Photo: Supporters of Niger’s junta gather for a protest in Niamey, Niger, on Aug. 3
by Marco Lopez
NIGER, Thurs. Aug. 10, 2023
On July 26th, 2023, the President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum was detained by his presidential guard. A military junta formed in the uranium-rich West African state toppled the government in a coup led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani. On Wednesday, ahead of an emergency meeting being held by the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) – the junta leaders announced the formation of an interim government of 21 ministers. Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, a former minister, was named Prime Minister of the interim government, according to a report by Aljazeera.
With this coup, Niger, a former colony of France, joins a block of West African countries now referred to as the “African Coup Belt”. The pro-western governments of all these countries, which include Sudan, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and now Niger have been removed by military coups. With the exception of Sudan, all these nations were colonized by France. They have now displayed the long-growing disenchantment with the resource extraction and neocolonial rule that has persisted within their countries.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank. According to the World Nuclear Association, it is also the seventh largest producer of uranium – the radioactive metal used for nuclear energy and treating cancer. It is the second largest supplier of the precious metal to its former colonizer, France, which sources 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy according to a Le Monde report. Its dependence on Niger’s uranium goes without saying. Reports that Niger has announced a halt in exports of gold and uranium to France and the US have been fact-checked by Reuters as false.
According to Le Monde, the French President, Emmanuel Macron stated in a press conference that, “Any attack against France and its interests will not be tolerated.”
Yesterday, a faction of the military junta broke off, announcing its support for the reinstatement of President Bazoum, who is presently still being held captive, along with his family at his residence. The faction, considered the first signs of West backed intervention, is headed by former rebel Rhissa Ag Boula, and has formed the Council of Resistance for the Republic according to Daily Post of Nigeria. The group has said that they support ECOWAS’ bid to restore constitutional order.
The 15-country West African organization has cut Niger off from the regional block, imposing sanctions on the already suffering people, according to a report from Aljazeera. Its neighbor and largest supplier of electricity, Nigeria, has turned off their supplies – leaving a large portion of the nation in darkness.
According to a report from VOA News, the sanctions from the neighboring countries have been the most stringent so far, and include the suspension of all commercial transactions with Niger, freezing of its state assets in the regional bank, freezing assistance of government and state ran entities in commercial banks, and suspending all financial assistance with the regional development bank. About 40% of the nation’s national 2023 budget, or about $2.2 billion was expected to come from external partners.
The European Union, one of the biggest supporters, has suspended partnership and cooperation on security. France suspended development aid and budgeted support to its former colony “with immediate effect” according to officials. They are demanding a return to constitutional order. The US has paused the provision of humanitarian and security aid valued at more than $100 million following the junta’s takeover. Canada has suspended its direct development assistance and expressed support for the ECOWAS efforts. The World Bank has also suspended distributions to the government until further notice.
ECOWAS issued a deadline for the reinstatement of the government and president by Sunday, August 6, which, according to the Guardian, was ignored by the junta leaders. ECOWAS said that military intervention would be an option. But France24 reported today that ahead of the emergency summit, its chair, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said, “We prioritize diplomatic negotiation and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach.”
A report from the Guardian stated that coup leaders have warned that France is “looking for ways and means to intervene militarily in Niger.” The US and France have been working closely with ECOWAS to restore President Bazoum, and according to Aljazeera the “West African defense chiefs have drawn up a plan for military action if Niger’s coup is not overturned.”
This may be easier said than done. The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali have released a joint statement citing that “any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.”
With the formation of the interim government, there is no indication that the coup leaders will back down from their plans to take control of the country away from the hands of pro-western interests. Further complicating the picture is the influence of Russia in the Sahel Region. A concern now is whether or not the Russian mercenary group will join the fray. According to the Associated Press, one of the coup leaders, General Salifou Mody, in a visit to neighbor Mali in early August, met with a representative of the Wagner group.
Both Burkina Faso and Mali have ousted the French military from their territories. The Russian private mercenary group Wagner is active in Mali and it is believed that the group will soon be in Burkina Faso. The fears follow suit for Niger. Pundits on the ground in Niger see the rejection of ECOWAS’ demand to reinstate constitutional order, and subsequent courting of the Wagner group as exchanging one evil for the other.
Both the US and France have stated that there is no indication that the Wagner group was involved in the coup which ousted the government in Niger, but US Secretary-General, Antony Blinken has said that the group is “taking advantage of the instability.”
Niger is seen as the West’s last reliable counter-terrorism partner to the US and other Western countries. The US has two drone bases and about 1,000 troops in the country, and France has about 1,500 troops deployed there. The country’s reputation as a hub for anti-terror operations has grown following the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. The French troops stationed in these countries were expelled to bases in Niger and have since been similarly expelled.
Given Niger’s vast uranium, gold, and untapped oil deposits, and its key geographic location within the Sahel Region of West Africa, the response of the so-called first-world countries in light of the coup is expected. But to many on the continent, the pro-Western rhetoric promoting democracy is hypocritical.
The US and European countries have in the past legitimized a number of coups across the Global South in order to advance their economic and geopolitical interest. There are a number of examples of democratically elected governments led by anti-colonial leaders that have been overthrown by Western powers. Close to home, the ousting and exile of Guatemala president Jacobo Arbenz is well remembered. In Africa, the kidnapping and murder of the founder and duly elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba was helped by a Belgium-sponsored coup with assistance from the CIA under orders from then US president Dwight Eisenhower.
Niger has said that it wants to go down the same route as Mali and Burkina Faso, according to reports from Aljazeera. Those countries have instituted transitional governments following the respective coups and have instituted a transition period, after which time democratic elections are scheduled. They have been suspended from ECOWAS, but have not received the threat of military aggression as in the case of Niger.
The US and other Western countries have been less responsive to other coups on the African continent as well, comparing their response to the coup in Niger. The poverty-stricken country’s importance to the global uranium market and the first-world’s acute reliance on the metal has led some humanitarian groups to believe that it could result in a proxy war between the West and Niger to ensure that a pro-western government remains in power.
While most of Niger is still without electricity even with the supply from Nigeria, the country’s uranium is used to power one in every three light fixtures in France, according to an Oxfam International Report. According to Euratom the country supplied 25.4 percent of the EU uranium supplies in 2022.
The emergency summit closed on Thursday with ECOWAS’ Chair, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu stating that “no option had been taken off the table,” including the use of force as a last resort. According to live reports from France24, the West African block has activated a standby force for possible intervention in Niger.
In an interview with the Nigerian press following the Summit in Abuja, President Bola Tinubu said, “This is a time for public diplomacy. It’s not a matter that we leave to governments. All Nigerians, all Nigeriens need to be involved to find a solution that works for Africa, for Niger, for Nigeria, and for humanity.”