The Domestic Drivers of Niger’s Coup: Proximate Triggers, Structural Causes, and Some Ramifications

Supporters of the military junta wave Nigerien and Russian flags at a demonstration of support for the coup/CREDIT: EPA-EFE/Issifou Djibo
Facebook Twitter Email

On July 26, Niger suffered a coup, or perhaps a show of force that escalated into a coup. Initially, the Presidential Guard surrounded the palace of President Mohamed Bazoum. Soon, a group of military officers proclaimed themselves the Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie (National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, CNSP). On July 28, the CNSP proclaimed the head of the Presidential Guard, Abdourahmane Tchiani (or Tiani), as military head of state.

The coup has all sorts of geopolitical ramifications, real and imagined, but here I want to leave geopolitics aside and focus on the domestic picture within Niger.

The first question concerns the proximate trigger for the coup. Tchiani himself, in a major speech on July 28, evoked “the continuous degradation of the security situation in our country” as well as “bad economic and social governance” as the reasons for the coup. We will return to this in more detail below.

Meanwhile, well-informed observers, such as Abdourahmane Idrissa, believe that the real trigger was an effort by Bazoum to fire Tchiani. That is the most plausible theory I’ve heard so far.

Tchiani, born in 1964, is an elite, career member of the Nigerien Armed Forces. He has been at the head of the Presidential Guard since 2011. It is probably obvious why he would not want to give up such a post, but to add a little academic heft to the discussion, this saga has made me think of Professor Richard Joseph’s work on “prebendalism” in neighboring Nigeria – the idea that corrupt officeholders treat their offices as extractive opportunities for themselves and their network of supporters. In this view, Tchiani saw his job as simply too valuable to lose. Other theories on triggers for the coup (see below) are compatible with Tchiani’s self-interest being one major factor; the coup can be understood as multi-causal.

Tchiani’s move against Bazoum also opens up questions about the triangular relationship between Bazoum, Tchiani, and Niger’s immediate past president, Mahamadou Issoufou. As colleagues for over thirty years in the Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya), Issoufou and Bazoum appeared to be close allies. Often in the opposition during the period from Niger’s democratic opening in 1991 through the end of Mamadou Tandja’s presidency in 2010, Issoufou and the PNDS-Tarayya came to power in the presidential election of 2011 (following a transitional period initiated after Niger’s second-most recent coup, which occurred in 2010 after Tandja pursued an extra-constitutional third term).

Bazoum was a core member of Issoufou’s team during most of Issoufou’s two terms in power (2011-2021). With the end of his second and final term approaching, Issoufou – a vocal democrat on paper, although not in practice – anointed Bazoum as his successor very early on, effectively shutting down any serious intra-party competition for the presidential nomination. Bazoum then won the 2020/2021 election (in two rounds) handily, although there were some very lopsided results in Bazoum’s favor (for example, in the Tahoua Region) that I consider strong indications of fraud. In any case, the Issoufou-Bazoum handover appeared very smooth in terms of the relations between the two men (although there was a coup attempt, quickly suppressed, on the eve of Bazoum’s inauguration). Bazoum then practically inherited Issoufou’s civilian inner circle as the core of his own government.

Such handovers, however, are often more fraught than they appear. There is a temptation for the ex-president to attempt to control his successor, and there is a temptation for the new president to flex his independence (in the Sahel, it has so far always been “he,” “his,” etc.). In the context of the Sahel, moreover, such relationships are relatively uncharted territory (unlike, say, in Nigeria, where at both the federal and state level one can observe numerous instances of tension between “godfathers” and their protégés). In the Sahel, I can only think of three cases of a handover from a two-term civilian president to an elected successor: Alpha Oumar Konaré to Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali in 2002; Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to Mohamed Ould Ghazouani in Mauritania in 2019; and Issoufou to Bazoum. Even if we count relatively more democratic Senegal as part of the Sahel, we are still dealing with just two more cases: Abdou Diouf to Abdoulaye Wade in 2000, and Abdoulaye Wade to Macky Sall in 2012.

