Niger breaks from France and embraces Russia

In Niger, one of several Sahel countries in political turmoil, the new military government has pivoted from French and European partners into the arms of Russia and Iran.

Protest in Niamey, Niger
Young Nigerien women demonstrate with a placard reading “A ba la France” (“Down with France”) during a rally at the Place de la Concertation in front of the National Assembly headquarters on August 20, 2023, in the capital Niamey. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Conditions in Niger have worsened since an August coup
  • Russia has sought to pry Sahel states from European partners
  • The threat of terrorism in Niger risks total destabilization

In a region long suffering from political and economic instability, Niger’s 2021 election of President Mohamed Bazoum was a moment of optimism: the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960.

Just over two years later, Mr. Bazoum became the latest head of state in the Sahel to be overthrown in a coup. Why has this West African state, one of the poorest in the world, followed in the footsteps of its neighbors Burkina Faso and Mali?

Another Sahel coup

The domino effect is striking: in a similar fashion, a military coup took place in each of these countries, replacing the legitimately elected leader with a pseudo-savior for the nation. As soon as they entered the presidential palace, each hastened to dismiss the French forces present in the country and summon in their place those of a new, Russian big brother. Amazingly, Wagner group forces quickly appeared, ready to help in training a presidential guard or driving out jihadists.

In Niger, General Abdourahamane Tchiani took power last July. He immediately took measures against France, whose soldiers had been there for years to fight against the threat of Islamist extremism. The junta quickly demanded the exit of the French forces, who numbered about 1,500, and denounced existing security agreements with Paris. The last French soldiers finally left the country on December 22, 2023.

At the end of August, the military regime also expelled the French ambassador, Sylvain Itte, who had remained trapped inside the diplomatic representation for nearly a month following the coup. Paris closed its embassy in Niamey “until further notice” at the beginning of 2024, planning to continue its activities from France.

More on Subsaharan Africa

Meanwhile, things in Niger have only worsened. In November, the country repealed a law against the smuggling of migrants, which had been adopted alongside the European Union at the Valletta Summit in 2015. The migratory surge from Africa is no less salient today, almost as intense as during the 2015-2016 crisis period. This time, the government in Niger has chosen its side, which is not that of France or Europe. Local and regional authorities now welcome the resumption of the migration “trade,” which would help revive the economy. In Agadez, where tourist activity collapsed due to jihadism, people had long relied on the manna brought by these migrants.

Now, the junta that took power in Niamey is killing two birds with one stone: improving the economy (and not even by illegitimate means) while buying off the Tuaregs of Agadez, who were tempted to rally behind the deposed former president. One can add a third blow to this stone, one that Moscow knows well: using migration to blackmail Europe.

Russian support

Contrary to what Russian propaganda has long pretended – both in France, with means such as the Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today channel, and across Africa itself – these coups in the Sahel were well-prepared by Moscow. This was quickly evidenced by the decisions of the usurpers. After taking power, the junta in Niamey denounced the previous security cooperation agreements with the Europeans and soon received a Russian official with great pomp, just as the new military rulers had done in Mali and Burkina Faso.

On December 4, General Tchiani welcomed with honors the Russian deputy defense minister, Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. The Nigerien government announced the “strengthening of cooperation in the field of defense” with Moscow and the signing of a protocol, the contents of which remain secret. Deputy Minister Yevkurov also met with Niger’s defense minister, General Salifou Mody, considered the country’s second strongman.

In a statement addressed to the European Union delegation in Niamey, the regime also denounced the two agreements governing European support for Nigerien defense and security forces. The EUCAP Sahel, a civilian mission of some 130 created in 2012 to support border security forces, and the EUMPM Niger, the military mission set up in 2022 to help Nigerien soldiers fight terrorism, have been asked to pack their bags. This bodes well for the arrival of Russia’s Wagner group in Niger. It should be noted that Mr. Yevkurov himself is said to lead the Africa Corps, a reported effort by the Kremlin to subsume Wagner’s paramilitary activities on the continent after the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Ursula von der Leyen and Mohamed Bazoum
July 31, 2017: Ursula von der Leyen, then German Defense Minister and now President of the European Commission, meeting in Niamey with Mohamed Bazoum, the deposed president of Niger who was then serving as minister of the interior. © Getty Images

To be sure, pro-Russian sentiment is not new in the Sahel. During the period of decolonization, beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet Union established close ties with several African countries and supported them in their struggles for independence. By the height of the Cold War, Moscow had trained many African leaders and elites. Niger’s Abdou Moumouni Dioffo, who helped found the African Independence Party, became the first African associate professor of physical sciences after receiving training in the Soviet Union, as the Russia/Africa expert Tatiana Smirnova has noted. Today, he is the namesake of the University of Niamey.

Yet Niger’s pivot away from the West is not limited to Russia. In January, Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine was received in Tehran by Iran’s vice president to sign partnerships in the fields of energy, health and finance – all in the name of mutual aid between two “victims of the system of domination.”

“Niger intends to breathe new life into cooperation with the Islamic Republic,” declared Mr. Zeine after signing the joint agreements. Iran, along with Russia, forms an increasingly powerful anti-Western axis that needs African support, especially at the United Nations.

Security threats

Domestically, things are less rosy. Niger’s economy has been damaged by heavy economic sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) since the military coup overthrew President Bazoum. Niger formed the Alliance of Sahel States with Burkina Faso and Mali last September in response to the suspension. The group has gone so far as to discuss the creation of a new currency to would replace the CFA franc. But these proposals do not seem very credible, especially given the present talk of large quantities of gold exiting the country.

Similarly, on the security front, the forced departure of French soldiers seems to be giving free rein to terrorists and jihadist elements. At the end of January, the government had to admit that 10 Nigerien soldiers had been wounded in fighting in the southeastern Lake Chad region – though it added, without verification, that “several dozen” fighters from the jihadist group Boko Haram were also killed.

According to Niger’s defense ministry, the clashes erupted when Boko Haram forces attacked a special battalion positioned at the airport in N’Guigmi, a garrison town in the Diffa region of Nigeria. But already a few weeks earlier, three civilians were killed and two gendarmes wounded in an attack on a security post in the village of Laoudou, 17 kilometers south of Niamey – the second such raid carried out so close to the capital.

The country that is staking a claim to its full independence from the former colonial power France has nevertheless put itself in the hands of the Russians. It remains vulnerable to total destabilization by the threat of terrorism.

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