A coup like no other: Three reasons why the coup in Niger is different from previous coups in the Sahel (and why it’s very serious)

Supporters of the military junta wave Nigerien and Russian flags at a demonstration of support for the coup/CREDIT: EPA-EFE/Issifou Djibo
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The coup led by General Tiani which overthrew President Bazoum in Niger on July 26 is the latest in a series of coups taking place in the Sahel. Since 2020, six coups have taken place in the Sahel region – with Niger, it makes it seven. Reactions from regional and international actors have been unparalleled, both stronger and more divided and confused than in previous instances. This coup carries with it greater international concerns and possibly greater dangers than previous ones. It may well be the case that we are living in a defining moment for security, governance, multilateralism and international relations more broadly in Africa. Here, we identify three broader arguments for why this coup does not resemble previous coups in the Sahel and is of crucial significance.

1. ​ No simple narrative can explain the coup

Why a coup was perpetrated against President Bazoum in Niamey on July 26 is still debated among observers, analysts and Nigeriens themselves, including those close to power circles.

Coup dynamics are complex but relatively unambiguous factors can be attached to the coups that have been happening in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020. In August 2020, Malian colonels capitalised on widespread discontent and unrest against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s corrupt governance. They overthrew an unpopular incumbent elite; portrayed themselves as restorers of public order and agents of the people’s will. When the civilian authorities of the transition attempted to reshuffle the government at the expense of the military, they reaffirmed their grip on power – as part of what was labelled in May 2021, the “coup within the coup”. In Burkina Faso, the coups of January and September 2022 have roots in the tense relationships between the military and the civilian power and among the various echelons of the security forces themselves in a context of fierce military challenges imposed by jihadist insurgents. Lieutenant Colonel Damiba deposed President Christian Kabore and was deposed himself a few months later by Captain Ibrahim Traore following massive military debacles against jihadist militants in the localities of Inata (November 2021) and Djibo (September 2022).

The coup against President Bazoum does not follow protests in the streets of Niamey, nor does it follow setbacks on the battlefield against jihadist movements. The legitimacy that President Bazoum derived from the general elections held in 2021 was far from perfect as accusations of fraud emerged at the time but this did not translate into a political force big enough to threaten Bazoum’s incumbency. In addition, while the term of Mamahadou Issoufou, Bazoum’s predecessor from the same political party, was marred by corruption scandals, Bazoum’s term wasn’t. On the security front, the situation was objectively improving since Bazoum’s election.

So far no comprehensive explanation for the coup in Niger exists. The coup against Bazoum looks like the product of uncontrolled cascading events. It was initiated by General Tiani, the commander of the Presidential Guard in charge of Bazoum’s protection. Tiani was considered “the man” of Mamahadou Issoufou in the presidential palace. Both Tiani and Issoufou may have had personal and business-related reasons to resent some of Bazoum’s recent decisions. What is now undoubtedly a coup possibly started as a dispute over elite-level arrangements inherited from the Issoufou era, which eventually opened an opportunity for other officers, historically opposed to Issoufou and Bazoum’s political party, to jump on a bandwagon to subvert the incumbent president. The move by these officers triggered discussions among the military out of which the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) emerged after a few hours, with Tiani at its head. This foundational yet fragile deal among the military was followed by a call for popular support and a series of appointments in the administration, to consolidate the fait accompli. To this date, President Bazoum, his wife and his son are still sequestrated under the watch of Tiani’s forces. Power around the military still seems to be in flux as a myriad of interest groups now reposition themselves around the new military leader whose poorly delivered plans for the country remain obscure.

2. War is on the table

In an unprecedented move, the West African regional organisation ECOWAS issued a one-week ultimatum for a return to constitutional order, backed by the threat of a use of force against the putschists. This approach stood in stark contrast with the organisation’s handling of previous coups in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso which followed a more ‘classic’ script of sanctions and a negotiated transition led by ECOWAS.

ECOWAS’ different course of action seems to be driven by divergent factors. First, the Nigerian President Tinubu, a newly installed president of ECOWAS, was elected on the slogan of ‘stopping the coups’. The seemingly contagious autocratisation of governance in the Sahel brings about and consolidates a regime type which opposes and threatens ECOWAS’ official principles of civilian rule. Tinubu’s own credibility, as well as that of ECOWAS in restoring constitutional order swiftly,w were therefore at stake.

Second, given the tentative start of the coup, which seemed to indicate both a poorly planned action as well as fractions within the Nigerien security forces, ECOWAS most likely wanted to nip the crisis in the bud by reacting fast and strong, avoiding another dragged-out transition scenario as in neighbouring states.

