Niger coup sparks concerns over security arrangements, speculation over Russian influence

Niger coup sparks concerns over security arrangements, speculation over Russian influence
3 min read
28 July, 2023
Could Russia and its notorious Wagner mercenary group take advantage of the coup in Niger and bolster its presence in Africa's Sahel region?
Niger had seen a coup attempt in 2021 that aimed to prevent the inauguration of President Mohamed Bazoum [Getty]

A coup in Niger that ousted democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on Wednesday has sparked serious concerns over security in both Niger and the wider Sahel region.

The coup was initiated when the presidential guard took control of the presidential palace and placed Bazoum under house arrest. Abdourahmane Tchaini, who leads the presidential guard, has since become head of a new transitional government, according to state television.

Both the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the president to be released "with immediate effect and without any precondition".

Much of the alarm over the situation in Niger stems from worries about the ongoing fight the country has with multiple Islamist militant groups including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).

The insurgency in Niger is part of a broader conflict that spans the Sahel, with neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso also conducting insurgencies against the groups.

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Niger has partnered with the US and France in its fight against Islamist militancy. The coup has prompted concerns over that partnership, as well as questions other whether the country's new leadership will invite the notorious Russian mercenary group Wagner to support its operations, like in post-coup Mali and Burkina Faso.

Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at Chatham House, told The New Arab that predictions on the future of Niger's security relationship with international partners are hard to make.

"If the coup does ultimately succeed, the impact on regional security would depend on whether the new regime decided to follow Mali and Burkina Faso in pursuing a more radical nationalist path… if it did, that might ultimately open the door for increased involvement by Russia and perhaps the Wagner group," Melly said.

Increased Russian involvement is far from a certainty, Melly said, as "a new regime might seek to maintain existing security partnerships – through which Niger is acquiring a lot of equipment, training and high tech."

Worries over Russia's ability to capitalise on the coup have increased after pro-coup protestors rallying outside the National Assembly in the capital Niamey flew Russian flags and held up anti-French signs.

Many Russian channels on Telegram have speculated that the coup could further expand Wagner's presence on the African continent, including in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, all of which ended French security arrangements in recent years.

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin issued a statement on Thursday in support of the coup, saying that "what happened in Niger is the fight of its people against the colonisers." Niger was under French colonial rule for decades until the country gained its independence in 1960.

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Ruslan Trad, a Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council told The New Arab that the events in Niger "will be in benefit of Russia," noting that anti-French sentiment in the region could be used to propel a move towards Russian security assistance. 

He also drew attention to the current Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg which has seen Russia promising to increase economic and trade relationships with the continent, as well as boost defence cooperation.