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After the Coup in Niger: Towards the Changing Order in the West African Sahel?

2023-11-22 13:01

Jan Záhořík

#MultipolarSahel , #WestAfrica , #GlobalDynamics , #SahelShift , #FrenchInfluence , #AfricanGeopolitics , #NigerPolitics , #Decolonization , #SahelSecurity,

After the Coup in Niger: Towards the Changing Order in the West African Sahel?

"Exploring the emergence of a multipolar Sahel amid declining French dominance."




What is the most probable scenario in Niger, and possibly in all (Francophone) West Africa is the road towards multipolarity in which France would be one of many foreign actors in one way or another operating economically and diplomatically but without such an enormous power as it had for generations since decolonization.






In 2023, it seemed that the world has been shocked by another military coup in Niger, a country that on one hand belongs to the poorest on Earth, and on the other has appeared on the covers of various magazines as a promisingly democratizing country in otherwise unstable region. President Mohamed Bazoum who was deposed after the coup in summer 2023, used to be depicted as a democratic leader and as a promising leader changing the status quo in Niger as he comes from a minority group of Oulad Sulaymane, an Arab ethnic group from South-West Libya.[1] 


The coup of July 2023 came as a continuation of regime changes through military means that has characterized the West African Sahel region since the outbreak of violence in Mali in 2012. What began as a Tuareg rebellion (one of several rebellions against state authorities since Mali gained independence in 1960) turned quickly into a clash of multiple actors over dominance primarily in Northern part of Mali. 


Over the years the Sahel-Sahara region has been affected by activities of various groups such as AQIM, ISGS, ISWAP, Boko Haram (not connected with the situation in Mali), Ansar ad-Dine, al-Murabitun, and many others. That is why the Diplomatie magazine in its summer 2023 issue talks about the “decade of success” and asks itself whether Africa would become the next khalifat or not.[2] 


In 2017, the Sahelian states formed the joint forces of G5 Sahel that includes Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The vortex of violence has – in the meantime – multiplied and particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso lots of local self-defense movements came into being, for instance among the Dogon people in Mali.[3]


Since the early 1990s, the country has witnessed a growing importance of political Islam in local societies, countered by the still strongly promoted official concept of a secular state. This means that Islamic associations were no longer supported by the state, yet thanks to the generous help of the Islamic foreign state a large number of different associations and organizations were established. These soon began to challenge the idea of a secular establishment in a predominantly Muslim country. At this time, there was an active branch of the Yan Izala movement, which has its center in northern Nigeria. 


The Izala movement came into conflict with the Sufi Tijaniya order, which has a long and deep tradition in Niger (as elsewhere in West Africa). Some incidents between the two currents have turned violent, notably in 1992 and 1993. In addition to the Izala movement, the Collectif des Associations Islamiques du Niger (Collective of Islamic Associations of Niger), which represents a large number of smaller Islamic organizations and has a strong position against state secularism, is the dominant organization in Niger.[4] 


With the growth of Islamization, more clashes and violence began to emerge in the country. The city of Agadez experienced the first serious protests by radical Islamists in the late 1990s, for example against the hosting of the International Festival of African Fashion. Clashes between Muslims and Christians have also become more frequent in recent years, although the two groups used to coexist peacefully. Niger is now becoming a new base for Islamic radicals. 


Several key factors are contributing to this: firstly, it is an extremely poor country with a high proportion of uneducated people with no economic or life chances; secondly, it is a country at the crossroads between Libya, Algeria and Mali, which gives radical groups the freedom to move according to their needs and situation; and Niger's secular politics are not helping the situation, as the government lacks legitimacy and a wider base in society, making it easy for radicals to find more followers.  


The radicalized and socially marginalized Nigerien youth (particularly in the Zinder and Agadez areas) have instigated protests, which have seen the symbols of French economic power in the country attacked and anti-French and anti-colonial slogans proclaimed, as well as slogans expressing support for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, contrasting with Nigerian society's otherwise negative framing of Boko Haram, considered by many in Niger to be a ‘creation of the West’ which may include France, Mossad, and the CIA.[5] 






The government of Niger has been aware of these risks and has sought to both speak out and actively combat them. In 2003, Niger became one of the first countries to participate in the so-called Pan-Sahel Initiative, sponsored by the US administration to combat terrorism. The city of Agadez, an ancient crossroads and renowned as one of the main points of migration and smuggling routes towards Libya, was set to become a base for drones by 2024 at a total cost of about $280 million.  


