised by mercenary groups that prop up local regimes in return for despoiling the economy?
But let’s look at what has actually happened in Niger. This is the fourth coup in the country since independence, but each has been very different. The last, in 2010 (while I was British Ambassador to the country), might almost be called a ‘good coup’. When President Tanja looked set to subvert the constitution by seeking a third term in power, the military stepped in, removed him from power, and managed a transition to new elections in 2011 which elected Mahamadou Issoufou as President. He stood down at the end of his second term in 2021, and former foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum won the relatively open and peaceful elections.
Niger has successfully managed regional tensions within the country. The majority Hausa-Fulani and the significant minorities of Tuareg and Arab origin, living mainly in the north of the country, have all, under Issoufou, been included in governments that balanced the different groups. President Bazoum is Niger’s first President from the Arab community. While military recruitment is from all groups, cadre are predominantly Fulani. Niger’s democratic institutions have functioned reasonably well. While there is corruption, it is not disabling. But Niger remains an overwhelmingly rural country, with 80% living outside cities, very high rates of poverty, and, at 3.7 % annually, one of the fastest demographic growth rates in the world (most western countries are well below 1%). Most Nigeriens are therefore focussed primarily on their own subsistence.
That makes a coup relatively easy. The levers of power are concentrated in Niamey. The military, recently boosted to combat the growing jihadist threat, is one of the best-funded and most coherent institutions. Reports suggest that the coup may have been a response to President Bazoum’s attempts to reform the military high command and change the head of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani – who some believe is behind the move. But apart from its spokesman, Col Amadou Abdramane, the coup leaders currently remain nameless. In the televised announcement, representatives of all the main military forces (Presidential Guard, Army, Special Forces and National Guard) were represented, and despite early reports of opposition to the coup, the Army leadership subsequently said it would not contest it to avoid fighting. Behind the scenes, former President Issoufou is said to be negotiating with all parties in an effort to restore civilian government.
Condemnation of the coup has been immediate from both the African Union and ECOWAS, though the latter’s attempt to send President Talon of Benin to talk to the coup leaders was frustrated by the closure of borders. ECOWAS Chair, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria is nevertheless also seeking to broker a deal.
Niger is of great strategic importance for Africa and the world. With Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad all with actual or de facto military governments, in the Sahel only Niger, Senegal and Mauritania have retained representative governments. Niger is not only a base for action against jihadi groups throughout the region, but also a supplier of critical uranium supplies to France’s nuclear power industry. As such it has received growing volumes of western military and civilian aid, including a major transport project to improve access to the coast through Benin, agreed at the last US-Africa Summit.
Niger is host to a growing number of western forces. As part of their counter-terrorism operations, the US now have around 1000 troops stationed in Niger, while France are reported to have another 1,500 troops there, having made Niger their regional base after being forced to leave Mali. France’s President Macron has condemned the coup as ‘illegitimate’, and Foreign Minister Colonna described it as ‘not definitive’, hoping President Bazoum would be reinstated.
It was noted that – as in Burkina Faso – some of the demonstrators who came out in support of the coup waved Russian flags, and though Russia has formally condemned the coup, they will be waiting with interest to see whether this is an opportunity to stoke anti-French and anti-West sentiment in Africa
But Niger is in effect a microcosm of the pressures affecting many African governments. The impact of Covid, the Ukraine war and global interest rate rises have all severely impacted African economies. Debt problems are afflicting a growing number of governments; inflation and shortages are afflicting everyone; and in many countries, the security situation is deteriorating. Democratic governments are struggling to meet citizen expectations.
The experience of the 1970s and ‘80s in Africa suggests that authoritarian governments would be no better – in fact, significantly worse – at dealing with these problems. But that was long ago. With a median age of 19, few on the continent remember them. The siren voices of populists and generals promising instant solutions will sound persuasive, even if the chances of them doing any more than finding ways to cling to power and profit from it, with outside help, if necessary, are slim.
The only real solution is therefore to make democracy work better. There are many Africans committed to this, but the outside world must help, not hinder the project.