Niger faces an exceptional nightmarish moment of political uncertainty and risk. After the military takeover on July 26th, the uncertainties and the risks have multiplied manifold. Niger is uncertain about who is really in charge. Throwing Niger out of kilter, the coup has destabilised the country. In the process, it is threatening to trigger a widespread regional conflict. As Mali and Burkina Faso back the coup, the threat is real. Sadly, these West African regimes seem to produce political amnesia in a divided West Africa. Why are they forgetting that they too were products of similar coups not long ago?

Golden Opportunity for Wagner Mercenaries

Not even do they recall that post-coup they were suspended from the 15-member regional bloc called the Economic Community of West African States, aka Ecowas. Even now, after the July 26th coup in Niger, the bloc threatened to intervene militarily in Niger until the oustee was reinstalled as president. This showdown may or may not lead to war. However, it is sure to hold up a mirror to the world’s most-divided West African region. Beyond doubt, the stakes are high in the Niger coup.

An armed military coup in a divided West African country like Niger could set off a regional war even in the best of times. As Western soldiers continue to battle in Niger, a fresh military coup is a golden opportunity for Wagner mercenaries, who will now increase their presence in the region, with little effort. They are already there in Mali and the Central African Republic. Nevertheless, for the West, Niger is their fearless frontline in their war against Islamic militancy in Africa. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/what-russias-wagner-group- doing-africa

Video Courtesy: YouTube/WION

It Would be a Big Red Flag

The presence of 1,500 French troops and 1,100 US troops proves  their commitment. What happens to these troops is at the heart of the current political crisis in Niger. Though West Africa is not new to coups, the military putsch in Niger is so high on the tremor scale that it will hit the entire West African region. More so because a major part of the West African region, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, is already under the thumbs of military juntas that usurped power through coups launched after 2020.

Though the provocations behind these coups are different, there is one commonality in them. Corruption and militancy was the provocation in Mali. It was internal military rivalry in Sudan. But, the commonality that unites them is that they were all countries reeling under poor governance and Islamist insurgency. Inevitably, they were all flailing democracies with tattered public confidence. If Niger joins this list now, it would be a big red flag for the world. https://www.bbc.com/news/world- africa- 46783600

Televised Address and 36 Hours After

Whatever happened to Niger so soon that West Africa’s ‘model of democracy’ has turned into its most malignant face? On July 26th, Niger’s presidential guards encircled and blockaded the presidential palace in capital Niamey. The guards announced on Niger’s state television that the democratically-elected president Mohamed Bazoum, 63, had been ousted. Soon after, they declared officially the takeover, the coup and the suspension of the constitution. It was like the plot of a crime thriller unfolding.

Events began to unfold rapidly thereon. On July 28th, 36 hours after the televised address, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, 59, the commander of the guards, declared himself the head of the military council and Niger’s ruler. As this news exploded in the public domain, anti-coup agitations broke out in capital Niamey. As the junta put the protests down and cracked on the agitators, a nationwide curfew was imposed and all national borders were sealed. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/28/niger- general- tchiani-named-head-of-transitional-government- after-coup

Strategic to African Game Plans

At once, the coup was viewed by France and the United States as a malignant political development. For these two Western powers, who have always regarded Niger as a stable and dependable partner in a chronically coup-scarred region, a military takeover shaking the pillars of political stability in Niger was a rude shock. The two moved in swiftly to register their protests. The United Nations too halted its aid and humanitarian operations in Niger. More protests followed.

In a me-too gesture, Britain declared the cessation of long-term development assistance to Niger. As Niger’s friends and foes express their disapproval for the coup, the tottering West African nation is also facing headwinds elsewhere. As Niger is geopolitically significant to the West, and as Russia is casting its threatening shadow across the region around Niger, the West African country is all the more strategic to the African game plans of the United States and its former coloniser France. The coup in Niger is too significant to be ignored. https://geopoliticaleconomy.com/2023/08/05/us-france- intervention-niger-west-africa/