When the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris took place in 2015, six West African presidents took part in the March Against Violence in Paris, including the then Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, who defended his participation in a public statement in January 2015 by saying that Niger was not condoning terrorism in this way, even though he had spoken out strongly against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and the continued distribution of Charlie Hebdo in Niger. 


For years now, Niger has been facing three current threats, firstly, the activities of Boko Haram (i.e. the Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad) which is infiltrating Niger's southern region of Diffa from northern Nigeria, secondly, al-Qaeda in the Islamic West and its followers (i.e. the Islamic and Muslim Support Group) who threaten mainly the northern and western parts of Niger, and thirdly, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.


Towards Multipolarity


Already after the Operation Serval began, a political scientist Michel Galy claimed that France has been delayed with decolonization as it has been the only country that still keeps its military forces on the continent, an act which would be impossible for Britain for example in Kenya or Zimbabwe.[6] In 2013, when Operation Barakhane came into existence, it made sense as there was a real threat that the jihadists would proceed to Bamako after taking over Gao and Timbuktu where they started destroying local cultural heritage including numerous libraries and archives. A fear that Mali would turn into a “Sahelian Afghanistan”, in the words of Pérouse de Montclos, was real.[7]


French minister of foreign affairs, Catherine Colonna, proclaimed that Francophonie does not exist anymore and that it should have ceased to exist long ago.[8] On the contrary, minister of defense, Sébastien Lecornu, is of different opinion as he claims that the regime in Mali risks security troubles by collaboration with the Wagner Group: “One can see the result: the Bamako region has since been surrounded by the jihadists,”[9] says with the reference to the withdrawal of the French and EU troops. Such fears are widespread not only in France but also in some smaller countries of West Africa such as Togo, Benin, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, where the radical Islamists can possibly gain more space if France leaves militarily because the Sahelian states do not have sufficient military (both terrestrial and aerial) capacities to combat terrorist groups in such enormous areas of the Sahel-Sahara region.[10] That are also sources claiming that France is actually not leaving, only giving an impression that is leaving while keeping its bases in the region.[11] 


In West Africa, it has been reported that the anti-French sentiments are one of the main features of the regional atmosphere, particularly in the military and economic sense. “I do not know what the benefit is for an ordinary Nigerien that we have foreign military troops here,”[12] says a senior diplomat and entrepreneur in Niamey and he describes the situation in Niger as being heavily affected by insecurity with which “the foreign troops do not help.”[13] 




There is a fear in the West that after successful coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea Russia would become more important at least in military sense also in Niger. The truth is that from the media point of view it may seem as if Russia gains large support especially among west African youth. All kinds of reports show young West Africans waving Russian flags (which in many cases can be remade French flags due to similar colors). 


Personal conversation with various diplomats, civil society members as well as academics in Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal that the author has done in 2023 prove that France is losing ground but it does not necessarily mean that Russia is being unconditionally welcomed and celebrated as a new dominant power in the region. 


What should not be underestimated is that unlike China, Russia is present in Africa primarily via the so-called “Kalashnikov diplomacy”, a term used widely also in academic literature to describe the activities of Russian private military companies (PMCs).[14] 


The presence of PMCs and increased Russian diplomatic efforts are led along several lines with the aim to: 1) get support in the UN; 2) to establish control over migration flows; 3) to end the French hegemony in the region.[15]  On the other hand, from history we know that a quick change of economic partnerships may be difficult in developing countries as the example of the Soviet Union in Guinea and Ghana of the early independence shows.[16]


Chinese position towards the operations of the Wagner group are not clear as China on one hand may benefit in some places from their presence, but on the other the Wangers may cause harm to large scale Chinese investment projects which Beijing has all across the continent. Security is of paramount importance for China and destabilization of countries such as Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and the Sahel does not help the plans to construct a truly functioning Belt and Road Initiative.[17] Together with France, Turkey is becoming more and more important actor throughout Africa and stability is equally important for Turkish investments in West Africa as it is for China. 


