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West Africa on the brink: is the coup in Niger a regional breaking point?

Updated: Mar 4


On the 26th of July 2023, officers from The Republic of Niger's presidential guard, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, detained the West African nation's president, Mohamed Bazoum, and declared themselves the nation's new leaders. 


Niger's military junta has stated that it aims to confront French neo-colonialism, as Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali have done in recent years. Since France's ousting, the Russian Federation and the Wagner group have taken Frances's place as the main military power supporting these countries. 


The francophone nations of the Sahel are turning to Russia in the belief that Putin and the Wagner Group can help to free them from France's neo-colonial influence. Niger's pro-military supporters fly Russian and burn French flags at anti-colonial protests and rallies backing Tchiani.


France has been evacuating its citizens from Niger since Mali and Burkina Faso stated that any intervention in Niger to restore the ousted government would also be a declaration of war against them. Algeria has also opposed any intervention in Niger. Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy have also evacuated citizens from Niger.

 

However, the United States has kept its embassy operating "on a normal schedule," with State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller saying there were no current indications "of threats to U.S. citizens or facilities."


Whilst evacuations took place, protesters gathered outside the French Embassy in the capital of Niamey, attacking the building. French officials have denied that Paris plans to intervene militarily, refuting reports that the French embassy security used live fire to disperse protesters over the weekend.


However, reports suggest that France, supported by the United States, will likely ignite conflict in West Africa soon by either directly or indirectly attacking Niger under the auspice of supporting the democratic interests of the region and maintaining the power of the leading regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).


On the 3rd of August 2023, ECOWAS' leading defence chiefs held crisis talks in Nigeria (which represent 70% of ECOWAS' wealth) where they strategised on effective ways to implement the possible military operation in Niger if diplomatic efforts fail to reinstate the country's ousted president, Mohammed Bazoum. 


The bloc has imposed sanctions on Niger and initially threatened an ultimatum, where military intervention would be inevitable if the current junta didn't restore the old government. Nigeria has also cut off power to the country, and the presidents of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, and Benin have all made statements that they are willing to contribute their armies. 


Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are all ECOWAS member states, as is Niger, but are threatening to leave the bloc over their relationship with Europe and the USA. All three nations also announced that in the event of an invasion of Niger, they would immediately resign from ECOWAS. 


The Arewa Consultative Forum, an influential Northern Nigerian political and cultural association, cautioned Nigerian president Bola Ahmed Tinubu not to lead ECOWAS to military action. The forum stated, "We believe the peaceful relations with our border communities and stability of the entire region should be paramount." The advice opposes France's and the United States military and economic motivations.


If any other countries are to follow, it will likely be Senegal and Togo. The two nations are in political turmoil and are anti-French and anti-colonial. They are in political and social situations similar to those that lead Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to revolt. Reports suggest the Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau are on course toward a similar breaking point. 


As of the 6th of August, the ultimatum was up, but ECOWAS did not invade.


Niger is of great economic and political importance to Nigeria. Niger provides the second largest fighting force combating Boko Haram and controls water intake from the river Niger, the largest river in Nigeria. Niger is also crucial in connecting Nigeria's gas exports to Europe, as the proposed trans-Saharan pipeline passes through Niger. 


Niger's borders have been closed, and trade, diplomatic relations, and banking services have all been suspended. Niger has established a no-fly zone; nevertheless, France has illegally landed military aircraft there. 


1,500 French troops are stationed in the country, and their largest base in Africa is in north Niger since Mali expelled the French from its borders. French troops are there as part of their fight in the Sahel against Islamic extremism. However, Niger has revoked their military pact with France to remove what they see as a neo-colonial incursion. France's foreign affairs ministry said that the junta's revocation of military pacts would not affect existing military deals as it does not recognise the putschists. 


However, the French government's principal fear is losing access to Uranium. 


Uranium has been exploited by the French corporation Orano (formerly Areva) in Niger for over four decades. The multinational, 90% owned by the French state, operates three mines in Niger. Over the last ten years, 20% of all Uranium in France has come from Nigerian mines. France produces 63% of its electricity using Nuclear Power, but less than 15% of people in Niger have electricity.


Despite France's reliance on Nigerian Uranium, the African nation only produces 4% of the world's global supply. France uniquely relies on Uranium from Niger; therefore, France has a more significant incentive to intervene in Niger than any other non-African nation. 

The United States is also incentivised to support military intervention because Niger is a critical partner in their battle against jihadist insurgency. The U.S. has drone bases in Niger, and the country hosts many special forces and logistics experts engaged in counter-terrorism operations. 


In the background continuing, regardless, the Sahel region, including West Niger, does remain a centre of Islamic extremism in Africa, with groups like Boko Haram and ISIS affiliates exploiting political instability. France and the United States have been deploying troops and military resources in Niger to combat Islamic extremism in the Sahel. However, at least in part, this appears only to enforce neo-colonial power in the region. 


Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali were, until recently, part of a five-nation regional francophone G5 Sahel alliance – including Mauritania and Chad - intended to fight jihadist insurgency. However, since France left Mali, the fight against Boko Haram in the area has been more successful, forcing the extremists into the far northeast of the region. The success is because of the support they have received, not from France but from the Russian Federation and the Wagner Group.


The question is whether the Russian-backed military successes against extremism are only happening now because they wish to supplant France and continue to undermine the political and economic authority of the Sahel. France is a complacent neo-colonial power and did not support political freedom in the Sahel for generations.


Therefore, the Sahel has rejected France, its violence, and its ambivalence. Russia is capitalising. However, there is no reason to believe that another European colonial power will give political freedom to the Sahel in the future. 


The region's resources are attractive to Putin and his colonial ambitions, just as they have been to France.  


Image: The Conversation

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Good informative article

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