Despite anti-coup rhetoric, can the West exit Niger, its latest Sahel hub? | Features

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At 57 years old, Afhagad, a driver from northern Niger, has lived through five coups in his life.

“Our first coup d’etat was Kountche, Colonel Kountche, on 15 April, 1974,” said Afhagad, who asked to use a pseudonym amid the country’s ongoing political crisis, before quickly rattling off the names of the other strongmen who have seized power in his West African country: Ibrahim Bare Mainassara (1996), Daouda Malam Wanke (1999), Salou Djibo (2010) – and now, perhaps, the members of the self-described National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.

This latest addition to Afhagad’s list came Wednesday and is still unfolding after President Mohamed Bazoum’s presidential guard barricaded the presidential palace and demanded his resignation. Later that night, after hours of speculation about how the standoff would end, the coup plotters became, it seems, coup leaders.

“We, the Defense and Security Forces, united within the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, have decided to put an end to the regime you know,” Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane said in a message delivered on state television. “This follows the continuing deterioration of the security situation and poor economic and social governance.”

The shocking turn of events deposed the leadership of the Western-allied country and added yet another West African country to the band of military-led nations stretching from the Atlantic to the Sahara, but how much might change for ordinary Nigeriens or Niamey’s Western allies is unclear.

Will it still be ‘business as usual’?

American, French and other European troops have a large footprint in the country for their regional “counterinsurgency” operations – one they’ll be loathe to give up, even if it means playing nice with the military-led government, analysts say.

Meanwhile, the security and economic situation for ordinary Nigeriens – the coup’s purported raison d’etre – remains as entrenched as ever in one of the world’s poorest countries, itself not only dealing with armed conflict at home but surrounded by volatile wars on its doorstep.

“Last week, there was no indication of any coup; it was all government officials, diplomats, whatever – business as usual,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who just returned from a trip to the capital.

At the same time, however, more people might have seen the coup coming if they had realised the extent of discontent lurking underneath, noted Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at Rabat-based think tank Policy Centre for the New South.

“The security situation in parts of the country, it’s not as good as a lot of people have thought,” he told Al Jazeera.

Across Niger’s south, along the borders with Nigeria and Chad, the military is up against armed bandits and Boko Haram fighters who pose deadly risks for Nigeriens as well as the refugees they send spilling into the country.

And in the country’s west, armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda roam the deadly tri-border area shared with Mali and Burkina Faso, part of the long-running conflict in those three countries.

According to a June 2022 report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, a broad coalition of civil society groups in the region, eight civilians are killed daily on average in the area.

Just last week, when Laessing was visiting the riverside capital, Niamey was abuzz with white 4×4 trucks, European soldiers and diplomats. The French had recently moved their Sahel forces to Niger, the new regional hub for Paris’s and other European nations’ fight against armed groups after soured relations with the military governments in Burkina Faso and Mali led to their withdrawal from those countries.

While the Nigerien mutineers justified their takeover by citing a “deteriorating security situation“, weapons flowed from the Europeans and Americans were providing the military with tons of material, Laessing told Al Jazeera. And that pipeline might now be at risk.

Already, the US, the French and the United Nations have all loudly condemned the coup, and UN humanitarian operations have been suspended. The US State Department declared on Wednesday, in a statement that referred to Bazoum as the president, that “the strong US economic and security partnership with Niger depends on the continuation of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law and human rights”. 

Yet Western countries with a military presence in Niger might be unwilling to cut off relations completely.

“It’s really tough for the US. I think they will do everything to find a way to work with them,” Laessing said, referencing the Americans’ huge drone base in the northern city of Agadez. “The US has quite a few bases in countries which are not really democratic.”

A ‘wait and see’ game

While Bazoum led a democracy, it was hardly an ideal one. Opposition protesters were routinely thrown in jail, and the weak economy meant the country constantly dangled at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.

Pro-coup protesters in Niamey, a stronghold for the political opposition, gathered Thursday to express support for the coup, with some carrying anti-French signs. The headquarters of Bazoum’s political party were burned, even as he remained in contact by phone with US and UN officials.

While some Nigeriens have protested against the deployment of French troops in the country, and opposition leaders have asked whether foreign militaries in the country only end up inflaming local conflicts, it’s unclear if the government would break ties with France or the US, and their militaries, given Niger’s long history as a Western ally.

Analysts, rather, see an internal power struggle behind the coup, especially among Niger’s security forces. The head of the presidential guard, for example, was appointed by the previous president.

“If you look very closely, there are a lot of divisions among the security forces, and especially between those who are Bazoum’s supporters and those of the former president’s supporters,” said Lyammouri. “So those divisions might have played also in what just happened.”

Western countries are likely to “wait and see what’s going to happen and who is going to be in control”, be it the coup leaders or a re-establishment of Bazoum as the president, to figure a new partnership in “this fight against terrorism”, he told Al Jazeera.

“This way they could also prevent [themselves] from falling into the trap that happened in Mali and Burkina Faso – especially in Mali,” he added.

After instigating the exit of French troops, Bamako has since turned to Russia and its Wagner mercenaries for security.

Niger has fared better in tackling armed groups than its neighbours, willing to both negotiate with them and attempt to solve the ethnic, political, and land-use issues that often drive violence.

But frustrations behind the coup show that benchmarking Niger’s success against these groups as relatively better than Mali and Burkina Faso’s isn’t enough, Lyammouri said.

Already, there are concerns among foreign policymakers that a military government in Niger could make things worse. While democratic governments in Burkina Faso and Mali were unable to stem violence from armed groups, both countries have seen, under military rule, “increased violence against civilians by both state forces and their allies, as well as by jihadist groups”, a recent report from NGO International Crisis Group read.

In Burkina Faso, “jihadist violence is at unprecedented intensity”, Crisis Group noted. “The government’s total war policy seems to have given rise to a degree of military licence and contributed to a spike in violence against civilians

As for Afhagad, the driver, he has about as much confidence in this junta as he did in the previous ones. “We don’t think the coup can accomplish anything,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We have confidence in democracy,” he added, “but that too hasn’t done anything, you see? We don’t know … We don’t have confidence in our leaders — they’re all fake leaders, they’re the same.”

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