The Senegalese cases can also be immediately dismissed as useful comparisons to Niger, given that both of the Senegalese cases occurred due to the incumbent being under such duress from popular protests that he was effectively forced out. Meanwhile, the Malian transition of Konaré to Touré is an unusual one both for its success and also in that Touré was a kind of consensus political figure, a former coup leader turned politician, and was not Konaré’s hand-picked successor. That leaves us with the very fruitful comparison between Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani in Mauritania on the one hand, and Issoufou and Bazoum in Niger on the other.

Two immediate differences between the two cases are, first, that the Mauritanian presidents are ex-coup leaders and retired military men while the Nigerien presidents are lifelong civilians; and, second, that relations between Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani frayed almost immediately upon the latter taking office, while relations between Issoufou and Bazoum have appeared outwardly cordial. In retrospect, of course, the density of Issoufou’s people around Bazoum (Issoufou’s son was Bazoum’s campaign manager) can appear less like a shared pool of trusted advisors than a mechanism of Issoufou’s control over Bazoum. In any case, let us assume, for a moment, that Issoufou had something to do with Tchiani’s maneuvers and even with the coup (more on this in a moment). It is striking that Ould Abdel Aziz, an ex-military man, moved against Ould Ghazouani by trying to take control over a civilian organ, the ruling Union for the Republic (subsequently renamed El Insaf, or the Equity Party), whereas the civilian Issoufou – again, if we assume he was involved in the coup – moved against his civilian successor by using soldiers as a lever.

Continuing this line of argument, it is also noteworthy that Ould Abdel Aziz’s effort to control the ruling party failed, while the coup against Bazoum succeeded. Ould Abdel Aziz’s attempted interference in Ould Ghazouani’s presidency also shows the risks for ex-presidents who still want to run the show: Ould Abdel Aziz has been under investigation, and often detention, for corruption charges since 2020. Perhaps the lesson is that if your protégé proves too independent and you want to tame him, you’d better play to win.

But did Issoufou actually have anything to do with the coup? I’ve heard the full spectrum of theories, from credible voices, which might be divided into three camps: (1) Issoufou ordered the coup and Tchiani and others are his tools; (2) Issoufou countenanced initial efforts to constrain and discipline Bazoum, including through an overattentive Presidential Guard, but Issoufou did not support the show of force-turned-coup as it escalated into physical violence; and (3) Issoufou was uninvolved. The immediate difficulty with all of these theories is that none of them can be proven or disproven based on the evidence available at present – that is, documentary evidence circulating in the public domain. I incline towards the second or third theory (which are not really so different, after all) in part because whether Issoufou was involved or not, and to whatever degree, the coup seems to have been a net negative for him and his circle. Issoufou is now under a microscope, his son Sani is at risk of losing a key ministry (Petroleum), the PNDS-Tarayya has become a physical and symbolic target for public anger (see below), and numerous associates of the ex-president have been hauled in for questioning by the junta itself.

Much more could be said about Tchiani and Issoufou and what may have transpired, but for the sake of some brevity (!) at least, let’s turn from proximate to more structural causes of the coup. One significant feature of the coup is that even if it began just as Presidential Guard adventurism, it very quickly attracted the support of generals and colonels from across the security forces. The analyst and cartographer Jules Duhamel, drawing on data from the Nigerien news site Aïr Info, has helpfully captioned a still image from the initial coup declaration with the names, ranks, and service branches of the officers present:

Two basic observations from the photo are the relative seniority of the officers (two generals, four colonels, and heads or deputy heads of various services) and the breadth of the service branches represented (the Presidential Guard, the Army, the Air Force, the Gendarmerie, the Police, the National Guard, Military Engineering, even the Firefighters). Within less than a day of Tchiani’s initial move against Bazoum, the Armed Forces were presenting more or less a united front, especially when the head of the Armed Forces as a whole, General Abdou Sidikou Issa, publicly acquiesced to the coup out of a stated desire to prevent bloodshed.

