Amid the Sahel’s escalating turmoil, the coup in Niger has raised concerns about uranium commerce, migratory trends and terrorist threats.
The strategic belt of the Sahel is descending into chaos. Sudan had two coups, one in April 2019 and another in October 2021. Mali saw its first coup in August 2020, followed by a second one in May 2021. In April 2021, Chad experienced a similar disruption, as did Guinea five months later in September. The year 2022 was an annus horribilis for Burkina Faso, with two coups in January and September. And finally, in July 2023 came an assault on the government by a military junta in Niger, one of the poorest countries in all of Africa despite its extraordinary uranium reserves.
Niger’s leadership tug-of-war
On July 26, 2023, a group of presidential guard officers led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani deposed incumbent President Mohamed Bazoum, ordering his arrest and locking him up in his palace in the capital, Niamey. Mr. Bazoum, a former schoolteacher, had assumed the presidency of Niger from Mahamadou Issoufou, who, after two terms (2011 to 2021) had accepted the popular vote – the country’s first democratic transition.
The rebels’ declared goal was to “put an end to the regime due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” In reality, their motivations are far more complex. Niger, despite recent efforts, lacks strong government institutions. In addition, the pandemic and climate change have hamstrung the country’s already fragile economic situation. This has increased discontent among the population, already tested by jihadist groups and ethnic tensions. The deposed president, for example, belongs to an Arab-speaking minority, and because of this has often been accused of being a pawn of foreign powers.
International reactions and consequences
Power was then subsequently assumed by the junta, named National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). The European Union, the United States and many African Union countries protested, but to no avail.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to which Niger belongs, held an extraordinary summit in Abuja under the auspices of Nigerian President Bola Tinubu. The organization called for the “immediate release” of President Bazoum and a “full return to constitutional order.” These demands were echoed by the U.S. and the EU. The latter is particularly concerned about these latest developments in Niger. Instability could derail investments, affect uranium trade and send a new wave of migrants toward European countries. For all these reasons, Brussels has expressed strong support for the deposed president.
Facts & figures
On July 30, 2023, the French embassy in Niamey was stormed by thousands of people clamoring against France and supporting Russia. Then, during the first week of August, a Nigerian-led ECOWAS delegation traveled to Niger for discussions with the rebel junta. They offered the junta to step down with no military action taken against the perpetrators of the putsch.
The junta instead appointed a civilian as prime minister: Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, former chief of staff in 2001 under then-President Mamadou Tandja and then finance minister in 2002 until the 2010 putsch. Lieutenant Colonel Habibou Assoumane was named leader of the presidential guard. To strengthen their hold on power, the rebel military began arresting dozens of members of the ruling party, even detaining the mines minister – a key role – Ousseini Hadizatou Yacouba. On August 10, the junta presented a new government composed of 21 ministers.
Rising resistance and ongoing struggles
In parallel, a resistance movement was emerging. On August 3, President Bazoum was featured in the Washington Post saying that his country is being held hostage by a group of criminals trying to nullify the ballot box result produced by the 2021 elections. He also emphasized that foreign aid constitutes 40 percent of the national budget. The EU has halted security collaboration and withheld its planned financial assistance (503 million euros for 2021 to 2024).
Jihadist terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) may now have the opportunity to spread. So will criminal networks connected to the ethnic groups of the Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg. The junta seems to be planning to revoke all security cooperation with France. Between 1,000 and 1,500 French units were performing counterterrorism operations in the border area with Mali and Burkina Faso, two Sahel countries that the French were forced to abandon in May 2022 and February 2023 respectively due to the failed agreements caused by coups in these countries as well. To this international contingent should be added about a thousand Americans, in the vicinity of Agadez, and 350 Italians. The American outpost plays a particularly sensitive role in monitoring terrorist cells in the entire area through drones and other intelligence resources.
Uranium supply endangered
Uranium was first discovered in Niger in 1957, with the first commercial mine starting to operate in 1971. Today the country supplies about 5 percent of the world’s entire production.
Much of the production is processed and transported by the French multinational Orano. That supply, which accounts for a quarter of the uranium used by the EU for nuclear power generation, has apparently been blocked by rebels, although Orano itself has stated that everything is under control.
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African migrants often transit through Niger on their way to the coast in their attempt to reach Europe. Between 2016 and 2019, 1,055,214 migrants were recorded traveling in Niger. These numbers were largely kept in check thanks to the Nigerien government implementing a new law under which non-Nigerien migrants without valid travel documents found north of the city of Agadez are considered on their way to illegally enter Libya or Algeria and thus intercepted by law enforcement agencies. The deposed president was then interior minister and collaborated with the EU to contain sub-Saharan migration flows. But now this cooperation will likely collapse.
At the moment Russia does not seem to have played a major role in the Niger events, but thousands of people in the squares chanting on behalf of the Kremlin and Wagner group forces on the day of the attack on the French embassy would seem to indicate at least some Russian influence. Shortly before he died in a crashed private jet, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his readiness to back the junta with his mercenaries.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed fears that the Wagner group would exploit the situation to strengthen its grip on the Sahel area. In March 2023, he had called Niger “an extraordinary model at a time of great challenge – a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.”
Whether the junta remains in power or is dismantled, it is likely that deep social unrest will persist. This situation will prove unsustainable for a country so dependent on foreign aid and afflicted by increasingly organized cross-border crime in the southwestern area between Maradi and Dogondoutchi, close to Nigeria.
The junta maintains its grip on Niger
This is the most realistic scenario, considering ECOWAS’s difficulties. Nigeria has many internal problems at the moment, while Burkina Faso and Mali support the coup. In addition, the African Union has also opposed any kind of external military intervention. A large-scale military operation in Niger, the largest country in the Sahel, would be very difficult given the limited ECOWAS military resources. Moreover, in recent weeks, thousands of people have manifested in the streets in support of the junta, which has an armed contingent of 30,000 men trained by Western forces – an asset not to be underestimated.
President Mohamed Bazoum returns to power
This scenario appears unlikely for now. Mr. Bazoum, who faces prosecution for “high treason”, could only be reinstated through the intervention of outside forces, such as ECOWAS. But ECOWAS is not supported by the African Union, has no common strategy internally, and its forces are far inferior in numbers, equipment and training to those commanded by General Tchiani. Moreover, after coming back to power, Mr. Bazoum would have to implement a heavy purge that would risk throwing the country back into chaos. As seen in recent weeks, a large part of the capital’s population is pro-junta and therefore, an intervention by the meager ECOWAS forces would surely trigger a civil war.