In the last days of July 2023, a successful military coup ousted Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically-elected president of Niger, a West African country that shares a border with Nigeria, Chad, Benin, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Libya. Bazoum was elected in 2021 as Niger’s tenth president. The coup, which surprised many, continues the apparent string of insurgencies in many African states in response to frustrations with perceived bad leadership, foreign exploitation, and economic hardship. Within the last few years, three of the seven countries bordering Niger (Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali) have experienced military coups resulting in a change of government. Mali alone has had three such coups within the last decade; Burkina Faso, two; and Libya has remained unstable since the ouster of Gadaffi in 2011.
Along with the popular discontent that helped each of these coups succeed, these countries were also all once colonies of France, and the relationship between the former colonial master and many of its ex-colonies in Africa has soured over the years. This context is important in understanding why the political discontent in these countries seems to manifest in the rhetoric of anti-imperialism against Europe, the West, and foreigners in general (although Russia’s presence in the conflict is routinely tolerated or excused, presumably because of Russia’s enmity toward NATO and “the West”). Russia’s Wagner Group has been implicated in the conflicts in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and other African countries, where they dominate the extraction industries and worse.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is an economic bloc of all the countries in West Africa, including some of those currently led by successful coupists. In response to the coup in Niger, ECOWAS first released a statement expressing solidarity with the ousted president, promising to hold the coupists accountable for his safety. They were given one week in which to release President Bazoum and restore the country to democracy, or else face consequences, including the use of force. That ultimatum has now passed.
While the ultimatum lasted, Nigeria’s new president Bolá Ahmed Tinúbú sent a request to the national assembly requesting permission to send Nigerian troops to Niger, raising fears that Nigeria was contemplating an invasion—either on its own, or in combination with ECOWAS—with a view to forcibly removing the coupists from power. According to reports, the request has so far been denied.
Nigeria is the biggest economy in ECOWAS, and commands the biggest military muscle in the region. It shares one of Niger’s longest borders, and stands to risk a lot if its neighbour falls into instability. The Boko Haram crisis has persisted along the borders of Nigeria with Chad and Niger over the last couple of years.
So, a war appears to be brewing.
In the last couple of days, the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea—like Niger, West African countries and ex-colonial subjects of France—declared that any military attacks on Niger would be considered an attack on them, requiring a commensurate military response. Open threats of military retaliation like these are unprecedented in modern West Africa, and they show the degradation of the once-powerful allegiance between former colonial states in Africa, the mood of the people in response to foreign interventions, real or perceived, and the general populist reorientation that, as in many parts of the world, strong men in military uniforms have exploited to their political advantage by channeling past revolutionary heroes, populist catchphrases, and a pretended indignation and sympathy for the people’s economic hardships.
The military leader of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traoré, who pledged total allegiance to Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last week, casts himself as a populist, a reincarnation of Thomas Sankara—the country’s revolutionary folk hero who was murdered in a western-led coup in 1987—even if he doesn’t share Sankara’s charm.
France, which is Niger’s largest importer of uranium, did not entirely rule out the possibility of its own military strike in Niger. Victoria Nuland, the US diplomat and apologist for American interventionist policies, visited Niger recently, and seems to have hinted at a US military intervention after being rebuffed there. Wagner, and Russia’s propagandists, have raised the possibility of their own entrance into the fray (as if they don’t have enough on their hands); indeed the coupists in Niger, along with their allies, have formally asked for Wagner’s help. Al-Qaeda, through its local proxy called the Islamic State in West Africa continues to operate there, too.
There are increasingly compelling reasons to find diplomatic solutions to the current crisis, instead of a military one. To begin with, the coup in Niger seems to have popular support. A war among West African countries may not end soon, and will cause bad blood that will take decades to heal. And then, there’s an angle of the ethnic allegiances underlying this coup that hasn’t been talked about enough. Northern Nigeria (and much of its military) is still home to a lot of Hausa soldiers, who might be persuaded to find common cause with supporters of the coup in Niger, which is led by Hausa soldiers. This Hausa-Fulani schism is also behind much of the Boko Haram crisis, making the current conflict substantially more complex than the surface tensions suggest. Any solution that doesn’t address these deep-seated cultural grievances risks worsening them. There are economic reasons to consider, as well.
In the end, whether the new military government returns power to a democratically elected person will be up to Nigeriens themselves. This outcome is both proper, and desirable. But from the looks of it, the right conditions haven’t yet emerged. What is to be done about the philosophical question of a people’s popular support for a military junta over their own democratically elected representatives? Why does it fall to a country’s neighbours to force the appropriate system of government on such a people, as ECOWAS seems to believe? How do you avoid the image that this paints in the mind of the people—that “democracy” can only be ensured through the imperialist military interventions of the larger powers of the West, intent on keeping their exploitative proboscis in the life vein of African natural resources? If the coupists succeed, by themselves, in their stated goals of making Niger a better country to live in, the Nigeriens will not be compelled to seek a different way. But if they see Wagner and Russia turn Niger’s resources into another pipeline to support Putin’s imperialist dreams, while ordinary Nigeriens continue to suffer, they will understand that a true revolution doesn’t exchange one vampire for another.
History has shown that a military regime is by its nature exploitative and unworkable, and so far this pattern seems unlikely to change—not because the US, France, or Nigeria have imposed their will by the force of arms, but because the reality shows itself in due course.
The saber rattlers in the region and elsewhere seem to deliberately downplay the likelihood of a sustained crisis that will surely spread beyond West Africa, with incalculable losses of life, should ECOWAS or any other foreign powers or their proxies go through with their threats of military intervention in Niger. Media, at home and abroad, has reduced the conversation ,yet again, to a simplistic fight between the authoritarianism of military coupists and the democracy-seeking virtue of their neighbours. It’s certainly not that simple.
Democracy can only be fuelled by the desire of a people to govern themselves in their own way — an ideal that has often eluded African governments because of constant foreign interventions, and the greed of outsiders happy to siphon Africa’s natural resources for profit. A military intervention here, even if it succeeds in its goal of “restoring democracy”, will not imbue the restored administration with legitimacy. No one likes a weakling who has been imposed on a nation by outsiders. Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine is a clear example of the hubris that might motivate the dream of a military solution here. But the result is the same: more deaths and years of instability. Apparently, we haven’t yet learnt the right lesson.
The most terrible outcome of this successful coup cannot be worse than a foreign military intervention that turns a whole region on itself for decades to come. Especially when it’s not even clear that such proposed foreign military interventions are not fueled by ego, greed, or imperialist dreams that the coupists highlight every day, even as an excuse for their own ambitions.