Coup in geostrategic Niger confronts France — and U.S. — with Russia’s expanding footprint

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By John J. Metzler, August 13, 2023

PARIS — The recent military coup d’etat in Niger, a vast and arid land on the southern tier of the Sahara, underscores the widening political crisis in Africa’s Sahel region, where instability, dire poverty and Islamic jihadi terrorism, have stalked the land.

Thus, when Gen. Omar Tchiani of the Presidential Guard, bedecked in ribbons and wearing a camouflage uniform, overthrew elected President Mohammed Bazoum, his move created a classic coup which would presumably soon be forgotten and overlooked internationally.

But now, there’s a new dynamic with Russian mercenaries backing the new regime posing a direct threat to French and yes, U.S. interests, thus setting the stage for an impending proxy conflict.

Gen. Omar Tchiani

France, the former colonial power in Niger and most of this region has been jolted by the events; not by yet another military overthrow but rather the new regime’s open embrace of Moscow as a political patron in a region where Paris has long held indirect political and cultural sway even sixty years after granting formal independence.  Economic development assistance, favorable trade and security deals with France formed part of the old Gaullist “FrancAfrique” post-colonial model.

First some geography; the Sahel region stretches across the underbelly of the Sahara desert from Mauritania on the Atlantic to Sudan on the Red Sea.  It comprises Muslim countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.  Mali with French and UN peacekeeping support fought a long-term conflict with Islamic rebels only to shun Paris and the UN and court Moscow.

Niger, not to be confused with Nigeria, was part of former French West Africa until 1960 when it gained independence. The twice-Texas sized land has 25 million citizens, half under the age of 15.

While the new regime in Niamey has denounced its security and defense accords with France, the Foreign Ministry in Paris refutes the claim as having no value coming from an illegitimate government. France already has 1,500 troops based in Niger reflecting long standing security accords between Paris and its former colonies.

Interestingly the United States has forces in Niger too, carrying out counter-terrorism operations at a vital drone base.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna warned, “Coups are no longer appropriate…it’s time to put an end to it.”  Nonetheless West African countries experienced five coups since 2020!

France already has 1,500 troops based in Niger reflecting long standing security accords between Paris and its former colonies. Interestingly the United States has forces in Niger too, carrying out counter-terrorism operations at a vital drone base.

Deposed democratically-elected Niger President Mohammed Bazoum was quoted as stating, “If the coup succeeds, the consequences will be devastating for my country, our region and the whole world.”

Why is this important?

Each of the five main Sahel countries have experienced military coups in recent years; But Burkina Faso, Mali and now Niger openly embrace Moscow almost echoing Cold War times where Russian flags fly in African capitals and mobs denounce France.

First; Niger’s coup d’etat underscores a dangerous instability in a region plagued by Islamic Jihadi insurgency and violence against civilians.

Second; Niger sits astride major people smuggling routes going north to Libya and Algeria. Niger borders seven countries all with porous frontiers and weak governance, offering the perfect recipe for illicit activities.  Human trafficking from West Africa flows into Europe, especially Italy and Spain.

Third; Niger remains a major Uranium producer for the French nuclear power industry.  Indeed, France produces approximately 70 percent of its domestic electricity from nuclear power.

Fourth; Vladimir Putin is opening a new low-cost military front deploying the Wagner mercenaries not only in Niger but in Mali too.  While this isn’t a long-term strategy, Russia’s moves threaten to create a new geopolitical distraction for Paris and Washington.

France already has units of the Foreign Legion 2nd Parachute regiment based in Niamey. Still given the sensitive political atmosphere and clear anti-French sentiment, it’s unlikely that France will intervene militarily with its old formula of three Parachute battalions; one to hold the airport, another for the key buildings and sites in the capital, and the third to chase down the insurgents.

Yet, President Emmanuel Macron facing strong domestic pressures and poor poll ratings could gamble on a quick military strike in Niamey against the insurgent regime.

But this isn’t the role of either Paris or Washington to send in troops to sort out the rebels. The mood is too sensitive and the stakes too high. Rather it’s best working through neighboring Nigeria and regional states via the West Africa Economic Community (ECOWAS) to achieve an African solution,  restoring ousted President Bazoum without French or American fingerprints.

Naturally that’s easier said than done given the limited potential of Nigeria for such a cross-border operation. The Sahel game continues.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]