Solely 4 days stay within the deadline established by a coalition of West African nations for Niger to return to democratic rule, a requirement that has been shunned by fellow military-led Burkina Faso and Mali, who’ve collectively warned that any intervention would quantity to a declaration of battle.
Whereas battle is way from assured, the circumstances for a significant escalation are rapidly brewing on a continent that has performed host to a number of the deadliest wars of the previous century. Such a confrontation would have huge ramifications, not just for the peoples of the Sahel area, however far past, with the potential to attract within the likes of the US, France and Russia amongst different invested powers.
And with Financial Neighborhood of West African States (ECOWAS) Chair Nigerian President Bola Tinubu dedicated to undoing Nigerien Basic Abdourahamane “Omar” Tchiani’s takeover of the neighboring nation final week, the specter of a confrontation looms heavy on the horizon.
“I feel we should not underestimate ECOWAS’ resolve to see this coup fail in Niger,” Ibrahim Maiga, senior adviser of the Worldwide Disaster Group’s Sahel Challenge, advised Newsweek.
“Tinubu has proven firmness when it comes to seeing this not undergo, and Tinubu is loyal for all of the robust choices that he took in his nation,” he added. “So, we should not underestimate his willingness to go that far, together with the usage of navy intervention.”
Maiga, who beforehand served as particular adviser to Mali’s prime minister between two navy coups that occurred in that nation in 2020 and 2021, was skeptical of Burkina Faso and Mali’s capability to withstand such an incursion by means of navy power, however he spoke to the urgency by means of which they’ve responded.
“They believe that, if ECOWAS have been to achieve reversing the coup in Niger, they’d all be underneath menace of seeing ECOWAS coming to their very own nations,” Maiga mentioned. “So, it is really for their very own safety too and for themselves.”
However, if ECOWAS fails to revive Niger’s democracy and “if the coup in Niger succeeds,” Maiga mentioned, “I feel that different nations ought to begin fearing that one thing related will occur to them.”
The excessive stakes of the state of affairs in Niger lengthen past the Sahel however its causes are in the end rooted in longstanding points at residence and within the rapid area.
Regardless of the impoverished circumstances during which a lot of the nation’s roughly 25 million folks dwell, Niger is residence to a wealth of sources, together with uranium that serves as a significant export to European nations similar to former colonizer France. Niger secured its independence in 1960 and has since skilled intermittent intervals of navy and democratic rule, the most recent of which occurred with President Mohamed Bazoum, who seems to be in custody since his ousting final week.
As is the case in lots of post-colonial states in West Africa, France has maintained robust affect in Niger, together with a navy presence. Round 1,500 French troops are stationed there as a part of ongoing counterterrorism operations towards teams energetic within the broader Sahel area, together with these tied to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
Niger’s significance to the French navy footprint in Africa has grown in recent times as French forces have been expelled from neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, in addition to from the Central African Republic. In every of those nations, rising anti-French sentiment has been matched by a swell of assist for Russia and its main personal navy firm, the Wagner Group, whose chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, welcomed Tchiani’s takeover.
Russian flags and anti-French slogans have been plentiful in Niger amongst supporters of the upheaval and the institution of the now-ruling Nationwide Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. Non-state actors have additionally seized on the discontent, with a bunch often known as the M62 Motion threatening to detain European nationals till overseas troops are expelled from the nation.
Maiga, nonetheless, asserted that Moscow’s affect was not the driving issue behind the mutiny and the rise in anti-Western sentiment. As a substitute, he pointed to elements each native and regional.
“All of it goes again to the historical past of colonialism, neocolonialism, however just lately what makes anti-French sentiment stronger is the notion that France will not be enjoying a good recreation in its battle towards terrorism,” Maiga mentioned.
Whereas Niger has had higher success within the battle towards Sahel-based insurgency than Burkina Faso and Mali, insecurity stays a significant subject within the nation despite a decade of French assist. Additionally weighing on the minds of Nigeriens is a “rising disenchantment with the democratic elite” main the nation who “haven’t given the instance of proper and efficient governance, addressing folks’s wants, performing as much as folks’s expectations,” in line with Maiga.
