Domestic Actors, Outside Powers, and the Unfolding Political Crisis in Niger

Mohamed Bazoum in 2023/CREDIT: Bogdan Hoyaux
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On 26 July 2023, the Republic of Niger experienced its fifth military coup since its independence in 1960. In the late hours of the day, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP; Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie) declared the ousting of President Mohamed Bazoum, the suspension of the constitution, and the dissolution of all state institutions. It took another day and a half for General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, to declare himself president and to suspend all political activities.

The motivations behind the coup remain shrouded in secrecy. Tchiani’s official justification – the deteriorating security situation – contradicts the military’s own assessment that it communicated less than a month ago. Niger does not face the acute political, security, or institutional crises that triggered the recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Although the military hierarchy expressed its support for the coup after the presidential guard had detained Bazoum, that support was far from certain and cannot be taken for granted in the future. By prioritizing military unity over constitutional order, the military at-large created the ongoing crisis.

The coup took observers by surprise. Bazoum’s election in 2021 had been the first handover of power from one democratically elected civilian president to another. Former President Mahamadou Issoufou (in power between 2011 and 2021) received the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Niger’s last military coup in 2010 removed an autocratic incumbent refusing to comply with the constitutionally prescribed two-term limit and led to swift return of multiparty competition. A military coup attempt in March 2021 failed dismally. At that time, the Nigerien military was suffering larger-than-usual losses while the country debated the controversial circumstances surrounding Bazoum’s electoral victory. Nevertheless, Niger’s officers remained loyal to the civilians in power.

Partly because of these developments and partly because of the unwillingness of Western capitals to challenge France’s intellectual leadership in the Sahel, an informal and pragmatic approach toward Niamey came to guide the foreign policy of the European Union and United States: Although Niger clearly was not a textbook case of accountability and participation, its government tackled its domestic and regional challenges in a seemingly more orderly and capable manner than many of its neighbours. Although this assessment was never entirely wrong, it used abstruse standards, and conveniently overlooked the deeply ingrained oppressive tendencies of Niger’s recycled and nepotistic political class. Without acknowledging these, the post-coup dynamics cannot be understood.

The instrumentalization of the law regulating public protest deserves particular attention here. By withdrawing permits for public gatherings of opposition movements at the last minute and without proper announcement, state authorities created a pretext for the arbitrary arrest and disappearance of hundreds of citizens between 2015 and 2023. This repressive approach taken by the state authorities in combination with the violent harassment of critical journalists led many Nigeriens to refrain from speaking out against the government. This in turn created a false sense of stability and citizen support for the status quo.

The repressive state policies do not explain the coup. But they explain the anger and the violence toward the incumbent party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS; Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme) in the coup’s aftermath. As Issoufou’s minister of the interior, Bazoum played a central role in stifling dissent. Consequently, many will refuse to support his return to power.

At times Western diplomats engaged to try and offset this trend. For example, on several occasions the U.S. embassy in Niamey successfully lobbied for the release of Nigerien civil society activists. But many foreign dignitaries downplayed the frustrations of the wider population. Behind closed doors, aid workers have long complained about the diversion of development funds by the recipient ministries. Most chose relocation over speaking out.

For the embattled West, Niger became too big to fail. The worsening security situation in combination with aggressive anti-French sentiments in Mali and Burkina Faso only strengthened the perception of Niamey as the last steadfast Western ally in the region. According to the OECD, Western aid now accounts for over 10% of Niger’s annual GDP. Since 2015 the number of foreign militaries and security advisors has increased significantly.

Western aid – including military aid – did not cause the coup. But with a junta desperately in need of public support, pro-Russian groups – so far, a negligible minority within Niger’s vibrant civil society – will try and use the West’s lackadaisical relationship with Niger’s state apparatus to their advantage.

Despite all of this, the CNSP rests on shaky ground. Tchiani is not well liked within the military. Coups can give rise to new divisions within militaries, or they can augment existing ones. Russia does not entertain the same intellectual or military infrastructure in Niger as elsewhere in the region. Somewhat ironically Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the coup and called for a return of constitutional order.

Images of angry protestors celebrating the junta should not distract from the fact that Nigerien civil society is divided. Supporters of the 7th Republic took to the streets in several locations outside of Niamey. Groups such as Tournons la page, which have been vocal critics of Bazoum do not support the coup. The support for democracy might be much higher than prominent media images suggest.

The overwhelming majority of Western but also non-Western development partners have suspended their assistance. The African Union and ECOWAS demand that the junta cedes power. ECOWAS further stated that it would put the members of the junta under sanctions and pointed at the possibility of deploying a military force. The position stands in stark contrast to its timid approach toward the juntas in Burkina Faso and Guinea. The appointment of Mahamat Déby, the Chadian interim president as ECOWAS mediator is not without problems, however. A junta leader himself, his country is not a member state of ECOWAS. Déby’s proximity to Paris and the CNSP might make him a useful choice in the eyes of the West but could open ECOWAS to longstanding accusations of applying double standards. Alternatively, it might strengthen the bond between the junta and segments of Niger’s population.

Should the junta and its anti-Western course prevail, France, the EU and the United States will rethink its security assistance programs. If Mali and Burkina Faso provide any guidance, this will have detrimental consequences the local populations residing in Niger’s border areas.

Sebastian Elischer (@elischerafrica) is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, Gainesville and co-editor of the African Studies Review.

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