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Niger becomes latest domino falling to Western-trained militaries

Niger becomes latest domino falling to Western-trained militaries

US and allied counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel strikes out, and a thorough reassessment is in order.

Analysis | Africa

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.

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