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Niger coup jeopardizes Western fight against Islamist militants

The U.S. and France have hundreds of troops deployed to Niger, and the American military has two drone bases in the country as part of its counterterrorism campaign.
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NIAMEY, Niger — A military coup in Niger threatens to derail the Western fight against Islamist militants in Africa’s volatile Sahel region as Washington has relied heavily on the country as a hub for its counterterrorism efforts, former U.S. officials and regional analysts say.

The turmoil in Niger jeopardizes a yearslong effort by the United States, France and other Western countries to combat Boko Haram and affiliates of the Islamic State terrorist group. It could also offer Russia a chance to bolster its influence after forging ties with other military juntas in West Africa through its Wagner Group paramilitaries.

“An unconstitutional seizure of power puts at grave risk our continued security cooperation with the government of Niger,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said. “We condemn efforts by the military to subvert the democratically elected government led by President Bazoum. We are closely monitoring the situation.”

Smoke rises after coup supporters set fire to the headquarters of President Mohamed Bazoum's party, the Party for Democracy and Socialism in Niger in Niamey, Niger on July 27, 2023.
Smoke rises after coup supporters set fire to the headquarters of President Mohamed Bazoum's party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, in Niamey, on Thursday.Balima Boureima / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Roughly 1,100 American troops are stationed in Niger, where they operate two U.S. drone bases.

The army general who led the coup, Gen. Abdourahmane Tiani, appeared on state television on Friday, appealing for support from the people of Niger and from foreign governments and international partners. 

Wearing military fatigues and surrounded by other top brass, the head of the country’s powerful presidential guard said army officers decided to “put an end to the regime” to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country.

“I ask the technical and financial partners who are friends of Niger to understand the specific situation of our country in order to provide it with all the support necessary to enable it to meet the challenges,” Tiani said.

Members of the military presidential guard detained the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, on Wednesday.

Tiani is now head of state, and the country’s Constitution has been suspended, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane said on state television.

Although Tiani and his allies have detained the president, closed the country’s borders and declared the general the country’s new leader, the Biden administration has not yet used the word “coup” to describe the events in Niger. Such a declaration under U.S. law would require a halt to any American military assistance and training in Niger, putting an end to Washington’s counterterrorism efforts there 

Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the head of the country’s special forces, also appeared in television with the military group leading the takeover. Barmou has worked closely with the U.S. military.

If the takeover is not reversed, France also would likely be forced to withdraw the hundreds of troops it has in the country, analysts said.

France criticized the army officers' actions. “France does not recognize the authorities resulting from the putsch led by General Tiani,” the French Foreign Ministry said.

“We reiterate in the strongest terms the clear demands of the international community calling for the immediate restoration of constitutional order and democratically elected civil power in Niger,” it said. 

Supporters of Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum demonstrate in his support in Niamey, Niger on  July 26, 2023.
Supporters of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum demonstrate in Niamey, on Wednesday.Sam Mednick / AP

U.S. officials said Bazoum is being held in the palace and they were not aware that he has signed any legal document relinquishing power.  

A crowd of protesters backing the army officers gathered in front of the National Assembly on Thursday, burning dozens of cars. The protesters unfurled a couple of Russian flags and shouted pro-Russian chants but U.S. officials said there was no indication Russia’s Wagner mercenary group was behind the takeover.

Russia has taken advantage of coups in Mali and elsewhere in the region, seeking to replace Western powers with its own Wagner paramilitary units. But after Wagner’s brief mutiny last month in Russia and its resulting fallout, it’s unclear if Moscow is in a position to deploy paramilitary units to Niger, according to J. Peter Pham, former U.S. envoy to the Sahel and now at the Atlantic Council think tank. 

“Given all that happened in the last month in Russia, one has to question whether the Kremlin can truly exploit this particular opportunity,” he said. “I think they’re stretched, their capabilities are stretched and they’ve got issues much closer to home.”

But Pham and other experts said Wagner was likely behind disinformation efforts in recent months and years that sought to portray the government of Niger as alleged puppets of France, a former colonial power in Africa, and other Western governments.

“The disinformation is about the role of France as a foreign power pursuing only its national interests and it is not interested in the stability of these countries and about civilian governments being puppets of Western institutions," said Benjamin Petrini, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

U.S. and Western officials have viewed Niger as a last bastion of democratic rule in the Sahel and as a linchpin for Western efforts to battle a growing threat from Islamist militants.

“Niger is the only door open to Western influence and stabilization functions in this area,” Petrini said. 

In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger, calling it “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.” 

The takeover in Niger follows military coups in recent years in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, in what appears to be a “domino effect” in West Africa, Petrini said.

“The wider issue is that terrorist threats are down everywhere except the Sahel — that’s the only place where (ISIS) affiliates aren’t in decline,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

France has for decades been a major player in western and central Africa, “but they were booted out of Mali and Burkina Faso, and if Niger goes the same way as those countries, whose governments have gone into decline, then you have a real problem,” he said.

“The Russians are going to come and offer their services. But the problem is that the Russian approach to these problems is: let’s kill everybody. And that rarely seems to work.”