Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Overcoming the Oppressors.
A military coup has extinguished one of West Africa’s most democratically inclined governments – and the results are a tragedy for Niger’s 25 million people. The coup is also worrisome for the entire region, as it could result in increased Islamist penetration, giving running room and conquest potential to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Both jihadist militias are anxious to add Niger to their growing territorial annexations across the African Sahel.
The Sahel is a belt of light soil and sparse rainfall south of the Sahara Desert, stretching across the continent, from Senegal to Eritrea. Beginning in about 2011, after the ending of Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship in Libya, the availability of leftover Libyan arms helped two of the globe’s most successful Islamist franchises to commandeer the jihadist space and establish themselves in the Sahel.
Mali was first afflicted, with Islamists taking much of the far north and storied Timbuktu. In 2013, France sent troops to restore Malian control. French troops kept order in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger until a succession of military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso (following an earlier military takeover in Guinea, on the Atlantic coast) led to the two new Sahelian governments turning against French “colonialism” and sending those powerful anti-insurgent forces packing.
France reassigned a smaller contingent of 1,500 soldiers to Niger, where they joined 1,100 Americans from the U.S. Africa Command, plus a number of drone controllers, in continuing to battle the jihadist onslaught from bases in desolate Niger. A big drone surveillance base is located near Agadez in northwestern Niger, near Burkina Faso and Mali. Now, after the region’s latest army purging of a democratic, civilian government, France and the U.S. may feel the need to pull out of Niger, or be sent packing, putting anti-jihadist efforts there in serious jeopardy.
Instead, the new leaders in Niger are likely to turn – as their erstwhile counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso have done – to the Russian Wagner Group to boost their military capabilities or gain protection, even though the Wagnerites have failed lamentably at halting the spread of Islamist fundamentalism. Jihadists now control much more territory across the Sahel than they did when French troops protected Mali and Burkina Faso.
Furthermore, the Wagnerites are in Africa not to do peace enforcement but to loot. They are taking gold from Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan. Exactly what payoffs the putschists in Mali and Burkina Faso receive from the Wagnerites is not known, but soldiers create no mutinies without hope of being rewarded.
That must be true for Niger, as well. It is another major gold producer and it has the globe’s seventh largest deposits of uranium, supplying about 25 per cent of Europe’s needs. Yet, it is a desperately poor country, with a GDP per capita of only $719.
Washington and Paris do not yet think that Russians instigated Niger’s coup, but its leaders were hardly unaware of how Russia could enrich them. Often coups are copycat events, inspired by examples of new leaders gaining power and wealth.
Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which he currently chairs, thought they could reverse the coup and free Niger’s President Mohammed Bazoum by forming a standby army and threatening to invade. Nigeria also cut 80 per cent of Niger’s electricity. But this week, Niger’s junta said Mr. Bazoum will be tried for “high treason.” The standby force will go nowhere despite more talk from ECOWAS.
Democracy is denied in Africa (and elsewhere) when soldiers scuttle constitutions and try elected presidents on trumped up charges. Outcomes for their citizens worsen. But even more destructively, coups in the Sahel unwittingly but dramatically transfer power and agency to the jihadists – the very enemy that the local Sahelian armies are ostensibly pledged to counter (hitherto with French and American support). If Islamist legions now invade Niger, they will thereafter threaten the coastal states of Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and even Ghana. Their successes will also make it much more difficult for Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger to extirpate the ongoing home-grown Islamist insurgency (Boko Haram) that is still active and powerful south and west of Lake Chad.
Washington and Paris need to find a way to add muscle to ECOWAS’s determination to dampen coup tendencies in the Sahel and West Africa. Doing so would restore stability and the possibility of democracy throughout the troubled region.