The Fence Devours the Field

Equally significant to Niger’s political future is General Tchiani aka Omar, who led the coup. He is now the head of Niger’s transitional government. Pre-coup, Mr Tchiani was holding charge of the presidential guards. That was since 2011. The irony is that the presidential guards are responsible for protecting Mr Bazoum from coups and armed insurgents. Tragically for Niger, it proved to be the story of the fence devouring the field. https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20230729-who-is-general- tchiani- head-of-niger-s-new-military-government

Elected in 2011, Mr Bazoum was Niger’s first politician to gain power since its liberation from France in 1960. Previously too, he was noteworthy as former president Mahamadou Issoufou’s confidante and his interior minister. The problem began when Mr Bazoum set out to drop Mr Tchiani as head of the presidential guards. The provocation: Mr Tchiani was a scathing critic of Mr Bazoum’s questionable strategy of fighting insurgents with US and French support.

Facts Make Claims Hollow

Mr Tchiani pre-empted his boss however. Mr Tchiani’s reason for the coup is to stop the “continuing deterioration of the security situation” in Niger. For years, Niger reeled under Islamic insurgency, launched by al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Islamic State. More so in the triangle zone within the borders separating Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Niger’s worsening economic health and growing Nigerien discontent were among his other reasons.

Was Mr Tchiani lying? The militant situation is not so bad that a coup is a necessity in Niger. More so as Niger was quite able to keep Islamic violence in check. Plus, the number of deaths in Niger was much lower than in Mali and Burkina Faso. In contrast, the military coups in these two nations did not end violence there. In fact, jihadi deaths have risen there after military takeovers. These empirical facts make Mr Tchiani’s claims and excuses hollow. https://www.vox.com/world- politics/2023/7/29/23812389/niger-coup-africa-ecowas- tchiani-bazoum

Notorious for Political Instability

Yet, the coup will have far-reaching consequences for Niger and its democracy, for West Africa and its political future. The West Africa region includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. The region is notorious for its political instability and bloody insurgencies. Add to this the worsening food situation in this former French colony, Niger was a problem even before the coup. The coup on July 26th has only compounded Niger’s crisis.

Visibly alarmed, nations of the world were quick to express their disapproval for the coup. France, Niger’s former colonial master, warned that it would not tolerate any attack on its interests. Joining Britain and the European Union, France cut off financial aid to  pauperised Niger of 26m people. The United States too is backing the ousted president. However, the mercenary Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is an exception. https://poliphoon.com/the-frankenstein- strikes-back/ He is saying the Niger coup is an anti-colonial struggle. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kremlin-expresses- concern-over-niger-after-wagner-chief-celebrates-coup-2023-07- 31/

Raising the Stakes in Niger

As demonstrators in Niger denounce France, Wagner’s presence in the Sahel region is coming into focus. The Wagner Group has a strong presence in Mali. With Russia fishing in troubled waters, by building its presence in West Africa, global implications from the Niger crisis are huge. As Russia calls for the release of Mr Bazoum, it may step into the crisis at the invitation of Mr Tchiani. When it happens, it is sure to bring in the United States and France.

Meanwhile, military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have declared that any move against Niger would be seen as war against them. This has raised the stakes in Niger as more than 2,500 US and French troops are stationed there. As regional fissures continue to widen, West Africa is lurching towards instability. This is bad news, not only for Africa, for the entire world as well, as they are all fighting fast-spreading Islamist jihadis. https://www.dw.com/en/burkina-faso-mali-warn-against- military-intervention-in-niger/a-66402134

The Poliphoon’s Last Word

If the coup succeeds, it would cripple Niger, which is already a poor country with a nascent democracy. Niger has already faced four coups. Another coup will kill its democracy once for all. As Niger has one of the biggest reserves of uranium, it is key to European energy system. Any political instability in Niger will thus hit energy stability in Europe, particularly as the Ukraine war goes on.

The Niger putsch confirms the presence of a coup belt, an unbroken line of African countries under military juntas, stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Add to this the rising threat of jihadists in arid Sahel. A fruitful coup means jihadists and putschists are on the winning side. For Niger, it would mean fighting a losing battle. As insurgents trample democracies in West Africa, leaving their economies behind in tatters, Niger is emerging fast as a worrisome symptom of a larger regional malice.