The military coup in Niger opens the door to increased Russian influence in Africa. Ousted President Mohamed Bazoum was allied with the U.S. and France in helping the country confront Islamic terrorists. Earlier, the military junta that took power in neighboring Mali invited fighters of Wagner PMC to ensure its security.
On Wednesday, Bazoum was detained by the presidential guard. He had hoped that the military would side with him, but on Thursday, Chief of Staff Gen. Abdou Sidikou Issa announced: the army decided to support the removal of the president from power to avoid bloodshed between different factions of the security services.
Meanwhile, it was Issa’s subordinates and special forces commander Moussa Salaou Barmou, who was among the high-ranking officers who supported the coup, who were being trained by U.S. experts. The U.S. has about 1,100 military personnel in Niger, whose president was democratically elected in 2021. They are training local special forces to confront squads from terrorist Islamist organizations including Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The US worries that the coup will spur militant activity, which has carried out thousands of attacks in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso since 2017 and is now also trying to attack more southern countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote.
Niger is also home to a major French military base, and the U.S. is using drones to conduct reconnaissance throughout the Sahel region (countries immediately south of the Sahara). After the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the juntas that came to power expelled French soldiers, the U.S. and France placed a big bet on Niger as a bulwark against increasing Islamist attacks.
“Niger is the last chip in a domino that we hope doesn’t fall”, a senior U.S. intelligence official told the WSJ. “If it does happen, I don’t even know what to do”.
Niger’s army would not necessarily oppose the presence of the Western military, it may wish to continue cooperation, the intelligence official said. However, the U.S. law severely restricts interaction with military regimes, the newspaper noted.
“If military assistance from the US, France and others is cut off or limited, it will be a blow to operations across the Sahel region”, Peter Pham, a former US ambassador to the region, told the Financial Times. The isolation of Niger’s new military government could push it toward Russia, Pham believes. However, he doubts that Russia (represented by Wagner) has the capability to take full advantage of the situation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday called for “restoring constitutional order” in the country.
It’s Niger’s turn, lamented Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff of the U.S. special envoy to Sudan who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: it has shifted from the Western camp to a model that opens up opportunities for Russia, which can provide the junta with mercenaries and weapons.
A White House official told the WSJ that the administration has no evidence that Russia or Wagner is behind the putschists in Niger. But that “Russia had a hand in laying the groundwork for the putsch, albeit not in the putsch itself, is pretty clear”, Pham said.
For more than a year now, the U.S. and Europe have watched with growing concern the disinformation campaign unfolding on social media in West African countries. President Bazoum has been made out to be a puppet of the West, with some heavily viewed videos showing terrorist attacks to show that the U.S. military’s presence in Niger is undermining its security. Last year, several thousand people, some carrying Russian flags or banners with pro-Russian slogans, demonstrated in the capital to demand the withdrawal of French troops from Niger.
However, other African leaders stood up for Bazoum, which was not the case with the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. Senior delegations from Nigeria and Benin have already traveled to Niger. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has expressed support for Bazoum. Significant efforts are being made to resolve the situation, notes Hudson: “The West has invested heavily in the successful development of Niger. I don’t think Washington or Paris or the UN are ready to scrap it all”.