J. Peter Pham, an Atlantic Council fellow who served as U.S. particular envoy for the African Nice Lakes from 2018 to 2020 after which as particular envoy for Sahel up till 2021, additionally spoke to those underlying points.
He argued that, all through his tenure, he emphasised that “the disaster of the area is, in the end, one in all state legitimacy, of the social contract between residents and their governments—which, after all, implies an trustworthy effort on the a part of the latter to ship safety in its fullest sense, starting with safety from bodily assaults by jihadist insurgents—in addition to authorities forces—but additionally embracing some modicum of primary requirements of life.”
“The problem for governments is that after many years of nonperformance, the endurance of residents is exhausted and lots of, manipulated by disinformation campaigns exploiting official grievances, are prepared to embrace the mirage of a fast repair,” Pham advised Newsweek.
Like Maiga, he famous the rise in anti-French sentiment that he too partially blamed on the rise of concerted disinformation campaigns whereas additionally noting official divisions between the positions of Washington and its European allies, at the same time as they search to band collectively resist Moscow’s actions hundreds of miles away in Ukraine.
“I’ve lengthy argued that whereas the US shares values and lots of pursuits with our European allies, the latter will not be utterly aligned, particularly within the Sahel,” Pham mentioned. “We have to preserve that in thoughts and, whereas we don’t need open breaches whereas the battle continues in Ukraine, neither ought to we be hesitant to make sure that our African companions, navy forces and civilian populations, are clear on the strategic motivations and aims of our engagement.”
The U.S. additionally maintains roughly 1,000 troops in Niger, together with at an air base within the metropolis of Agadez, which has served as the middle for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) drone operations. U.S. operations within the nation drew worldwide consideration in 2017 when 4 U.S. Particular Forces and 4 Nigerien Armed Forces personnel have been killed in an ambush claimed by ISIS’ Higher Sahara department.
With worldwide tensions now overshadowing the extant jihadi menace, an AFRICOM spokesperson advised Newsweek that “AFRICOM is constant to observe the state of affairs in Niger and statements made by officers, together with statements from ECOWAS and neighboring nations.”
As protection chiefs of energetic ECOWAS member states gathered to debate their response to the state of affairs in Niger, together with the potential use of power, Niger’s former protection chief and present deputy junta chief, Main Basic Salifou Modi, who was sacked by President Bazoum in March, traveled to each Mali and Burkina Faso to shore up ties between the nations.
So, whereas Pham too doubted that Burkina Faso and Mali may muster up a critical navy problem to a possible ECOWAS intervention towards Niger given the 2 nations’ ongoing struggles with insurgency, he mentioned “they’re attempting to sign their political dedication, regardless of their lack of precise capability.”
ECOWAS does have a historical past of such interventions courting again to 1990, when the West African coalition deployed troops to defend Liberia’s authorities amid civil battle. However this marketing campaign, like people who adopted, produced blended outcomes, with Liberia returning to civil battle in 2003, drawing a second intervention. The latest navy takeovers in Burkina Faso and Mali have additional undermined ECOWAS’ report, as did the 2021 seizure of energy by the armed forces in Guinea, which, together with Algeria, has joined within the rejection of intervention in Niger.
However Ovigwe Eguegu, a coverage analyst on the Growth Reimagined assume tank, warned that “intervening has by no means been this dicey” as it’s within the case of Niger, because it marks the primary time two separate nations, themselves suspended members of ECOWAS, have vowed to fulfill such motion with power.
“Meaning that is not intervention,” Eguegu advised Newsweek. “The second that troops from Nigeria or Chad cross into Niger, we now have a battle in West Africa. These will not be militant teams, these are nations with standing armies, typical armies, so that is going to be a standard battle.”
