Niger is one of the West’s last allies in the Sahel region.
PARIS — An ongoing military coup in Niger is threatening to destabilize one of the last Western allies in Africa’s Sahel region.
On Wednesday night, Niger’s top military brass announced on national television they had overthrown the country’s president Mohamed Bazoum, who was democratically elected in 2021.
“We, the Defense and Security Forces, united within the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, have decided to put an end to the regime you know,” Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane said, according to Agence France-Presse. “This follows the continuing deterioration of the security situation, and poor economic and social governance,” he added.
A change of regime in Niger could be a blow to the West — and more specifically to France and the United States, who have strong ties to the West African nation.
For both Paris and Washington, Niger is a strategic country in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Viewed as “one of the most reliable U.S. allies” against al Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram, it’s also one of the last Sahel nations that hasn’t deepened cooperation with Russia to the West’s detriment.
According to Le Monde, there are no obvious signs of Moscow’s footprint in the Niger coup, which is mostly driven by internal matters.
However the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit led by Yevgeny Prigozhin that is active in Africa, claimed credit for the coup Thursday.
“What happened is the struggle of the people of Niger against the colonialists,” Prigozhin said in a voice message posted in a Wagner-branded Telegram channel. “This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists.”
“This shows the effectiveness of Wagner,” Prigozhin continued. “A thousand Wagner fighters are able to restore order and destroy terrorists, preventing them from harming the civilian population of states.”
The same channel also posted a photo of Prigozhin shaking hands with an unidentified man on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit being hosted in St Petersburg by President Vladimir Putin. The posts appeared intended as a demonstration of strength by Prigozhin, who led a mutiny last month in which his troops marched to within 200 km of Moscow before standing down.
For France, Bazoum’s forced departure would mark yet another setback in the region, only months after French troops had to withdraw from neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, effectively ending the Barkhane operation.
Paris, whose influence in West Africa has been significantly waning in recent years, has reportedly deployed about 1,500 French soldiers in Niger. The government in Niger has expressed satisfaction at the bilateral military agreement. The country was supposed to be a “laboratory” for a new type of military relationship based on equal-footing cooperation between France — a former colonial power — and African governments.
The French foreign affairs ministry issued a statement overnight expressing “concerns” about the events, adding it “firmly condemns any attempt to seize power by force.” The ministry also released a warning message for French citizens living in Niger, urging them to limit movements and follow safety instructions.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bazoum overnight and expressed the U.S.’s “unwavering” support. “The strong U.S. economic and security partnership with Niger depends on the continuation of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law and human rights,” according to a statement.
For France, the coup’s timing is challenging, as French President Emmanuel Macron is on a five-day visit to the Indo-Pacific region with his Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu and most of his staff. Blinken is currently also in the region.
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