Yet, the threat backfired. The Nigerien junta refused to send a high-level delegation to meet the ECOWAS envoys during the ultimatum week. Instead, they mobilised both domestic support against an ‘external aggression’, and regional support from coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, raising the stakes of an intervention to a possible regional war. ECOWAS’ ultimatum arguably drew attention to the situation and made it clear that coups no longer were tolerated in the region, but it also led to a reinforced position for the junta, fuelled by a nationalist sovereignty discourse. In the week preceding the expiration of the ultimatum, the junta and its widely followed relays on social media created an electric atmosphere based on the alleged imminence of aggression by ECOWAS, plotted by France. 

The prospect of war widened divisions among ECOWAS member states while the regional bloc put itself in a difficult dilemma. An intervention is not only opposed by the Nigeriens but also by significant sections of the public opinion among potential troop-contributing countries, particularly in Nigeria. A war will most likely worsen the humanitarian, security and political situation in the region. It may eventually benefit jihadist insurgents who have already perpetrated multiple deadly attacks since the coup. But the ECOWAS is now bound by its own words and risks losing face if it does not take action as rounds of negotiations fail, one after the other, with time clearly being on the putschists’ side: a transition is not something they would concede to the international community; it is actually their plan A, tested and approved by their Malian and Burkinabè counterparts to whom a “transition” regime granted the power they sought without many obligations.

3. International stakes are high

On a regional level, ECOWAS’ threat to use force has provoked resistance from suspended members, which not only put the possibility of a regional war on the table but also the dissolution of the organisation itself. The prospect of war has not just shaken the member states of the ECOWAS; it has similarly led to strong and polarised international responses. The relative diplomatic discipline adopted so far, with ECOWAS occupying the forefront of the conflict resolution effort and where France has been the key external actor no longer holds. On a continental level, a divided African Union took over a week to issue a joint statement supporting ECOWAS efforts and “taking note” of the deployment of a standby force.

Beyond the continent, France and the US, two key actors in the region, have chosen different approaches to tackle the crisis. France took a strong stance from the start. It condemned the coup, evacuated citizens and backed a military intervention by ECOWAS while voicing support for the liberation and reinstatement of President Bazoum. A stance that the junta quickly penalised by suspending all military collaboration.

In contrast, the US has made unprecedented diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis by sending a high US official for negotiations with the junta, rejecting the use of force as a possible solution. The US asks for President Bazoum’s liberation, yet avoids calling the coup “a coup” as it would entail a legally proscribed end to military collaboration. The US has been vocal about wanting to maintain military collaboration, as the US has constructed one of the largest drone bases on the continent in Agadez. The up-until-now unimaginable scenario whereby US troops stay in Niger (possibly accompanied by European forces already present in the country), while French troops have to leave is thus a real possibility. Needless to say, such a situation could significantly harm bilateral relations between France and the US. For France, which has become a toxic ally for its Western partners, it could signify a humiliating end to a decade-long military intervention in the Sahel and a blow to its aspiration for international grandeur as Niger was supposed to be the laboratory of a renewed security partnership in the Sahel built upon the lessons learnt from the precipitated and disgraceful exit from Mali.

Conclusion

“In Niger, a coup is not a surprise, but a statistical probability” wrote Rahmane Idrissa, referring to the fact that this is the fifth coup in the country, and thus not really a break from the past, but rather the continuation of a well known structural civil-military imbalance. Still, this coup is different from the previous ones in Niger, some of which were considered as ‘corrective coups’ and therefore pro-democratic, and also different from the coups the Sahel region has experienced in the past few years precisely because there does not seem to be a clear and plausible justification. If this coup is driven by divergent and confused rationales, the responses have mirrored this divergence and confusion, with each actor choosing its own approach to navigate the situation, deeply informed by national interests, rather than abiding by established norms or agreements between partners. Such a divided approach in combination with lessons learnt from its neighbours has allowed the junta to ignore negotiation attempts and reinforce its position while benefiting from internal, regional and international divisions. It, therefore, seems likely that this coup – a coup too much –  has profoundly uprooted hopes of a return to constitutional order and democracy in the region while disassembling the little regional and continental cohesion that was left.

Yvan Guichaoua (@YGuichaoua) is a Senior Lecturer in International Conflict Analysis at the Brussels School of International Studies He’s been studying security and politics in the Sahel since 2007.

Nina Wilén (@WilenNina) is Director of the Africa Program at the Egmont Institute & Associate Professor of Political Science at Lund University and does research on military interventions in Africa with a focus on the Sahel and the Great Lakes. 

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