Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Bryan (background right), a member of Canada’s Special Operations Forces, mentors Nigerien officers as they train soldiers from Niger during the Flintlock military exercise near Jacqueville, Ivory Coast, on March 3, 2023. (For security reasons, The Globe and Mail has agreed not to identify Canadian Special Operations personnel with full names or ranks.)Cheick Sylla/The Globe and Mail

Nearly four weeks after Niger’s coup, the Canadian government has yet to withdraw any of its military trainers from the West African country, despite a decision to suspend direct aid to the new regime.

Canada is one of several Western governments that have kept their troops in Niger as they hedge their bets on how to respond to the military coup. Western leaders have condemned the putsch and demanded the restoration of civilian rule, but they have been ambivalent on whether to sever all their security ties with the strategically important country.

More than 2,600 Western troops – mostly U.S. and French – are currently in Niger. The decision to retain a military presence, while suspending some forms of financial aid, is a sign that Western governments are keenly aware of their geopolitical interests in West Africa. They recognize that a troop withdrawal would leave a security vacuum that Russia could swiftly fill, with troops from Moscow’s Wagner Group already heavily involved in combat operations in neighbouring Mali.

The result has been a mixed-signals response to the coup. Global Affairs Canada announced on Aug. 5 that it was freezing its bilateral development aid to Niger’s government. But this aid is relatively small, amounting to less than $3-million last year. At the same time, the department is refusing to describe the situation as a coup. Instead it calls it an “attempted coup” – an increasingly inaccurate term, since the military junta has continued to entrench its rule after seizing power.

West African bloc says ‘D-Day’ set for possible Niger intervention

Niger’s neighbours running out of options as defence chiefs meet to discuss potential military force

By avoiding a coup declaration, the department makes it politically easier for Canada to keep its troops in Niger. For the past decade, as many as 50 Canadian soldiers have been deployed to Niger annually to train the national army in counterterrorism operations, under a program known as Operation NABERIUS. Fewer than 10 Canadian soldiers were stationed in Niger when the army seized power, and they remain there today, officials say.

“At this time, there is no change to the number of members in Niger mentioned earlier,” National Defence spokesperson Andrew McKelvey told The Globe and Mail by e-mail on Friday.

“We continue to monitor the evolving situation in Niger, and the continued viability of Operation NABERIUS, as with all operations, is dependent on Government of Canada direction,” he said.

The United States, similarly, is still calling it an “attempted coup” rather than a coup. This is because, under its own laws, the U.S. government is strictly prohibited from providing a wide range of aid programs to any country where a coup has occurred. (Canada’s laws on development assistance are vaguer and looser on this.)

First major jihadi attack since coup kills 17 and wounds dozens in Niger, fuelling Western fears

OPINION: The coup in Niger is a boon for Africa’s jihadist militias

Most Western countries, despite their democratic rhetoric, have maintained good relations with many of Africa’s most authoritarian regimes. African politicians and military commanders, recognizing this reality, have become cynical about the pro-democracy statements of their Western allies. This, in turn, has meant that coup leaders are often undeterred.

Canada, for example, has continued to maintain ties with authoritarian rulers in countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. The United States has close relations with autocrats in oil-rich regimes in Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and elsewhere.

Despite the U.S. law that prohibits aid to juntas that seize power in coups, the United States continued to support Burkina Faso’s participation in the Flintlock military training exercise in West Africa this year, even after the latest coups in that country.

The African Union has been similarly equivocal about how to respond to coups. It allowed Zimbabwe to remain in the organization after its military coup in 2017, even though AU rules require the suspension of such countries. Last week it reportedly rejected a proposed intervention in Niger by the West African bloc ECOWAS, which has threatened to send troops to restore civilian rule.

Human rights group in Niger says it can’t get access to officials detained after coup

ANALYSIS: Junta threatens to prosecute Niger’s President for treason as foreign intervention plans stall

The reluctance to disengage from Niger’s new junta might be partly in hopes that a reversal of the coup could eventually be negotiated. Talks between the regime and a visiting ECOWAS delegation were held on Saturday for the first time, and a new U.S. ambassador arrived in Niger on the weekend.

But the refusal to pull out of Niger also reflects the West’s heavy investment in military training and development aid in the country over the past decade. “From an American perspective, it does seem that maintaining good relations with the military leaders they know well is the top priority,” said Chris Roberts, an expert on African military issues at the University of Calgary.

The United States still maintains an expensive military base in the northern Niger city of Agadez, where it deploys a drone fleet for counterterrorism operations in the wider region. After losing access to neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in the wake of the coups in both countries, Western military officials see Niger as the best-situated site for pursuing Islamist insurgent groups across the Sahel region.

As for Canada’s policy in Niger, it might be taking its cue from the United States or France, Mr. Roberts said. In crises across Africa in recent months, the Canadian response has been “haphazard,” showing a lack of strategic leadership and resource deployment, Mr. Roberts said.

“This year illustrated again the urgent need for Canada to take Africa more seriously and reduce reliance on American or French leadership,” he told The Globe, citing the “huge regional and global implications” of the Niger crisis.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe