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Niger Coup: Spiraling into Darkness

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Antonio Gracefo

On July 26, 2023, a group of Nigerien army officers calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (Conseil National pour la sauveguarde de la patrie, CNSP) laid siege to the presidential palace in Niamey, the country’s capital. Shortly after, coup leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, declared himself the new president, invalidating the administration of duly-elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Next, the junta closed the border, suspended the constitution, and shut down government institutions.

When protesters took to the street, demanding the restoration of President Bazoum, soldiers fired warning shots. Other protestors marched in support of the coup, many waving the Russian flag. They set fires near the offices of Bazoum’s party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (Parti Nigérien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme, PNDS-Tarayya). At the French Embassy, they threw stones, burned French flags, and set fires to exterior gates.

The Bazoum government had partnered with the U.S., France, UN, and other Western forces to counter Islamic extremist terrorists in the nation, including Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and the affiliate of al-Qaida, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). The presence of the western troops, including more than 1,000 American and between 1,000 and 1,500 French soldiers, was helping to prevent massacres and human rights abuses like those committed by terrorists in 2021. The junta severed securityagreements with France and the U.S., and may be turning to Russia’s Wagner Group as their new security partner.

High ranking members of the deposed government have been subjected to arbitrary detention. President Mohamed Bazoum as well as the Interior Minister Hamadou Adamou Souley, are being held against their will. Other ministers and party officials who have been arrested include oil minister Mahamane Sani Mahamadou, Mining Minister Ousseini Hadizatou, as well as the ministers of defense and transport. Foumakoye Gado, president of the executive committee of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (NPDS) has also been taken into custody.

The international community, including the United States, the African Union, the U.N., the European Union and western nations have condemned the coup. And most have cut off or threatened to cut off aid, which totals $2 billion a year, according to the World Bank. Sadly, this will add to the suffering of the common people, in a nation where 42.9% of the population live in poverty. The Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) has cancelled Niger’s upcoming $51 million bond issuance. The lack of financing will disrupt plans for the construction of the PetroChina-backed pipeline project which was meant to dramatically increase Niger’s oil exports.

The coup has also been condemned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) consisting of 15 West African nations, headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria. ECOWAS has imposed its own sanctions, closing Niger’s air and land borders, halting financial transactions and trade deals with Niger, and freezing Niger’s national assets held in ECOWAS banks. Nigeria has also cut Niger’s electrical supply plunging most of the country into darkness. Additionally, ECOWAS said that it is considering using force to reinstate President Bazoum. Among its many forms of cooperation, ECOWAS has a military component known as the ECOWAS Standby Force (ESF), a regional peacekeeping and intervention force that is intended to be ready for rapid deployment in times of crisis within the West African region. ECOWAS has threatened that it would intervene in Niger if the French Embassy is attacked. Additionally, on August 30th, ECOWAS issued an ultimatum saying that they would invade if President Bazoum is not restored to power within one week.

One of the coup leaders, Gen. Salifou Mody, met with a representative of Russian mercenary group, Wagner, in Mali, where he asked for security assistance in the face of a potential intervention by ECOWAS troops. Burkina Faso and Mali, two countries under military rule, and which have a close relationship with Russia and the Wagner Group, have stated their support for the coup. They issued a statement saying that they would deploy their military to defend the coup forces if the country were invaded by foreign troops.

Most of ECOWAS military might is attributable to Nigeria, which not only has the largest army, with 223,000 personnel, but also has  modern fighter jets and armed helicopters. However, the Nigerian military is tied up at home, fighting Boko Haram which has launched attacks in 30 of the country’s 36 states. This raises the question of whether or not ECOWAS has the capacity or the will to take on the Niger Armed Forces, particularly if Burkina Faso and Mali become involved.

In Niger, the scene is set for potential violence and repression. The junta has called on the citizenry to remain vigilant of spies, working for foreign forces. At night, the capital is now being patrolled by self-organized defense groups. France, Italy and Spain have begun evacuating their citizens, as well as other Europeans and some Americans. So far, the anger seems to be directed largely at France. Other foreigners and embassies have not been attacked. However, a Nigeran group, the M62 Movement, which has been organizing pro-Russia and anti-French protests, called for citizens to block the airport, preventing foreign civilians from leaving until all foreign troops have been withdrawn.

With borders closed and the security situation uncertain, most citizens find that prices are rising and cash is running low. At the same time, the supply of all manner of goods is threatened, everything from food to medicine and medical equipment, to petroleum products and electricity has become more expensive. The U.S. and western nations, including France, are taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding on whether or not to send in troops to put down the coup. Russia has officially decried the coup, while exiled Wager leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin has heralded it. The situation is fragile and violence or war could easily erupt. Meanwhile, citizens will be literally waiting in the dark.