The Niger Coup’s Outsized Global Impact

On July 26, Niger’s government was overthrown, and President Mohamed Bazoum was taken hostage. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued an ultimatum to the coup leaders, threatening military intervention if deposed Bazoum was not returned to power. ECOWAS member states suspended relations with Niger and closed their land and air borders with the country. The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, both led by military coup leaders, issued a joint statement warning that an ECOWAS intervention in Niger could lead to a military response from their states.

On August 20, the main coup leader and self-proclaimed head of state, General Abdourahamane Tiani, presented his roadmap in a televised address: a transition period of no more than three years and an inclusive national dialogue. He also reiterated that his country would defend itself in the event of military intervention.

This latest coup in West Africa is a major blow to Niger, the Sahel region, and West Africa as a whole. The junta has publicly accused France, which has some 1,500 troops in Niger, of trying to destabilize the country. The crisis has also been closely monitored in Washington given the presence of U.S. military bases and political engagement in the landlocked country at the heart of the Sahel.

While Niger’s economic and social indicators place it at the bottom of global development indices, these metrics also understate the country’s strategic importance of this vast country. Its geographical position at the crossroads of North, West, and Central Africa; its mineral and oil resources; its potential for the development of renewable energies; and its strong demographic growth help explain the seemingly outsize interest of medium and large powers in the current crisis. Below is an exploration of the major ways the crisis has rippled through the country, the region, and the world.

Bazoum succeeded Mahamadou Issoufou as president in April 2021, in the first transfer of power between two civilians since the country’s independence in 1960. The electoral process was marked by controversy and disputes between the various political forces, and the results were also disputed. Bazoum, a philosopher by training and a well-known political figure for three decades, had held senior ministerial positions under Issoufou, notably in the interior and foreign affairs ministries.

Bazoum has strong convictions but is pragmatic on difficult issues, such as the response to armed jihadism: he does not exclude dialogue as a tool to obtain the disengagement of some of the fighters from armed terrorist groups alongside military action. Nor has he hesitated to speak out on sensitive issues such as Niger’s fertility rate of 6.8 births per woman—the highest in the world. He has even gone so far as to question the implications of the widespread practice of polygamy in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim and socially conservative.

At his inauguration, Bazoum spoke about girls’ education and his determination to make massive investments in human capital. He was well aware of his country’s fragile security situation and knew the extent of his country’s structural weaknesses, even in comparison with most African countries: education indicators, both in terms of access and quality of learning, as well as nutrition and poverty indicators, place Niger at the very bottom of African countries. One of his key commitments was to build boarding schools for girls so that they could attend school safely and without prohibitive costs to their families.

The president has retained some of his academic reflexes, demonstrating freedom of speech at the risk of making some serious communication errors, such as an interview in which he said he considered the army to be less well-equipped and experienced than the armed jihadi groups. This brought him much criticism and certainly didn’t improve his relations with the military authorities, but he had continued efforts that began under his predecessor to reequip and train the army.

The junta’s justifications for the coup cite poor economic management and the deteriorating security situation under Bazoum. But it is difficult to believe the economic argument. After two years of slow growth due to the coronavirus pandemic, Niger’s economy rebounded strongly in 2022, with growth estimated at 11.5 percent. Prior to the coup, growth was expected to reach 6.9 percent in 2023 and 12.5 percent in 2024, if targets for increased oil production and international financial support were met.

But changing the economic and social reality of the country would take several years, even with strong economic growth. (Niger’s per capita income was $533 in 2022.) Living conditions for many remain dire. Niger’s situation is more the result of the way the country was governed in previous decades than of the way it has been governed since Bazoum became president. If there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the economic governance of the last decade, which has a greater effect on the youth who make up the majority of Niger’s population, Issoufou would be far more responsible than his successor.

In fact, Tiani was appointed head of the presidential guard by Issoufou and served with him throughout his term. It’s hard to believe that he only discovered the existence of poor economic governance in July and then decided to stage a coup. The same can be said of General Salifou Modi, who was the army chief of staff until March 2023 and who later joined forces with Tiani to carry out the coup.