To explain this level of military cohesion – whether it runs deep, or is merely choreography, it is an impressive image nonetheless – will require more than just citing the venality of Tchiani as an individual or even the machinations of Issoufou as a powerbroker. True, first movers in coups can achieve some momentum that then sweeps others up in the unfolding events. Yet this coup was, to a much greater extent than in Mali or Burkina Faso, a senior officers’ coup. Soon, General Salifou Modi (or Mody) had emerged as the CNSP’s number two. Modi was in fact Issa’s predecessor as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and was removed by Bazoum around March 31 of this year. One could speculate that Bazoum was trying to slowly replace the top echelons of the military, beginning with Modi and then proceeding to Tchiani and perhaps others. Thus Tchiani was not the only one who saw his job under threat.

Modi himself has a very long story of his own with Issoufou, Bazoum, and the PNDS, and spent most of Issoufou’s presidency under a sort of exile given that the PNDS initially saw Modi as too close to Tandja. To add yet another data point, some argue that the generals were uncomfortable with one of Bazoum’s civilian security advisors, the ex-rebel Rhissa (or Ghissa) ag Boula. There are ethnic dimensions here to consider (Bazoum is Arab, ag Boula is Tuareg, in a country where the Hausa and the Zarma are the two largest ethnic groups), but I think an overethnicized analysis brings in more confusion than clarity. The point is that multiple generals may have had beef with Bazoum.

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a full captioning of the more recent and official photo of the CNSP, but ActuNiger notes the presence of another key military figure, Djibrilla Hamadou Hima. Both Modi and Hima, ActuNiger says, participated in the coups of 1996, 1999, and 2010. In other words, this group is many levels more senior and better organized already than were the would-be putschists against Bazoum in March 2021. And now that this (2023) coup has succeeded, there are many posts to dole out to willing officers, including the new slate of military governors announced August 1.

Nigerien democracy thus appears, in light of the last few days, remarkably brittle; not just Bazoum, but the institution of the civilian presidency, appears to have held relatively little value in the eyes of the top ranks of the military. The Army and the Air Force, one assumes, could have beaten back the Presidential Guard had they chosen to; true, there would have been the risk of Bazoum’s death in the cross-fire, but I think that cannot be the only factor explaining the military’s unwillingness to reverse the coup by force.

This leads us to the question of why the rank-and-file also appears relatively supportive of the coup. Soldiers do not surround a presidential palace, I suspect, merely to protect the prebend of their boss and patron. If the coup has a top-down character, that does not mean there are no bottom-up dynamics at play as well. Here I am thinking of Tchiani’s evocation of the security situation; if it is disingenuous – some astute analysts credit Bazoum with being the most successful counterinsurgent in the Sahel of late – that does not mean Tchiani does not strike some chords with the men.

In his address to the nation, Tchiani lamented a string of “murderous and traumatizing attacks at BossoInatèsChinagoderAnzourouBakorat, and still others.” The first four of these attacks were ones in which the security forces took the brunt of the losses (for those who want details, the links in the quotation from Tchiani here are ones I inserted, for context on each attack). I suspect that the names of those places and events mean something to Tchiani’s audience and particularly to the soldiers among that audience; indeed, soldiers mourning their comrades may care more about those bitter memories than about hard data on trends in violence. Does that mean that the soldiers naively see Tchiani as their savior? I doubt it. But he may be tapping into a strain of grievance against civilian leaders, or against the situation of the past decade or more in general, that makes soldiers willing to try a radical experiment in military rule.

Returning briefly to the scene at the top of the hierarchy, it also appears that Tchiani has articulated or tried to articulate some grievances among senior officers regarding at least two points – Bazoum’s outreach to jihadists and reported willingness to free some jihadists as part of peacemaking, and Bazoum’s reluctance to cooperate with the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso. The speed with which the CNSP in Niger has reached out to peer regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, and rumors that there was advanced coordination in the sub-region before the coup, all reinforce the idea that this debate over cooperation was another trigger for the coup (again, not mutually exclusive with Tchiani’s slated firing also being a trigger).

