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Niger coup: France and Russia's battle for influence

Niger coup: France and Russia's battle for influence in the Sahel
7 min read
03 August, 2023
Analysis: Amid the emergence of new leaders fostering ties with Russia following coups in the Sahel, the future of French operations in Niger and relations with the region appear bleak.

The battle for influence in Africa between France and Russia could escalate following the coup in Niger that removed Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum from power.

While the coup's direct causes were not linked to Bazoum's cooperation with France, the prevailing national sentiment against collaboration with the French and the demand for Russian intervention has led many to believe otherwise.

Russia, on its part, will seize any opportunity to undermine France in a new country, just as it did in Mali, Burkina Faso, and to a lesser extent Guinea. Although there is no concrete evidence of Russia's involvement in the coup, Russia will likely exploit the situation to its advantage.

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The coup in Niger was instigated by “un mouvement d’humeur,” a change in mood within the ranks of the Presidential Guard, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who appointed himself as the president of the transitional council.

This shift in mood was directly linked to the policies and decisions made by Bazoum before the coup, which resulted in reducing financial benefits for the presidential guard.

Shortly after President Mohamed Bazoum's arrest, the transitional council announced on Nigerien state television that they had acted due to the deteriorating security situation and mismanagement in the country.

African coups open doors to Russia

Russia will not necessarily intervene directly to protect the coup leaders in Niger against the European and African backlash or to portray them as heroes. The other coup leaders in the Sahel region, such as those in Mali and Burkina Faso, can handle that task and further provide support and legitimacy to General Abdourahamane Tchiani and his comrades.

On 2 August 2023, Assimi Goita, the president of Mali and a coup leader, welcomed General Salifou Mody, one of the coup leaders from Niger. General Mody brought a message from General Tchiani, and they discussed strategies to prevent potential military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Both Mali and Burkina Faso have refused any military action against the Nigerien junta and have spoken against ECOWAS sanctions.

Between 2020 and 2023, the Sahel witnessed six coups: two in Mali, two in Burkina Faso, one in Guinea, and the most recent one in Niger. All of these coups were triggered by similar factors, namely the deteriorating security situation and mismanagement of state affairs.

Although there is no concrete evidence of Russia's involvement in the coup, Russia will likely exploit the situation to its advantage. [Getty]

The coups led to the removal of old regimes that had mutual interests in maintaining a French and European presence in their respective countries. In Mali, for instance, ‘Operation Serval’ and ‘Operation Barkhane’ were initiated to assist the weak Malian military in countering terrorism, but this assistance also gave the military leaders more influence.

The consecutive coups brought nationalist leaders to power who sought to change the dynamics and distance themselves from French influence.

In Mali, the coup leaders discreetly contracted a Russian private military company, Wagner, to help secure their countries. Wagner's deployment eventually led to the withdrawal of European and French forces, including Operation Barkhane and the Takuba Task Force, to avoid unnecessary conflicts between Wagner and the peacekeeping forces, such as the British contingent, as previously seen in Syria.

In Burkina Faso, the French presence was not as pronounced as in Mali, but the coups and the rise of the military junta fuelled growing anti-French sentiments and calls for Russian intervention.

Diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and France also soured, leading the Burkinabe government to request the replacement of France's ambassador, Luc Hallade. Burkinabe protestors have attacked the French embassy and the Kamboinsin camp, with some carrying Russian flags.

Eventually, in February 2023, the French announced the termination of its military ‘Operation Sabre’ and the withdrawal of approximately 400 French troops.

ECOWAS African leaders, dissatisfied with the coups, made allegations of Wagner's presence in Burkina Faso. In December 2022, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo claimed that Burkina Faso had agreed to recruit the Russian Wagner group, following Mali's lead.

Akufo-Addo's statement, made during the Africa-US summit, put an end to months of speculation about Burkina Faso's agreement with Wagner. According to Akufo-Addo, the Burkinabe leadership allocated a mine to Wagner as a form of payment.

This claim was unsurprising, considering previous uncorroborated reports that mentioned the arrival of around a dozen Wagner personnel in Burkina Faso.

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Bazoum: The last reliable ally for France in the Sahel

Bazoum was highly valuable for the French, given tense relations between Western countries and the coup governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, making cooperation with Niger a necessity for the European forces.

After the withdrawal of 'Operation Barkhane' and the 'Takuba Task Force' from Mali, and later the 'Sabre Operation' from Burkina Faso, Bazoum offered to host these forces and expressed interest in cooperating with them to combat terrorism in his country.

French President Emmanuel Macron relied on Niger's welcoming attitude to host these forces and continue their operations in the Sahel. Niger has become a concentration of foreign forces in the Sahel region, akin to Djibouti in East Africa.

Bazoum has never turned down military assistance from foreign countries; instead, he accepted aid and presence from the US and other European nations and even purchased a number of drones from Turkey.

Macron relied on Niger to host French forces and continue their operations in the Sahel. [Getty]

With Bazoum ousted, the foreign forces stationed in Niger face complete uncertainty and unprecedented challenges. The US, for example, constructed the largest base for drones in the Agadez region, known as Air Base 201, which is the second-largest US base in Africa after the permanent base in Djibouti.

The US invested $110 million in its construction and spends $30 million annually on maintenance. The base serves as the main centre for intelligence and surveillance in the Sahel.

However, the US military is currently unable to conduct flights from the base due to the airspace being closed after the coup. Losing access to this base following the arrival of the military junta in Niger would pose a significant challenge especially if the new coup leaders decide to contract any Russian private military company.

The French and other European countries also have a lot at stake. Following the termination of ‘Operation Barkhane’, the French continued to utilise Air Base 101 in Niamey as the hub of their operations.

The base serves as a joint mission base for US and French forces, hosting about 800 American soldiers and 1,500 French soldiers, along with personnel from European Union countries conducting military and civilian training missions.

Regarding the European Union (EU), an EU-led military mission in Niger was launched earlier in the year, comprising a battalion of 50 to 100 soldiers aimed at providing training and advisory services to the Nigerien army.

The German parliament also approved the deployment of 60 soldiers to the mission, including an initial deployment of three. Additionally, Estonia expressed its intention to loan five soldiers to EUMPM Niger on 25 July, just one day before the coup.

Furthermore, the European Union's civilian training mission, EUCAP Sahel Niger, has been providing human rights training to security forces since 2012. Italy, as part of the Mission in Support of the Republic of Niger (MISIN), has been training Nigerien soldiers since 2018, and it currently has 350 soldiers stationed in Niamey as part of both MISIN and the European Training Mission in Niger.

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Bazoum has not only been pragmatic in dealing with international forces but also in dealing with terrorism in his country. He has openly suggested negotiating with jihadis in his country, mainly from the Fulani ethnic group, as they are, after all, Nigerien citizens.

Amidst the uncertainty of the situation and the emergence of new leaders fostering ties with Russia-backed African countries, the future of French operations in Niger and relations with the African nation appear grim.

The swift withdrawal of French, American, and European forces could be triggered by the deployment of Russian operatives, be it Wagner or other private military companies.

Aman Al Bezreh is a trilingual journalist, a media training consultant at OpenDemocracy, and a security analyst for West Africa and the Sahel. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AmanBezreh