Democracy in Niger, as almost everywhere else in the region, is fraught. The democratic practice—largely reduced to the procedural dimension of elections and the tricks of political competition—has not produced a management of public affairs perceived as effective and fair for the benefit of the population. Suspicions of corruption have not spared the defense sector, including a 2020 high-profile case of embezzlement in the purchase of military equipment. But Bazoum has benefited from more acceptable political legitimacy than the officers who had been appointed to the most important positions in the armed forces by his predecessor and who then led the coup.

However, under Bazoum, the practices of restricting civic space and freedom of expression, for which the Issoufou administration had been criticized, have continued. Leaders of civil society organizations and journalists critical of the government were regularly arrested and often sentenced to prison terms. This was particularly well-documented in a 2022 report by the organization Tournons La Page.

In terms of security, Niger has not escaped attacks by armed groups, but it has held up much better than its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso. The country suffered heavy losses in attacks on military camps in 2020 and 2021, but no attacks of this magnitude have occurred since 2022. Insecurity has taken hold in the Tillabéry region near the border with Mali, where armed jihadi groups operate relatively freely. But unlike its neighbors, the Niger government remains present in a large part of its territory. What’s more, the top military authorities, including the coup leaders, are at least as responsible as the political authorities for the quality of the response to the security situation.

The most likely reason for the coup is that certain army officers wanted to maintain their positions and influence over political power and block any attempt by the civilian president to sideline the military’s influence. Niger has a tradition of military intervention in the political arena, and the list of former presidents includes more military officials than civilians. Since independence in 1960, Niger has had four successful coups and dozens of attempted coups—including one two days before Bazoum took office, signaling a desire within the army to prevent him from taking office.

Clearly, the principle of the subordination of the army to civilian political power has not yet been accepted by many Nigerien officers. The junta was quick to announce appointments, giving posts in the territorial administration to generals and colonels and confirming the hypothesis of a capture of the state by a large part of the military corporation. This was undoubtedly the smartest way for Tiani to secure support (or at least neutrality) for the coup from his fellow senior officers in the various components of the defense and security forces.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger—the first visit by the top U.S. diplomat in the country’s history and evidence of its role as a key strategic partner for Washington. Niger is the largest recipient of State Department military assistance in West Africa and the second largest in sub-Saharan Africa. Washington has provided training and equipment to Niamey’s military and security forces to help them fight terrorism and transnational crime. In addition, the United States is also Niger’s leading bilateral development aid partner.

Following the July 26 events, the United States suspended certain aid programs to Niger, including funding for international military education and training and programs that support Niger’s counterterrorism capabilities. But President Joe Biden’s administration has not officially labeled the military takeover a “coup,” a designation that could end all U.S. security assistance and result in a suspension of the country’s privileges for duty-free exports to the U.S. market through the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act.

In a sign of the importance the United States attaches to the crisis in Niger, Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made a surprise visit to Niamey on August 7. She was not allowed to meet with Bazoum or Tiani, but she did speak with Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, the newly appointed chief of staff of the armed forces. (Until July 26, Barmou commanded the army’s special forces, which have particularly benefited from U.S. training programs.)

In recent years, Niger has become most important U.S. military hub in West Africa. The United States has 1,100 troops in the country, as well as critical reconnaissance air assets. The country’s “discreet” military bases—which are found in almost every region of the world, including several in Niger—are one of the most effective ways for the United States to project power and maintain its status as a military superpower in the face of China and Russia. Northern Niger is a strategic location for surveillance of Libya and the entire Sahel-Saharan region and beyond.

In January 2013, the United States and Niger signed an agreement allowing Washington to use drones based in Niger. The drone base, known as Air Base 201, was built near Agadez in central Niger and is the second-largest U.S. base in Africa, after one in Djibouti. Since 2018, it has been used to target the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen in the Sahel. The Central Intelligence Agency also operates a drone base in the country, as the New York Times revealed in 2018.

The United States obviously wants to keep its military bases in Niger and continue its intelligence gathering and offensive operations against terrorist groups—which can only be achieved by maintaining privileged diplomatic and military relations with the country’s political authorities. On August 3, Biden called for Bazoum and his family to be immediately released and for “the preservation of Niger’s hard-earned democracy.” On August 10, Blinken said that “the United States appreciates the determination of ECOWAS to explore all options for the peaceful resolution of the crisis.” In the absence of an immediate restoration of constitutional order, which is now highly unlikely, it is reasonable to assume that the United States would like to see a transition that would ensure a rapid return to the constitutional order.

