Niger, America’s last relatively strong and democratic security partner in the Sahel region of West Africa, succumbed to a coup on July 26. In true praetorian fashion, soldiers from the Presidential Guard turned on President Mohamed Bazoum, detaining him in his presidential palace in the capital, Niamey.
The government may have been able to suppress the mutiny if other units in the military had not, after several hours of uncertainty, supported the putschists late in the evening. Now only a major fissure within the military or a serious threat of external force could force the coup plotters to step down.
The Niger coup is condemnable enough in its own right, but other West African states and Western governments should be particularly worried given the recent history of regime change in the violence-plagued Sahel. In both Mali and Burkina Faso, coups in 2021 and 2022, respectively, were followed by a further rise in jihadist violence, geopolitical spats between the juntas and their traditional Western security partners, and, in the case of Mali, the arrival of the Wagner Group.
Western policymakers had hoped that Niger would be the exception, but they may not have sufficiently appreciated the country’s turbulent history and its fractious security forces. The United States has invested millions in security and development assistance in Niger since the 2010s. The Europeans, principally France, have begun shifting the locus of their counterterrorism and counter-migration efforts to the country after being expelled by juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso. Compared to the crude approaches employed by neighboring juntas, Niger’s counterterrorism approach has generally been more targeted and involved a better mixture of kinetic and non-kinetic tools. Though it would be a mistake to say that Niger was making meaningful progress against terrorism in recent years, Niamey was not succumbing to the chaos as fast as its neighbors. By the poor standards of the Sahel, this relative stability made Niger an essential anchor for regional security efforts.
This small foothold is now at risk as Niger looks set to become the latest victim of a wider, self-inflicted unraveling in the Sahel. While much is still unknown about the political-military drama playing out in the capital and what positions the junta will take on critical issues, the junta risks repeating the same mistakes of its neighbors: a Sahelian military, playing on popular frustration with the government for its failure to contain jihadist violence, topples said government only to see jihadist violence escalate. There are several factors behind this frustrating cycle.
First, juntas in the Sahel have resorted to aggressive and indiscriminate violence against communities suspected of harboring jihadists. In Burkina Faso, for example, state-backed militias have been implicated in horrific, ethnically targeted violence. These heavy-handed tactics often backfire by causing communities to look to the jihadists for protection, which in turn provides the jihadists with additional manpower and resources. This dynamic has played out across the Sahel in recent years among the heavily stigmatized Fulani ethnic group, for example. However unnecessary, illegitimate governments distracted by their own political vulnerabilities—like the Nigerien junta—often resort to such brutal means.
Military regimes are inevitably vulnerable to the same coup tactics that brought them to power, as seen in Burkina Faso last year. West Africa’s history since the 1960s indeed demonstrates that military regimes produce subpar militaries. When generals focus on politics in hopes of forestalling the next coup, they tend to subordinate battlefield considerations to political ones. Consider this passage from the memoir of a veteran of the Nigerian military regime’s peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in the 1990s: “There was no political control of the operation. The overall operational commander, the brigade commanders and to a large extent, the commanding officers were left on their own to do as they wished. . . . This situation encouraged unit commanders to go for soft and lucrative targets.” Militaries commanded by juntas do not just tend to be abusive; they also tend to be rapacious and apathetic to their primary missions.
Finally, the junta may alienate Niger’s international partners in the same way its neighbors in Mali and Burkina Faso have. Though it is not certain that this will be the case, Mali and Burkina Faso are instructive of how a geopolitical shift might occur. To rally public support for their illegitimate regimes, the juntas in Bamako and Ouagadougou have railed against the West—particularly their former colonial ruler, France—for allegedly violating their sovereignty. Each regime subsequently expelled Western counterterrorism forces and, in Mali’s case, United Nations peacekeeping forces. That the French reportedly tried to evacuate Bazoum from Niamey has already given the new junta some fodder. Washington, for its part, now faces a complex legal and interagency debate about whether to restrict security assistance to Niger, which would be certain to anger the junta.
Implications for the West
Niger breaking from the West would be troubling in many regards. After expelling Western forces, Mali turned to the Wagner Group, and some reports suggest Burkina Faso’s junta is looking to do the same. Wagner’s growing influence has made matters worse for Western powers seeking to box out any Russian influence in West Africa, as well as for ordinary civilians in the region. Wagner feeds the worst tendencies of West African military regimes, and its cronyist, sledgehammer approach to counterterrorism has backfired in Mali, killing scores of innocent civilians and accelerating jihadist expansion. As Hudson’s Zineb Riboua points out, Wagner’s Telegram channels were quick to celebrate the coup. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin released a statement on July 27 suggesting that Niger could be a new arena for the mercenary group. This does not guarantee a Wagner presence in Niger, but the junta will likely at least flirt with the notion of inviting the group to create leverage against the West.