And he warned that “West Africa, notably the Sahel area, will not be within the situation to cope with the battle,” not least due to the continued menace posed by militant teams and the dearth of capability of neighboring states to deal with the inevitable mass circulation of refugees that might outcome from such a protracted battle.
The dangers are compounded when the opportunity of overseas powers being drawn in are thought of, as was the case within the NATO-led intervention towards longtime Libyan chief Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. The next destabilization of Libya helped to domesticate fertile floor for militant actions throughout the Sahel in what Eguegu referred to as a “very devastating” occasion of which “African nations are nonetheless coping with the result.”
Tchiani referenced the instance of Libya straight on Wednesday throughout a speech during which he vowed his nation would stand robust towards those that search to “destroy” it and thanked the nations that have been standing in solidarity along with his defiance of exterior threats.
The part of great-power competitors between the West, China and Russia can also be aggravating temperaments surrounding the state of affairs in Niger.
“Due to the strain between Russia and the West now, many teams of individuals, militias and even some disgruntled navy officers see the chance for energy grabs and that’s what is going on,” Eguegu mentioned. “And the West sees this dynamic as nicely and says, ‘We now have to intervene as a result of this has to cease someplace.'”
Nonetheless, Eguegu argued there was an opportunity for a “center floor” response, however he warned that any type of intervention risked escalating within the absence of a plan “to go diplomatically and politically and interact with these putschists and attempt to clear up this subject politically.”
“The stakes are very excessive, not solely the stakes, however the collateral of this being a debacle could be very excessive,” Eguegu mentioned. “It is not even a navy downside, the difficulty is a political downside.”
To this point, Russia has not endorsed the navy takeover in Niger and has referred to as for a restoration of constitutional order. On the identical time, Moscow has warned towards any exterior intervention.
At a time when relations between the West and Russia are at their lowest level because the finish of the Chilly Battle, all through which the Soviet Union cast partnerships with anti-colonial actions throughout Africa, Moscow has sought to reinvigorate its ties on the continent, together with by means of a high-profile leaders’ summit held in Saint Petersburg late final month.
Colin P. Clarke, director of analysis at The Soufan Group who has specialised in counterterrorism analysis and testified earlier than Congress on the difficulty, warned of “the worst-case situation” ought to tensions in Niger flare up right into a “regional conflagration.”
“This might tackle the scale of a regional proxy battle, with Western nations supporting ECOWAS and Russia supporting Niger—and Burkina Faso and Mali, in the event that they joined in—with muscle from the Wagner Group,” Clarke advised Newsweek. “Civilians can be caught within the crossfire and it will vastly improve the chance of a humanitarian catastrophe, whereas additionally driving migration all through the area, placing additional stress on governments already overwhelmed by local weather change and spillover violence.”
In that occasion, “the one clear winner” recognized by Clarke “can be jihadist teams linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which might use the instability to recruit and fundraise, whereas additionally looking for to capitalize on the chaos by taking on new swaths of territory.”
And although these jihadi teams are the widespread enemy of each African nations and the nice powers vying for affect on the continent, Clarke argued it was unlikely that the likes of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Beijing would be capable to put their variations apart to pursue widespread objectives in Africa.
“What’s taking place within the Sahel will not be a sideshow to nice energy competitors, it’s nice energy competitors,” Clarke mentioned. “The occasions unfolding will not be doing so in a vacuum. The U.S., France, China, and Russia every have their very own vested pursuits in Sahelian nations.”
“However the geopolitical dynamics have modified drastically throughout the previous a number of years. Western nations have little or no affect or capability to venture energy on this area,” he added. “Russia has much more clout than it did even only a few years in the past. And, per Beijing’s typical modus operandi, the Chinese language are ready patiently, in search of alternatives to maximise their financial pursuits with out being sucked right into a navy quagmire.”
Newsweek has reached out to the African Union, ECOWAS, the Embassies of Burkina Faso, France, Mali and Nigeria to the US, the M62 Motion and the Nigerien Protection Ministry for remark.