On Niger’s side, the positioning of the most influential military authorities will determine the nature of future relations with foreign partners with a military presence. According to a survey conducted by the Afrobarometer Institute in 2022, 64 percent of the population opposes the use of foreign forces to secure the country. Only 6.1 percent of those polled considered support from French forces or their European Union allies desirable, while 4.1 percent considered support from American forces desirable. But France’s military presence, which is much more visible and commented upon in the wider Sahel and West Africa, has provoked more open hostility than that of other foreign countries. In November 2021, protesters blocked a French army convoy, resulting in two deaths. Further demonstrations against the French military presence took place in September 2022. On August 20, demonstrations were held in Agadez calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including American soldiers. If French troops were forced to leave the country while U.S. troops were allowed to stay, it would certainly not go down well in Paris.

The overthrow of Bazoum may also signal a shift in alliances toward Russia. The appearance of Russian flags waved by some coup supporters suggests a repeat of the Mali and Burkina Faso scenarios. But it’s too early to say that Niamey will go from being the most welcoming Sahelian capital for European and U.S. civilian and military partners to a capital hostile to those interests in the space of a few weeks.

Niger, like many African countries, also has a long history of cooperation with Russia. In 2016, Niger and Russia signed an agreement to allow the two countries to deepen their security and development cooperation. Following a November meeting with the Mali-based Russian ambassador to Niger, the Nigerien defense minister recalled that more than a hundred Nigerien officers had benefited from training in Russia and that several aircraft used by the Nigerien air force were Russian-made.

But Niger is not one of the countries in Africa closest to Moscow. In fact, in March 2022, Niger voted for a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for the end of Russia’s use of force against Ukraine.

Niger has been the target of apparent Russian disinformation campaigns in recent years, especially after the October 2022 coup in Burkina Faso. These campaigns also were possibly behind rumors of a coup circa February 2023. Blinken publicly denied the possibility of Russian involvement in the July coup, and Russia condemned the junta and called for a return to constitutional order. But relations are very good between the junta in Niamey and the transitional regime in Mali, the Wagner Group’s base in West Africa. An opportunistic Wagner security offer to Nigerien military rulers cannot be ruled out, making the question of shifting alliances even more complex. The August 23 death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin adds a new layer of uncertainty to Russia’s ability to take advantage of the crisis in Niger—which once again puts France in a difficult position.

The events in Niamey are yet another blow to Paris’s influence in the Sahel. Niger’s former colonial power—and an influential actor in francophone West Africa—warned against any attack on the security of its citizens on Nigerien soil after a demonstration in support of the coup targeted the French embassy in Niamey.

As in Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis in Niger has partly become a crisis between France and Niger—at least in the media and on social networks. Paris decided to evacuate any of its citizens who wished to do so. The junta then made announcements reminiscent of the steps that led to the hasty departure of French troops from Mali and Burkina Faso, such as ending all major defense agreements between Niger and France that authorized the presence of French soldiers on Nigerien soil.

Niger was included in the scope of Operation Barkhane, the French military operation that began in 2014 as an extension of a 2013 operation targeting armed jihadi groups in Mali (where the majority of French military action was concentrated). But as tensions rose and all French soldiers departed Mali in 2022, Niger became the host country for French forces. The colonels in power in Mali had openly sided with Russia, which facilitated the deployment of Wagner Group fighters—a presence never officially recognized by the Malian government. But Bazoum, who made no secret of his opposition to military regimes, emerged as France’s most reliable and least controversial ally in the region.

France’s other major ally in the Sahel is Chad, led by General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who came to power in violation of the constitution after the death of his father. One of the criticisms leveled at France is the inconsistency between its support for dynastic succession and the military-dominated transitional regime in Chad and its strong condemnation of the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. A forced withdrawal of French troops from Niger would distance France from the central Sahel, leaving only Chad and the West African coastal states of Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and possibly Benin as host countries for a significant French presence.

