West Africa is no stranger to coups, yet the ousting of Niger’s democratic government in July has prompted a regional and global response not yet seen in the region despite similar events in recent years. Richard Gardiner writes that Niger’s geopolitical and commercial importance, compared to its neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, raises the stakes for a resolution to the deepening crisis.
On 26 July, members of Niger’s Garde Présidentielle (Presidential Guard, GP) staged a military coup and ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. Although this marked the sixth coup in West Africa in the past three years, the events in Niger have triggered a more robust international and regional response than reactions to other recent regime changes. The strategic importance of Niger from a political, security and commercial perspective underscores the perils of prolonged instability in the country for West African states and international partners.
Niger's strategic importance stems from a confluence of domestic, regional and global factors. Its proximity to Mali and Burkina Faso — the epicentres of Islamist militancy in the Sahel — along with President Bazoum’s close relations with the West, has made Niger a strategic partner for US and French regional counter-terrorism initiatives in recent years. Furthermore, Niger's vast natural resources and its previous commitment to addressing pervasive human trafficking through its northern regions have led to robust global trade ties and cooperation, particularly with Western and European partners. Instability in the country is therefore worrisome, particularly with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc already facing the recent trend of coups d'état in West Africa and the longer term implications of such political upheaval on the bloc’s cohesion.
Regional stability under threat
With a band of military juntas extending from Guinea in the west to Niger in the east, ECOWAS’s ability to serve as a regional guarantor of democracy and stability has been undermined. While the union continues efforts to restore democratic rule through diplomatic means, the option of military intervention remains on the table. However, discussions over the correct course of action have exposed the bloc’s limitations to respond to crises within its own backyard. Domestic considerations have hindered consensus, such as in Nigeria, where President Bola Tinubu's efforts to build support for military intervention have been met with strong local resistance, particularly from northern constituencies due to their affinity with and proximity to Niger. Meanwhile, Burkina Faso and Mali — both suspended ECOWAS members — have threatened to support Niger against any ECOWAS intervention, an outcome which could result in a regional conflict.
"Prolonged instability within Niger threatens to create domestic security vacuums, which would likely be filled by transnational Islamist militant groups and trafficking syndicates alike."
If diplomatic efforts fail, the ramifications of either the junta, known as the Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie (CNSP), remaining in power over the coming years or ECOWAS deploying to Niger would be profound. If the CNSP retains control, it will likely embolden the juntas within the region as their alliance grows while weakening the collective authority of ECOWAS. Conversely, a military intervention risks a drawn-out conflict in Niger, likely resulting in significant flows of refugees into neighbouring countries that are ill-equipped to manage such an influx. Additionally, prolonged instability within Niger threatens to create domestic security vacuums, which would likely be filled by transnational Islamist militant groups and trafficking syndicates alike.
Successful military coups in ECOWAS since 2020
Islamist militants waiting in the wings
Adding to these concerns is the current uncertainty over US and French counter-terrorism operations based in Niger, which have been aimed at stemming ongoing Islamist insurgencies in Mali and Burkina Faso. Both the US and France have suspended their operations in the country, and with growing domestic anti-France sentiment, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Niger will remain the French centre for regional counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel. While there has not been any overt anti-US sentiment on display at recent demonstrations in Niamey or from the junta itself, Washington would find it difficult to justify any long-term commitment to the new military regime. By permanently halting counter-terror activities, both the US and France have much to lose. Not only has the US played a pivotal role in training Nigerien forces, but it has also utilised the country as a base for intelligence operations from its drone facility in Agadez, which is the only one of its kind in the region. Similarly, Niger has served as a base for French operations since the end of Operation Barkhane in Mali following a collapse in relations with Bamako. The potential departure of the US and France would likely stretch Niger's capacity to counter two Islamic State-led insurgencies in the western and south-eastern parts of the country to its limit, likely resulting in a further spread of Islamist militancy in the region.
Deepening insecurity, political instability and deteriorating relations with external partners are also likely to have negative consequences on the commercial environment in Niger. Border closures have already played havoc with cross-border trade; road haulage from Benin has ground to a halt, while Niger and Nigeria stand to lose over USD 200 million in annual bilateral trade. Yet the impact of these events goes far beyond West Africa, driven primarily by Niger's significant natural resources, including its uranium reserves. These reserves hold a crucial position in European energy supplies, especially as the EU strives to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels. France, which receives 15 percent of all uranium imports from Niger, has stated it has enough reserves for another two years. However, the current political situation, combined with an increasingly hostile environment for foreign mining companies in Niger, has the potential to impact long-term yields.
Similarly, Benin has commented that the ECOWAS sanctions are not expected to impact short-term operations of the Niger-Benin oil pipeline, running from eastern Niger to the Benin coast, which is due to be completed by the end of 2023. Yet, the long-term outlook is more uncertain, especially considering the escalating tensions between Porto-Novo and Niamey and the potential for the CNSP to boost its stake in the mining and extractive sectors, as the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have already done.
As the new junta establishes its hold on power in Niamey, the restoration of democratic rule in Niger grows more challenging. Pressure is building on ECOWAS not only to ensure the stability and longevity of its own union, but from external partners with a vested interest in Niger. US secretary of State Anthony Blinken has mounted the pressure on President Tinubu to ensure the release of President Bazoum and a return to democracy. However, with the CNSP having shown little interest in making significant concessions, the window for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis is closing. While the coup has already had a profound regional impact, the long-term ramifications have yet to be felt, placing into sharp focus the need for a swift resolution to a deepening crisis.