Niger’s Fifth Coup: A Precarious Struggle for Stability in the Sahel

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General Abdourahamane Tchiani making a public statement on national television (Image Credit: AFP)

On the 28th of July, Niger experienced its fifth coup in history, ending the epoch of relative peace that had existed for the last decade. As one of the world’s poorest nations, with a GDP per Capita of $533 and 41% of its population living in extreme poverty, Niger has shown promising economic growth at an annual rate of 4.4% over the past four years. However, the recent coup has brought the nation to an abrupt halt, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the future of Nigeriens. Many questions remain unanswered, including the events that led to the coup and its implications both locally and in the region.

Niger’s tumultuous political cycle has oscillated between military and democratic governments for the past two decades. In 1999, dissident soldiers ended the three-year military rule of Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, leading to fresh elections in 2000, where Mahamadou Tandja emerged victorious over Mahamadou Issofou. General Salou Djimbo overthrew President Tandja after the latter’s attempt to extend presidential term limits in 2010.

Issoufou won the subsequent elections and governed the country for a decade before handing power to Mohammed Bazoum in 2021. This was the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the country that received international acclaim. However, there was an attempted coup immediately after Bazoum had assumed power, which was quashed by the Presidential Guard unit under General Abdourahamane Tchiani. This latest coup led by Tchiani seems to be part of an unsettling pattern.

General Tchiani cited insecurity caused by religious extremists and lack of cooperation with neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, that are facing similar threats, as a major motivating factor behind the coup. Niger has indeed been grappling with the rise of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates, resulting in over 2,000 fatalities and displacing up to 350,000 people last year. The general accused President Bazoum of inability to deal with the rampant insurgency and placed him under house arrest. He insists that the president is in good health.

However, other issues have surfaced as possible reasons for the coup, including general disquiet about President Bazoum’s ethnic heritage. As a member of the minority Arabic community, he has been perceived as an outsider by some elements within the military establishment. The prospect of a major shakeup within the establishment, which could have led to General Tchiani’s dismissal, has also been cited as a possible source of tension.  What is more, the presence of foreign military bases housing French and American troops in Niger has caused unease, with some viewing it as an infringement of their country’s sovereignty.

The international community, including regional organizations like ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), swiftly called for the immediate restoration of President Bazoum and his government. ECOWAS imposed sanctions on the Niger, including freezing the state assets, suspending all financial transactions, cancelling the issuance of a new sovereign bond, and instituting a trade embargo. The organization even issued a one-week ultimatum for the coup to end, warning of possible military intervention. The United States and European Union (EU) also suspended aid to Niger, adding pressure on the junta. France has since started to evacuate its citizens and those from the EU  willing to leave the country after the junta closed all borders and declared a no-fly zone over the country, effectively trapping people within the nation.

Various regional and international actors are actively seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Niger. Chad’s military leader, Mahamat Idriss Deby, has reached out to the new military government, seeking dialogue to release President Bazoum and end the standoff. Meanwhile, ECOWAS’ general chiefs have convened in Abuja to explore potential solutions to the stalemate, while France has not ruled out military intervention to secure the President’s release.

The coup in Niger poses a significant challenge to democracy in the Sahel region. The country’s stability is crucial in addressing the recurring issue of military governments in neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan. Moreover, the erosion of democratic gains made in Niger, especially after the peaceful power transition in 2021, may exacerbate political instability and expose millions to displacement and loss of life. Given Niger’s status as a major uranium exporter, it could become a focal point in a power struggle involving various international actors pursuing their interests. Additionally, concerns regarding the presence of the Wagner Group in the country have been raised, as the mercenary force fights extremists in the region but faces accusations of advancing Russian interests in exchange for its services.

The Nigerien coup serves as a litmus test for democracy in the country. The nation’s stability holds the key to addressing its sociopolitical and economic development and fostering lasting democratic ideals. Indeed, this is a pivotal moment that will impact not only the future of Nigeriens, but also the entire Sahel’s political landscape.

Written by Gathieri Kahuko

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