The Niger Coup Risks Opening Another Front in the West’s War With Russia

On July 26, a coup deposed Niger’s democratically elected president, the seventh in the region in three years. The ongoing conflict threatens to divide the region between pro- and anti-Western factions, spreading the new cold war to Africa.

Supporters of Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey on July 26, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

On July 26, a splinter faction of the Niger military overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum, confining him to the presidential palace. While telecommunications infrastructure was still intact, a tweet from the premier’s office claimed Bazoum and family were in good health but were prepared to call upon the National Guard to attack if the rebelling soldiers did not back down.

Within forty-eight hours, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, surrounded by nine other officers, took control of national airwaves, declaring he had “put an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the effort to unseat Bazoum, who was elected president two years ago in the nation’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960.

European leaders, along with United Nations chief António Guterres, condemned “any effort to seize power by force” and urged respect for Niger’s constitution, while the United States expressed deep concern and called for Bazoum to be released from captivity. Even Ethiopia’s government, which human rights organizations accused of war crimes throughout the Tigray War, said putschists were “acting in total betrayal of their republican duty.” How regional powers would respond to this crisis was, according to Nigeria’s recently elected president, Bola Tinubu, a “litmus test for West Africa’s democracy.”

This coup is the seventh to take place in Africa’s Sahel region, which stretches from Mauritania in the west to Eritrea in the east, since 2020; most recently, Mali and Burkina Faso have suffered three coups in as many years. This political tumult threatens to open fissures across the region. Mali and Burkina Faso, both states currently held by putschists, have stated that they will respond to any attempt by ECOWAS, a political and economic bloc made up of largely Western-allied West African nations or outside military forces, to restore Bazoum with a full-scale invasion. Whilst Niger’s beleaguered premier has called for US intervention, the juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have aligned with Russia since taking charge.

Niger was a strategic outlier for Western powers combatting growing jihadist movements in the Sahel. After military takeovers in Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso in 2020, the West and its allies saw Niger as an integral part of its attempt to maintain power in a region in which pro-Russian sentiment is growing and Islamist groups hold sway.

On July 28, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated that constitutional order should be restored while at the same time, Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin released a voice message on the Telegram app denying any involvement in the coup. According to Reuters he did, however, describe the developments as “a moment of long overdue liberation from Western colonizers and made what looked like a pitch for his fighters to help keep order.”

Niger is home to twenty-seven million people, 40 percent of whom live in extreme poverty and 50 percent on $2.15 a day. At $15 billion, its GDP is less than one-tenth of that of Washington, DC, whose population numbers just over seven hundred thousand. The state imports nearly one-third of its food and is ranked 189th out of 191 in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index, with a per capita GDP of US$594.90, one of the lowest in Africa. In the global community of states, it suffers the most from economic inequality. As a result, the average life expectancy in Niger is sixty, and its median age is fifteen, making it the youngest country in the world.

Since 1945, and well after France’s African colonies gained independence in the 1960s, France instituted or imposed the West African franc (CFA) as the currency of its West African colonies. The currency is backed by the French treasury and pegged to the Euro, and it’s accepted in fourteen member countries, including the last three countries that underwent a coup: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

While the CFA franc provides some economic order and interstate financial convenience, its value, inflation-rate, and volatility are determined by the behavior of people playing in markets on a completely different continent. The absence of monetary sovereignty within the region puts constraints on the kinds of domestic policies that local governments can pursue. In 2019, the Brookings Institution, a conservative think tank, conceded that although the CFA franc ensured currency stability, it limited intra-regional trade, encouraging the emergence of economies reliant on the export of primary commodities, and made more difficult the development of an independent industrial policy.

Niger provides 5 percent of the world’s uranium and has helped to sustain France’s nuclear energy sector. Reports have suggested that the West African nation’s new government plans to ban exports of the mineral to France, a move whose significance is easy to overstate amidst the ensuing chaos. However, in the short or medium term, this shift, were it to take place, would not put significant constraints on France’s access to uranium. Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan are three of the four largest producers of the mineral and each of these countries plans to increase its output to global markets. France and the West’s concerns over the fall of Niger cannot, therefore, be easily attributed to anxieties about resource scarcity.

More significant in understanding the geopolitics of the region is the role that the West has played in guaranteeing the security of nations in the Sahel without the state capacity to do so themselves. Governments in the Sahel have often invited France in to assist or bolster security measures in vast swaths of the country where the growing presence of jihadist movements threaten the stability of the central government. French security in exchange for CFA loyalty is the tacit geopolitical agreement here, but the former colonial power has long failed to uphold its side of the bargain and quell the unrest in the remote regions of the Sahel. As a result, governments fall to coups, and French troops are forced to withdraw, as they did in Mali and Burkina Faso. This leads to regional powers turning to Russia and the Wagner Group for security.

Were the West or its allies to intervene, it would likely come into conflict with these Wagner Group–backed forces in Mali and Burkina Faso, effectively opening another front in the proxy war with Russia. The humanitarian consequences of such an intervention would be significant. It would certainly increase the flow of refugees from the region into the West, exacerbating anti-migrant politics in Europe and providing a pretext for unsavory alliances between Europe and Mediterranean nations willing to do the bloc’s dirty work and detain people fleeing poverty and war.