Niger coup: Military takeover is a setback for democracy and US interests in West Africa
The West African nation Niger is under military rule following a coup in which President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown and held captive by members of his own guard. On July 28, 2023, coup leaders named General Abdourahmane Tchiani as the new head of state, while international observers called for democratic norms to be reinstalled.
Where the coup leaves the country and what happens next is unclear. The Conversation turned to Leonardo A. Villalón, political scientist and West African expert at the University of Florida, for some answers.
How did this coup come about?
At first, it was unclear whether this even was a coup. Although there have been indications of tensions both inside the military and between military and civilian leaders, a coup certainly wasn’t expected. I was in Niger last month, and there was nothing to suggest that a coup would occur. And in contrast to what happened in Mali or Burkina Faso in recent years, the coup wasn’t preceded by widespread protests or popular calls for a change in leadership.
So, when members of the presidential guard seized Bazoum on July 26, it wasn’t immediately clear what was going on, or whether their actions would be successful. The first real test for the coup leaders was whether the rest of the military would back their actions. It could have set off widespread fighting in the country if they hadn't. But it has turned out – so far, at least – to be a bloodless coup. After initial wrangling between different factions over who would take control, the country’s generals did back the coup.
Meanwhile, the democratically elected president continues to be held hostage under house arrest.
What are the consequences of the coup?
Although it has been a bloodless coup, the consequences are catastrophic for Niger and the region. The nation is among the least developed on Earth, with high levels of poverty and a history of instability and coups.
But it has emerged in recent years as a relatively stable force in the region and as a critical ally for the West in dealing with terrorism and violence that has spiraled since a coup in neighboring Mali in 2012. That event, itself triggered by the NATO intervention in Libya and the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, kick-started a decade of instability in the region.
Yet just two years ago, Niger saw its first-ever democratic transfer of power from one elected president to the next. The election was by no means perfect, but it was rightly seen as a significant accomplishment. That is why this coup is particularly problematic: It represents a rolling back of the progress made in recent years in slowly building functional state institutions and democratic processes.
The coup also has major consequences for the region. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have broken away from former colonial power France, and the West in general, and moved toward Russia. Meanwhile, Chad, another neighbor, is engaged in a problematic effort at a transition to an elected government. Against these countries, Niger represented a civilian-led pragmatic ally in international efforts to stem a tide of jihadist violence in the Sahel region. We have no clear indication at the moment of how Niger’s new military leaders will align themselves in this context.
How does this differ from past coups in Niger?
That’s the really interesting thing. Niger is often described as prone to coups. But with each previous coup, circumstances have allowed coup leaders to justify their actions as necessary, or at least as justifiable and understandable by some rationale. But that doesn’t appear to be true for this latest takeover by the military.
Niger’s first coup in 1974 took place amid a backdrop of terrible drought and famine across the Sahel. That created a level of frustration and disappointment in the shortcomings of the country’s first post-independence government and provided a rationale for the military to overthrow it and claim legitimacy with a renewed focus on development.
The subsequent coups in Niger – in 1996, 1999, and 2010 – were all triggered by specific political crises. In 1996, the new democratic regime that had been installed in 1993 found itself gridlocked by institutions that made it difficult for the executive and legislative branches to work together. The military justified the coup as a necessary step to unblock this gridlock. Three years later, those coup leaders failed to follow through on their promises and were themselves ousted – and soldier-turned-president Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara was killed – when they attempted to remain in power by rigging the elections.
As promised by the leaders of the 1999 coup, within a year Niger had adopted a new constitution and elected a new government. Unfortunately, after two terms and 10 years in power, President Mamadou Tandja attempted to extend his mandate beyond the constitutionally allowed limits, triggering a prolonged political crisis. In the end, the military again stepped in, and in 2010 soldiers attacked the presidential palace and captured Tandja after a bloody gun battle. The military justified this coup as a necessary step to end the crisis and stop the erosion of democracy.
All three of the previous coups in Niger could thus be presented as attempts to “press reset” on Niger’s progress toward democracy. And in each case, they were justified by the coup leaders in those terms.
The same cannot be said about the latest coup. President Bazoum has only been in power for two years, and his 2021 election win, although contested, was in the end widely accepted. He came to power on a promise to improve the country’s security, invest in education and fight corruption – and some real progress has been made in that direction. And there was no obvious political impasse or institutional gridlock on a scale that would have justified a coup.
As such, it seems that this latest coup was very much driven by internal politics and dissatisfaction among parts of the military, rather than any clear triggering crisis.
How are the coup leaders justifying their actions?
Beyond a very general claim of “poor governance” and a “degraded security situation,” there hasn’t been a clear rationale articulated by those who are now in charge to justify the coup or to legitimize themselves as leaders. This marks a change not only from the coups of Niger’s past but also contrasts with those in neighboring Mali in 2021 and Burkina Faso the following year.
In each of those coups, military leaders claimed that they were ousting deeply unpopular regimes that were deeply corrupt and had proven ineffective at combating instability and violence. They presented themselves as leaders who would mark a break with existing political systems by establishing new alliances.
What happens next?
It is very difficult to see a coherent way out of this. The coup leaders have suspended the constitution and closed Niger’s borders. But it isn’t really clear yet what the long-term plan is.
In Mali and Bukina Faso, the ills of those countries were blamed on France, with coup leaders looking to Russia for support and accepting support from the Moscow-backed mercenary Wagner Group.
The fear among those in the West – and many inside Niger – is that in the need to articulate a rationale, the new military leaders now will present the Nigerien experiment with democracy itself as a failure and similarly seek support from Russia and the Wagner Group. Wagner’s mercenary boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has already offered Niger’s new leaders the support of his men, praising the coup as an anti-colonial struggle.
How big a blow is this for US interests in the region?
In recent years, Niger has been the partner of choice for Washington in regard to the Sahel. It is seen as a linchpin in the fight against terrorism in the region, and its importance has escalated significantly as Mali and Burkina Faso turned to Russia.
Neighboring Chad is also a key ally for the U.S. But Chad is problematic, having been led by the autocratic Idriss Déby for 30 years until his death in 2021, only to be succeeded by his son, Mahamat Déby – who is now himself leading a so-called transition that seems designed to keep him in power.
With Chad, the U.S. has had to hold its nose while doing business. Niger, by contrast, was presented as a democratic model and seen as open, pragmatic, and friendly toward Washington.
We will have to see how things unfold, but it is clear that this coup could deal a serious setback to U.S. interests in the region. But above all, it is a terrible blow to Niger’s efforts at building stable democratic institutions and to fostering the peace and stability that could better the lives of people living in one of the world’s poorest countries.
This previously appeared on The conversation. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of The Joburg Post.