An ongoing military coup in Niger is threatening French and American efforts to combat Sahel and North Africa-originated jihadism. Russian flags waved by local Nigerians shortly after the takeover illustrate whose side the rebels are on in the battle of influence between Moscow and the Europeans.
Niger became a key regional country for France following the 2021 military coup in Mali and the ensuing decision by Bamako to sever security ties with Paris. Having championed the battle against Islamist extremists’ groups across Mali for several years, France deployed some 4,500 troops in the north of the country in the framework of Operation Barkhane. The contingent was forced to leave Mali after the severing of security relations.
A familiar scene on a smaller scale took shape last February in Burkina Faso when the Burkinabe army announced the end of cooperation with French troops present in the country in the framework of Operation Sabre. The transition government established in Ouagadougou after the September 2022 military coup had decided to abandon the defense accords linking the two countries.
Pushed out of Mali and of Burkina Faso, Paris decided to lean on Niger (alongside its long cooperation with Djibouti) in its efforts to fight jihadist groups increasingly present in the Sahel region, in North Africa and even in central and south Africa, including al-Qaeda affiliated groups, African Islamic State branches and Boko Haram.
Having learned from its forced exit from Mali, Paris opted for a new model: military support for the Niger army. The shift meant French military training, equipment, intelligence and air resources rather than France waging a war on its own. The Niger military takeover is likely to hinder French efforts to revamp security cooperation in Africa.
Paris, Washington and Brussels consider pro-West Niger President Mohammed Bazoum one of their most important strategic allies in the region. The toppling of Bazoum, if it holds, will mean the toppling of Niger-French cooperation, with large regional repercussions.
A statement issued Friday by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna reiterated the French position against the coup and affirmed that French President Emmanuel Macron “continues his contacts with President Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president of Niger.”
The ousting of France from Mali and Burkina Faso was instigated in part by a Russian propaganda campaign and considerable efforts by Moscow to gain influence in the region. These efforts included the arrival of Wagner forces to the Central African Republic in 2017 and to Mali in 2019. Much like the Central African Republic government, the Mali junta struck an alliance with Moscow. The deal was for Wagner to offer security services to the country’s leadership in exchange for political clout and contracts to manage mines and other local natural resources.
No illusions about Russia
The military coup in Niger shifts the geopolitical influence map of Africa. While there are no indications at the moment that Moscow played an active role in the coup, diplomats in Paris and Brussels told Al-Monitor they have few illusions about what lies ahead for Niger’s alliances. The coup took place simultaneously with Russian President Putin hosting the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg and his announcement of free wheat shipments to six African nations including Mali and Burkina Faso. On Friday, Putin told the African leaders at the summit he is considering their proposal for a peace deal with Ukraine from two months ago.
The possible fall of Niger under Russian influence is likely to affect also volatile situation in neighboring Libya as well as the relations of other North Africa countries with France and the rest of Europe. For instance, Bazoum’s government had actively supported EU efforts to halt the flow of African migrants across the Mediterranean Sea, agreeing to take back hundreds of migrants held in detention centers in Libya.
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah warned after the military takeover that the destabilization of Niger will be felt far beyond the region and even the continent. Wagner forces are heavily present in eastern Libya. If Niger falls under Russian influence, the gates will surely open for the group in Niamey as well.