This presents a dilemma for the US and its European partners. The coup plotters in Niger may attempt to chart a middle path between Niger’s traditional security partners and Russia. In this case, the junta leaders may indicate that they wish to maintain elements of the status quo with the West and even pay lip service to human rights and accountability while still engaging in ineffective and violent counterinsurgency practices. The West should be wary of coddling such a regime. (France’s cozy relationship with successive military regimes in Chad is instructive in this regard.) But if the West allows relations to sour completely, the regime may turn fully to external actors like Wagner that enable its most destructive impulses.
In his inaugural speech on July 28, the general leading the junta criticized Bazoum’s counterinsurgency strategy and aspects of Niger’s security partnership with the West, which is worrying insofar as it might indicate a shift to the more reckless approaches employed by Bamako and Ouagadougou. If Niger goes the way of Mali and Burkina Faso, new major challenges would emerge for the rest of West Africa—particularly the coastal states that have emerged as a new pillar of Western security policy amid accelerating Jihadist expansion. Jihadist violence within Niger was already escalating in the southwestern region of Tillaberi prior to the coup. If the coup plotters make the same mistakes as their neighbors in Mali and Burkina Faso, they will create opportunities for the jihadists in that region to accelerate their expansion from Tillaberi into northern Benin and northwestern Nigeria.
Implications for West Africa
Benin is a small country at the forefront of the fight against jihadist expansion in West Africa. Violence has increased dramatically in the country’s north since the first attack was recorded in 2019, and jihadists from Niger and Burkina Faso have regularly moved over 100 miles into Beninois territory, according to security sources and community members I interviewed in the region. If the coup in Niger allows jihadists to secure their bases in Tillaberi, they will likely be able to further escalate their insurgency in Benin.
Nigeria, meanwhile, is Africa’s most populous state and largest economy. Niger shares a highly porous 1,000-mile border with Nigeria, which allows non-state armed groups to cross with ease. This has been apparent in Nigeria’s northeastern flank, where the Boko Haram conflict has raged across the Niger-Nigeria border since 2009.
However, the northwestern corner of Nigeria—which is closer to Niger’s Tillaberi region—would likely suffer far greater collateral damage from Niger’s destabilization. The northwest is already dealing with a devastating interethnic conflict that has given rise to powerful and deadly bandit warlords who undermine the Nigerian state. Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansaru, have engaged in fitful but nonetheless concerning expansion from Nigeria’s northeast into the northwest, which risks allowing jihadists from the Sahel to link up with their Nigerian counterparts in the Benin-Niger-Nigeria tri-border region. To make matters worse, Nigerian security forces are more overstretched in the vast northwest than in the northeast, where they apply more consistent if still inadequate pressure on jihadists.
A Grim Outlook
With an eye to this risk of regional destabilization, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the newly elected chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), quickly condemned the coup and dispatched a team to Niger to mediate with the parties. Any mediation needs to be backed with a credible threat of sanctions and other punishments against the putschists. The junta in Niamey would appreciate a credible threat of force more than mere rhetoric or even a sanctions package. But given the limited military capacity of ECOWAS, the complex internal security dynamics of Niger, and historical mistrust between ECOWAS member states, it is unlikely that ECOWAS will muster a military response to the coup. The strongest response would likely take the form of ECOWAS and international partners such as the US and European Union announcing targeted sanctions to try and coerce the junta into a transition back to civilian rule.
Beyond the threat to regional stability, the coup is a tragedy for ordinary Nigeriens, who will bear the brunt of any violence and may see cuts in foreign development and humanitarian assistance. The tragedy of the coup might also be the key to rolling it back. The Presidential Guard does not seem to have strong popular support. Bazoum is, as of this writing, still able to communicate from house arrest. And anti-junta protests have already broken out in Niamey. Bazoum was not without his critics in Nigerien civil society, but Nigeriens do not have to look far to see what military rule has done to their neighbors. It is similarly unclear if the whole Nigerien military, which has traditionally been quite factionalized, genuinely supports the coup. Sustained protests from the Nigerien population, combined with fissures within the armed forces and a threat of serious sanctions from ECOWAS, the US, and the European Union might together make for the best chance of putting the putschists on their toes.
We should be realistic about the chances that this coup will be reversed, however. Unfortunately, the recent trend of successful coups in West Africa likely gives the junta confidence that it will succeed in securing its immediate political objectives and weathering an international response. West African and Western governments alike should therefore be prepared for the worst.