Why would the Nigerien military, or some officers within it, be so opposed to jihadist dialogues if they were helping to reduce violence, and why would Nigerien officers care so much about cooperating with Mali and Burkina Faso?  Here one can detect glimmers of what used to be called, in 1990s Algeria, “exterminationist” mentalities among senior officers regarding jihadists; “exterminationism” appears widespread within Sahelian militaries at the senior, mid-level, and rank-and-file levels, judging from officers’ statements and from the reported abuses by units in the field. If that exterminationism becomes a consuming ideology, it could take precedence for officers even over evidence of reductions in violence under Bazoum.

Then there is the issue of Tchiani’s complaints about “bad governance.” Certainly there is corruption in Niger (where is there not?). What stands out to me, though, is that the largest corruption scandal in Niger in recent years – a defense procurement scandal – involved the military itself. Civilian leaders (Issoufou and Bazoum included) effectively swept that scandal under the rug, in what I interpreted (then and now) in part as an effort to help with coup-proofing (didn’t work). By raising “bad governance,” Tchiani undoubtedly taps into many Nigeriens’ frustration with poverty, civilian corruption, the susceptibility to natural disasters, the rising cost of living, the general state and direction of the country, etc. Yet Tchiani also implicates himself and the military, unwittingly, in those accusations; few Nigeriens will now be ignorant of the fact that Tchiani and the other officers have been sitting in plum posts, in some cases for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan makes numerous key points in his recent analysis, including these interrelated ones: many Nigeriens saw Issoufou as presiding over increased corruption and unemployment; Bazoum tried to reform and crack down on corruption to some extent; but Bazoum was constrained by the “weight” of Issoufou within the PNDS (and beyond). My conclusion from all that is that Bazoum’s tragedy may be that he was one of history’s many reformers caught between the resistance of the old system to change, and the impatience of the ordinary people for faster reforms.

What, then, is the attitude of the general population towards this coup? Before answering the question, we should bear in mind the severe limitations of available data. The central players are in Niamey, the journalists are mostly in Niamey, the footage coming to spectators like me is mostly from Niamey, etc. Moreover, polling data for Niger is very weak, not just in the heat of the moment but in general – Niger is surveyed by the Afrobarometer project, like many African countries, but I am not aware of regular Niger-specific polls that are the equivalent to Mali’s Malimetre, for example. Still, there are some indications of support for the CNSP even beyond Niamey, for example in the major city of Zinder.

In terms of what the largely anecdotal data tell us about Niamey and certain other population centers, then, vocal supporters of the coup appear to be louder, more numerous, and better organized than vocal supporters of a Bazoum restoration. Some of those citizens who are in the streets demonstrating on the junta’s behalf, or attacking the headquarters of the PNDS-Tarayya, are undoubtedly opportunists. Yet the burst of support for the junta and anger at the former ruling party speak to the structural roots of the coup, which again go well beyond the machinations of Tchiani and possibly Issoufou. As opposition leaders line up to support the CNSP, moreover, they appear to be putting their fingers to the wind – both in terms of assessing the junta’s durability, but also in terms of reading the popular mood. We could add a thousand words to this post to describe the positions of individual politicians, but I don’t think it would be that interesting; they’re mostly followers, in my view. The coup seems to have a particular appeal to youth, many of whom see actually practiced democracy in Niger as corrupt and ineffective.

How to conclude? Events are moving so fast that some of this analysis may be worthless in even a few days. The coup could still be reversed – although even if it is, it will have long-lasting consequences (see Burkina Faso, 2015). The bottom line, I guess, is that my reading of the Nigerien domestic scene is that this coup has reshuffled the deck but has not replaced too many cards within that deck. This may be the ultimate disappointment for the youthful supporters of the coup; neither the military elite nor the civilian elite appears poised to change all that much. The grievances and structural causes of the coup are wide and deep, and the CNSP is proving fairly effective at presenting itself as a vehicle for those grievances, but that does not mean the new junta can actually solve the problems that have helped bring it to power – not least because its members are deeply implicated in those same problems.

Alex Thurston (@sahelblog) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati and runs the fabulous Sahel Blog, where this piece first appeared.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading