On July 26, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, the commander of Niger’s presidential guard, launched an “anti-republican demonstration” against Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Hours later, Air Force Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane announced Bazoum’s ouster on Niger’s state television channel and declared the formation of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) military junta. While Bazoum refused to resign from office and defended his legitimacy on Twitter, CNSP spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane declared on July 28 that Tchiani was the new leader of Niger.
Niger’s coup d’état, which was its first since President Mamadou Tandja was ousted in February 2010, followed similar events in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad and underscored the collapse of democracy in the Sahel region. Even though the Niger coup could have palpable negative implications for West Africa’s security, international reactions to Tchiani’s seizure of power varied considerably.
The United States and France condemned the coup and reaffirmed Bazoum’s legitimacy, while the African Union issued Niger’s junta a 15-day ultimatum to dissolve its regime. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also condemned the coup, possibly because it wanted to dispel rumors of its support for Tchiani in regional media outlets. Other regional powers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, released milder statements of “concern.” China’s statement on the coup had a similarly neutral tone and emphasized the safety of its nationals.
Russia’s seemingly sympathetic reaction to Tchiani’s coup was a striking outlier. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov vaguely supported the restoration of “constitutional order” in Niger, he accused the U.S. government of double standards for condemning Tchiani’s coup and supporting the February 2014 “coup” in Ukraine that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, Despite his recent feud with the Kremlin, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin described the coup as a victory against Western colonialism and offered the services of his private military contractors to the Nigerien military.
Niger’s new junta is unlikely to follow the hard-line anti-Western course of Mali’s and Burkina Faso’s military regimes. The United States and France view Niger as their last major foothold in the Sahel, and the Wagner Group’s poor counterterrorism track record in Mali could dissuade Tchiani from accepting Prigozhin’s overtures. The commercial interests of China and regional powers in MENA and Africa favor stability in Niger and do not hinge on the nature of the regime in Niamey. A policy of pragmatic engagement by key partners, which mirrors France’s historical alignment with Chad’s late dictator, Idriss Déby, or Washington’s cooperation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, could allow Tchiani’s regime to escape international isolation.
In the immediate aftermath of Tchiani’s coup, the prospects for continued Western counterterrorism cooperation with Niger appear bleak. Much like the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, the CNSP cited the “continuous deterioration of the security situation” as a justification for the coup. EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell announced an “immediate cessation of budget support” for Niger and the suspension of “cooperation actions in the security field.” France mirrored the EU’s decision by suspending development assistance to Niger. This plunges the future of the 50-100 EU troops in Niger, which provide logistical aid and infrastructure development assistance, into a state of uncertainty.
While France has not threatened to withdraw its 1,500-strong force, which included forces that were previously deployed to Mali, it has evacuated some European citizens from Niger. To express solidarity with Niger’s legitimate authorities, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bazoum on July 30. Blinken subsequently warned that “hundreds of millions of dollars” of U.S. security and economic assistance to Niger was at risk if “democratic governance” was not restored. The 1,000-troop U.S. contingent in Niger is now confined to a U.S. base in Agadez.
Notwithstanding these negative signals, a complete breakdown of Niger’s security cooperation with the West is not inevitable. Tchiani’s coup is principally motivated by personal ambition rather than ideology, and pursuing a hard-line anti-Western stance could create internal backlash. For the first two years of Bazoum’s presidency, Tchiani was a loyal supporter of the Nigerien government. Tchiani thwarted a coup attempt by Nigerien Air Force Capt. Sani Gourouza against Bazoum in March 2021 and was later decorated by Bazoum for his “spirit of devotion, self-sacrifice, availability and loyalty.” Tchiani’s coup was likely a reaction to the threat of his dismissal. The 62-year-old general was reportedly at risk of being ousted and faced discontent from fellow members of Niger’s presidential guard.
Tchiani’s controversial reputation remains a liability for him as Niger’s de facto leader. Tchiani’s close alignment with Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who elevated him to the rank of general in 2018, continues to polarize opinion, and there is rumored infighting among the coup plotters. As Mali and Burkina Faso experienced successive coups, the risk of infighting triggering a second coup is high. The prospect of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervention in Niger, which was condemned by CNSP-aligned Brig. Gen. Mohamed Toumba as a “plan of aggression,” looms large. On July 30, ECOWAS gave Tchiani one week to cede power, imposed financial sanctions on Niger, and did not rule out the “use of force.” Due to these risks, Tchiani could err on the side of caution and avoid inflammatory moves, such as an expulsion of Western forces, that could backfire.
The potential for the Wagner Group to replace Western forces should also not be overstated. After Niger authorized the deployment of foreign counterterrorism forces in April 2022, anti-French organizations like the M62 Movement began staging protests in Niamey. A September 2022 demonstration, which drew several hundred participants, featured the slogans “Barkhane Out,” “Down with France,” and “Long Live Putin and Russia.” These protests were fanned by Russian disinformation, which alleged that France was plundering Niger’s vast uranium reserves to shore up its electrical supplies. On July 30, thousands of pro-coup demonstrators with Russian flags marched through the streets of Niamey and attempted to storm the French Embassy.
Despite these displays of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia remains an unknown quantity for Nigerien officials. Aside from an open-ended August 2017 military cooperation agreement, which includes a counterterrorism provision, Niger has few security links with Russia. The Wagner Group’s poor track record in Mali, which includes a sustained uptick in civilian casualties, contrasts with Niger’s reduction of political violence in 2022. Although the CNSP has falsely claimed that Niger’s security situation is deteriorating, these trends could convince Tchiani to follow Burkina Faso junta leader Ibrahim Traoré’s path of courting Russia as a strategic partner but not accepting the Wagner Group.
If Tchiani does not embrace an overtly anti-Western agenda or accept Wagner Group contractors, France, the United States, and the EU could resume security cooperation with Niger. Unlike its past campaigns in Mali, France’s counterterrorism operations in Niger rely on local commanders. Its contingent merely provides equipment, training, and intelligence support. As France has cooperated closely with figures in Tchiani’s coalition, its counterterrorism operations could continue with relatively few disruptions.
The U.S. wishes to maintain its two drone bases in Niger, which allow it to collect intelligence across the Sahel and Eastern Africa, and its training and counterterrorism cooperation with the Nigerien military ensure the survival of these facilities. The EU also views instability in Niger as detrimental to its interests, as it was a critical transit hub for African migrants to Europe. In response to soaring migration rates, Niger outlawed many venues of northward migration in 2015 and coordinated closely with the EU against human trafficking. Pragmatic engagement with Niger’s junta could be viewed as a lesser evil than a security vacuum that causes jihadism or illegal migration to spiral.
Regardless of how France and the United States decide to approach Niger’s junta, other external powers will likely stay put in Niger. China is the second largest investor in the Nigerien economy after France and has recently taken steps to expand its presence. The Chinese state-run oil company Sinopec seeks to complement China National Petroleum Corporation’s traditional dominance in Niger’s oil sector. Over the past month, Chinese business leaders have discussed developing the 1,200-mile Benin-Niger oil pipeline and the resumption of uranium mining in Niger after a nine-year hiatus. Early indications suggest that China will not abandon these projects. Zhang Yongpeng, an expert at Beijing’s Taihe analytical center, contended that the only scenario that would precipitate a Chinese departure is a Sudan-style civil war and expressed confidence in the ability of Chinese companies to weather a lower-intensity conflict.
Middle Eastern regional powers will likely mirror China’s approach to the Niger coup. Since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Niamey in January 2013, Turkey has deepened its security cooperation with Niger. In July 2020, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signed a military cooperation agreement wth Issoufou and transferred six Bayraktar TB2 drones and Hurkus trainer aircraft in late 2021. Turkey also harbors aspirations of building an air base in Niger to house its military equipment.
Niger’s relations with the Arab world are likely to weather the coup. To counter Turkish influence in the Sahel, Egypt has provided training and funding to Niger’s armed forces. On July 8, Egypt provided Niger with a “large consignment” of military equipment, such as BRMD-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles and M-30 howitzers. The UAE’s security cooperation with Niger has diminished since it scaled back support for Libyan National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar in neighboring Libya in 2021. However, Niger fits into its $19 billion West African investment strategy, which was unveiled in 2014. This strategy is driven by two UAE-based construction companies, Trojan General Contracting and Essar Projects, and seeks to build railways, roads, bridges, airports, and thermal power plants across the region.
Saudi Arabia has also invested in major projects, such as the Kandadji Dam and construction of local primary schools, as it seeks to limit the scope of Niger’s economic cooperation with Riyadh’s rival, Iran. Former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with senior Nigerien officials in October 2017 and May 2019 to bolster bilateral trade. Since then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s April 2013 visit to Niamey and Tehran’s concurrent decision to construct two new uranium mines, speculation has persisted about Iranian uranium purchases from Niger.
While Niger’s near-term political trajectory is shrouded in uncertainty, rampant instability would be detrimental to the interests of every major external stakeholder. These financial interests and security imperatives could convince outside powers to strike a Faustian bargain with Niger’s junta, while pressuring Tchiani to accept a framework for a transition to civilian rule. Tchiani now has a choice whether to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy that balances rival powers or follow the pro-Russian path of junta leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso.