On July 26, soldiers seized power in Niger. The new National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland received the (perhaps reluctant) support of the head of the Armed Forces, making the coup seem irreversible, although ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and some members of his government remained defiant into July 27.
The next day, the junta designated the head of the presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, as military head of state.
The coup notches a new low for the battered Sahel region of Africa. The coup also signifies the ultimate failure of a decade of French and American approaches to the central Sahel, approaches that relied on malleable civilian presidents who would allow open-ended counterterrorism campaigns and military training programs. Unable to defeat jihadist insurgencies and unhappy with their civilian overseers, those militaries have turned, one by one, against the elected presidents of the region.
The central Sahelian countries of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso — collectively, the epicenter of mass violence and displacement in the region, and one of the worst conflict and humanitarian disaster zones in the world — have now experienced five coups in the past three years. The initial coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger all followed the same basic pattern: soldiers arrested presidents, then appeared on television to announce committees for “saving” the nation. As the initial shock of each takeover faded, the long-term causes appeared clear in retrospect: frustration within the military and the general population, years of unaddressed corruption allegations, and patterns of presidential overreach all added up to a few explosive but transformative moments.
Niger was supposed to be different — an “island,” an “oasis,” of stability in a troubled region. Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (overthrown in 2020) and Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Kaboré (overthrown in 2022) were seen as feckless, out of touch, and sloppy. Niger’s leaders Mahamadou Issoufou (in office 2011-2021) and Mohamed Bazoum (in office 2021-2023) were perceived differently: savvy, sophisticated, capable of juggling pro-Western postures and domestic credibility.
Meanwhile, Paris and Washington shrugged at the darker sides of Issoufou and Bazoum’s rule, including substantial use of the state’s legal and administrative powers to constrain and marginalize political opponents and critics. Nigerien exceptionalism has now run aground.
Who benefits? Amid fevered attention in the Western press to Russia and the Wagner Group, many will argue that this creates a vast opportunity for Putin and Prigozhin. Perhaps it does. Or perhaps not — while Mali’s junta eventually went into business with Wagner, Burkina Faso’s military rulers have held off on a Wagner deal, despite regular rumors to the contrary. Or are the main beneficiaries the jihadist groups, the affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State that already operate across swathes of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger?
It is certainly true that violence in Mali and Burkina Faso ticked upwards after the coups there — although a significant portion of that increase represents a continuation of pre-coup trends. The region’s juntas perform badly against jihadists and they are no friends to civilians in combat zones, but civilian leaders weren’t performing well on those fronts either.
Meanwhile, the jihadists have no realistic end goal beyond spreading misery to more and more rural areas and small towns; the moment they seize a national capital, the hammer of a regional or international military intervention will come down upon them. Three years after a military takeover in Mali, jihadists have not taken Bamako or indeed even a regional capital — but the junta is entrenching its own power by the month. The ultimate beneficiaries of coups appear to be their own authors.
Meanwhile, democracy in the Sahel is dead for now: politically, it might as well be 1974, the first year that all three of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger were simultaneously under military rule, as they were for the subsequent 18 years. The ghosts of the past are now vividly present, which is bad news for Niger: the country had a smooth transition back to democracy after its last coup in 2011, but the 1990s were troubled years; a democratic experiment that began in 1993 failed in a 1996 coup whose author, Ibrahim Maïnassara, was then assassinated by his own men in 1999. Closer to the present, the examples of both Mali and Burkina Faso suggest that the first coup is only the start of a rocky road — each country has seen a subsequent coup within a year of the first.
Niger’s current coup-makers appear, so far, little different than their peers in Mali and Burkina Faso. As one journalist wryly observed, even the acronym for the new Nigerien junta’s name (CNSP, French acronym for the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland) is identical to the Malian junta’s acronym (CNSP, for National Committee for the Salvation of the People). The vagueness of these names mirrors the vagueness of the ideologies, or lack thereof, deployed by the officers — their rhetoric emphasizes accountability, dignity, sovereignty, and toughness, but it translates into ad hoc policymaking and ultimately into self-interest.
Niger’s coup, with Tchiani in charge, has more senior backing than the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, but that does not mean the Nigerien junta will be more benevolent. The positions these men find themselves in are at once eminently understandable and deplorable; the temptation to take power in a violent, impoverished, geopolitically marginalized country must be immense, yet the wielding of that power has, time and again, shown that militaries cannot fix their countries’ problems.
Commendably, West African regional actors made a more serious effort than in the past to reverse this coup while it was unfolding. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu and Beninese President Patrice huddled in Abuja as the coup was unfolding, seeking ways to mediate with the coup-makers. Yet regional and Western actors’ post-coup playbook is worn and ineffective. Demand a 24-month transition period, for example, and find that coup-makers will agree, only to start revising the timetable once the transition actually comes due. And sanctions don’t really scare men who risked their lives to storm presidential palaces.
Western governments, meanwhile, confront a policy dead-end. Niger was the good one, the reliable one, the one that France, Germany, the U.S. and others all looked to as their hub amid the Malian junta’s gleeful efforts to make their country into a pariah. What now, pivot south? Washington can attempt to contain the Sahel’s problems and prevent further spillover into coastal West Africa. With few lessons learned, however, Washington and Paris and others even risk making Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, or their neighbors more fragile, an outcome they were repeatedly warned about with regard to Niger. Washington can also attempt to punish juntas that work with Wagner and Russia while cajoling the others into avoiding Putin and Prigozhin.
Neither of those policy priorities adds up to a solution for the region itself, though, even in a supporting role. And with soldiers solidifying their institutional power in Mali (and Chad, another junta-ruled Sahelian country, albeit somewhat out of the main line of fire of jihadists), the coups are now looking less like an aberrant moment within a long-term democratic trajectory, and more like the new normal. That trend could feed into a gruesome remainder of this decade for the central Sahel.
What is needed most now is imagination, both within the Sahel and outside it, but new ideas are in short supply. “Out-of-the-box” ideas, or at least the ones that occur to me in this moment, are all grotesque. Should Washington drop all pretense of democratic values and simply seek to turn these juntas into its clients? Should Western governments seek to foment coups against coup-makers, to nurture civilian democratic uprisings? Should Washington ally with al-Qaida against the Islamic State? Should it recognize breakaway territories, beginning with “Azawad” in northern Mali or abandon the region completely?
These ideas could all destabilize the situation, and I don’t actually agree with any of them — and yet the status quo has brought wave upon wave of destabilization. Here’s hoping that someone inside or outside the region has some better ideas.
Alex Thurston is is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of three books, most recently "Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups"(Cambridge University Press, 2020). Additional writing can be found at his website Sahel Blog (sahelblog.wordpress.com).
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.