But even in these countries, it’s hard to imagine a stronger military presence for the former colonial power, which has become very unpopular with public opinion in West Africa beyond the Sahel. Cooperation with France in security matters is no longer perceived as indispensable and irreplaceable, rightly or wrongly, by the countries of the region, which have noted the mixed results of almost ten years of French military intervention in the Sahel and decades of military cooperation.

The coup in Niamey also came as a surprise to Germany and Italy. Germany has troops in Niger to provide logistical support to its soldiers deployed in neighboring Mali both as part of the United Nations stabilization mission and for training missions with the local armed forces. Germany had about one hundred soldiers in Niger at the time of the coup. Italy, motivated primarily by the fight against irregular migration, has also made the establishment of a military presence in Niger a priority. It repatriated sixty-five soldiers after the coup, but about 250 remain in Niger.

In addition to Italy, several other EU countries have found Niger an essential partner in the fight against irregular migration. Nigeriens are not among the West African populations with a strong tradition of migration, but Niger’s geographic location has made it a major transit country for thousands of migrants from West and Central Africa who cross the Sahara and North African countries on their way to France and other parts of Europe.

The Agadez region in northern Niger in particular has become a gathering point for migrants. In 2015, Niger passed a law criminalizing any paid assistance for illegal border crossing and illegal stay. The law’s implementation weakened the local economy, which is organized around the presence of migrants, and caused great frustration in the region. It has also reinforced the image of the Niger government as too accommodating to the European Union’s migration policy, which is highly unpopular with West African public opinion.

While Niger’s geopolitical importance has grown over the last decade or so—in the context of the fight against armed jihadi groups in the region, the collapse of the state in Libya, and irregular migration to Europe—a much older economic link lies at the heart of the special relationship between Niger and France.

It has to do with uranium, a strategic mineral for both civilian and military purposes. Niger is currently the seventh-largest uranium producer in the world and provides about 5 percent of the world’s uranium output.

Uranium was discovered in northern Niger in 1957, three years before the country became an independent state. As in other colonies with particularly valuable natural resources, France took care to secure agreements guaranteeing supplies of these valuable commodities on very favorable terms. Since France’s civil nuclear industry is the cornerstone of its energy independence, a controlled supply of uranium is a necessary and strategic objective for Paris. Niger was the key country in this strategy.

The often-violent condemnation of French policy in Niger is based primarily on the decades long exploitation of the country’s uranium deposits by Orano—the uranium company formerly known as Areva—that supplies France with the resource essential for nuclear power generation. Orano holds significant interests in three Nigerien uranium mines, only one of which is operating. The company has announced trials in 2024 to explore the giant Imouraren mine, whose reserves are estimated at 200,000 tonnes of natural uranium. Development of this project has been delayed several times, and the plans might change Iagain with the political crisis in Niger.

Orano also began operating mines in Kazakhstan in 2006, allowing it to gradually reduce its dependence on mines in Niger. In 2022, however, Niger was still the EU’s second-largest supplier of natural uranium, accounting for about a quarter of the EU supply, according to the European Atomic Energy Agency (Euratom). From 2005 to 2020, Niger was France’s third-largest supplier of natural uranium, behind Kazakhstan and Australia and ahead of Uzbekistan. But France and its European neighbors are less dependent on uranium from Niger than they were two or three decades ago, and Euratom has ruled out any risk to European nuclear energy production if Niger were to stop exporting.

Even if Niger’s uranium no longer has the same strategic importance for France, resentment still lingers. For decades, uranium exports have failed to boost Niger’s economy, as is often the case with raw material mining without local processing. It’s easy to draw a parallel between the export of uranium to fuel nuclear power plants for energy production in France and the still very limited access to electricity for the population of Niger (a rate estimated at 18.6 percent in 2021). The unequal balance of power between France and Niger in the negotiation of contracts is also a factor, especially in the context of the strong political influence of the ex-colonial power.

This unequal relationship is compounded by the legacy of decades of environmental and health hazards from mining. According to a French center that monitors radioactivity risks, some 20 million tons of radioactive tailings from uranium mining have been improperly dumped. These materials are also dispersed by the wind, increasing the health risks to the wider population. The waste left behind after a mine is exhausted may include radon, a potentially deadly radioactive gas. In Niger, it could threaten the health of 100,000 people in the area—a story that even French public media has covered.

In reality, uranium is no longer the most important economic issue for Niger since the discovery of increasingly large oil deposits. Production began in 2011 with a daily output of 20,000 barrels. The oil is extracted by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and piped to Zinder, a city in the south-central part of Niger, where it is refined. Niger conditioned the drilling rights on construction of a refinery, making China the Niger government’s strategic partner in the development of its oil resources.

Construction of a 2,000-kilometer pipeline between Niger and Benin should be completed this year. The pipeline will allow Niger to increase its daily oil production to 110,000 barrels, of which 90,000 will be exported, and the country could produce 200,000 barrels per day by 2026. Authorities expect the oil industry to generate a quarter of Niger’s GDP and almost 50 percent of tax revenues. New discoveries also have been made by the British company Savannah Petroleum and by the Algerian state company Sonatrach. Oil development looks to be much more important than uranium revenues for the country’s economic growth.

Niger’s hopes for economic development in the coming years also rest heavily on exploiting the country’s remarkable hydroelectric potential. The Kandadji dam and hydropower plant on the Niger River is part of an ambitious program to regenerate ecosystems and grow domestic energy production (as 70 percent of Niger’s electricity is imported from Nigeria). It will also increase agricultural yields, improve food security, preserve and revitalize river ecosystems, and ensure the drinking water supply for the Niamey region. At a total cost of 740 billion CFA francs (about $1.2 billion), the project is financed by several of Niger’s international partners, including the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the African Development Bank, and Islamic Development Bank.

On August 7, the Chinese company Gezhouba Group, which is building the dam, announced that it had suspended all construction activities due to the economic and financial sanctions imposed by ECOWAS after the coup. The dam’s inauguration was scheduled for 2025 but is now likely to be delayed. Some of the external financial partners of the project might consider pulling or suspending their commitments. The coup could also delay progress on the promising oil development.

The prospect of oil development may have been one of the factors that led to the overthrow of Bazoum, due to rumors that he planned reforms in the management of future oil revenues. Bazoum’s changes, which would strengthen his grip on the sector, were not to the liking of the oil minister, who is also the son of the former president. It’s unclear whether a conflict between Bazoum and his predecessor led to the coup leaders’ decision to act against Bazoum before he took over the oil sector. But what’s certain is the negative impact of the coup on the immediate economic and social conditions of the population and on the implementation of programs that were well under way.

For the people of Niger, the coup already seems irreversible. While many are opposed to the military takeover and do not believe the arguments put forward by the coup leaders, some hope for a new political beginning through a military-civilian transition that could create the conditions for more open and fair political competition at election time. But the experience of many countries on the continent shows that new military rulers quickly use transitional periods to their own advantage, transforming themselves into political actors and entrenching themselves in power by reproducing the same governance practices they loudly denounced in the past. Niger was on a promising economic path, with high economic growth rates from 2022 and ambitious reform and investment plans in education, an indisputable priority area for the country’s future. That future is now uncertain.

For the Sahel, West Africa, and ECOWAS, Niger’s development in the coming months will also be crucial. At the time of writing, the positions of the generals who seized power in Niamey remain radical, making it very difficult for ECOWAS to engage in dialogue. However, it is essential to avoid external military intervention, the threat of which has given the junta the opportunity to further mobilize the population by playing on patriotic sentiments, and the consequences of which would be incalculable. Important neighbors of Niger, especially Algeria, publicly opposed any external military intervention as an option to solve the crisis.

France and the United States will have to make some tough choices in the short term. The continued military presence of these two countries will not be possible if a government hostile to them is installed in Niamey for more than a few months. But while France is directly implicated by the demonstrators supporting the coup, the United States—whose military presence and political influence have always been more discreet—has some room for maneuver in managing the period of uncertainty that has opened up in Niger.

Regardless of external interests, the coup leaders must be prevented from taking total control of political power and deciding alone on the modalities of a transitional government. The very narrow path of a political compromise for a transition—the terms of which would be decided through dialogue among Niger’s main political, social, and military actors—appears to be the only realistic option and the best chance to limit the immense damage already caused by the political shock of July 26. American diplomacy can play a constructive role in this perspective, supporting the initiatives of the countries of the region, ECOWAS, and the African Union.

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