It seems that at least a part of the French diplomatic and political world believes that France should play a different role in Africa, more focused on economic partnership, initiatives on climate change, collaboration in science and financial sector, and particularly with empathy and humility.[18] 


What is the most probable scenario in Niger, and possibly in all (Francophone) West Africa is the road towards multipolarity in which France would be one of many foreign actors in one way or another operating economically and diplomatically but without such an enormous power as it had for generations since decolonization.


To conclude, we may also argue that after the series of military coups in the West African Sahel, that military coups themselves are not a solution to multiple crises as they usually do not bring long-term stability and an inclusive development although current atmosphere may seemingly unite people (for instance in Niger) the way they see the engagement of foreign forces on their territory.[19] In countries like Senegal and Nigeria, there is also a fear that military coups may further destabilize already very fragile situation in West African Sahel region and pave the way to further chaos and terrorism. 





[1] See e.g. Ziyad Limam (2023): L’équation Bazoum, in: Afrique Magazine, No 439, Avril 2023, p. 60. 

[2] See Luis Martinez (2023): Les groupes djihadistes en Afrique: une décennie du succès, in: Diplomatie. Affaires Stratégiques et Relations Internationales, No 122, Julliet-Aout 2023, pp. 38-41. 

[3] Emmanuel Grégoire (2019): Le Sahel et le Sahara entre crises et résiliences, Hérodote 2019/1, pp. 8-9.

[4] Robert B. Charlick (2004): Niger, African Studies Review 47, 2, p. 100.

[5] Jannik Schritt (2015): The Protests against Charlie Hebdo in Niger: A Background Analysis, Africa Spectrum 50/1, pp. 57–58.

[6] Michel Galy (2013): Opération “Serval”: Un nouvel avatar de la Francafrique, Le Monde 17/01/2013, in: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2013/01/17/un-nouvel-avatar-de-la-francafrique_1818594_3232.html

[7] Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos (2019): La politique de la France au Sahel: une vision militaire, Hérodote 2019/1, pp. 137-152.

[8] Aurélien Llorca (2023): Pour sortir du malentendu sur ‘la mort de la Francafrique,‘ il faut abandonner unde diplomatie directive, Le Monde, in: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/09/19/pour-sortir-du-malentendu-sur-la-mort-de-la-francafrique-il-faut-abandonner-une-diplomatie-directive_6190006_3212.html

[9] Le Figaro (2023): Le Sahel risque de s’effondrer sur lui-mem, affirme Sébastien Lecornu, Le Figaro 29/09/2023, in: https://www.lefigaro.fr/international/le-sahel-risque-de-s-effondrer-sur-lui-meme-affirme-sebastien-lecornu-20230929m

[10] See e.g. Didier Lauras (2023): Le départ du Niger, ultime camouflet pour la France au Sahel, Le Devoir, 25 Sept. 2023, in: https://www.ledevoir.com/monde/afrique/798734/depart-niger-ultime-camouflet-france-sahel

[11] Rémi Carayol (2023): Has France lots its way in the Sahel?, Le Monde diplomatique, https://mondediplo.com/2023/06/09sahel 

[12] Conversation with a Nigerien diplomat in Niamey, 26th June 2023. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Leonid Issaev, Alisa Shishkina, Yakov Liokumovich (2022): Perceptions of Russia’s ‚return‘ to Africa: Views from West Africa, South African Journal of International Affairs 29/4, p. 425. 

[15] Ibid., 428. 

[16] Alessandro Iandolo (2012): The rise and fall of the ‘Soviet Model of Development’ in West Africa, 1957–64, Cold War History, 12(4), pp. 683-704.

[17] VOA (2023): China and Wagner in Africa: Friends or Foes?, in: Voice of America, https://www.voanews.com/a/china-and-wagner-in-africa-friends-or-foes-/7219827.html

[18] Aurélien Llorca (2023): Pour sortir du malentendu sur ‘la mort de la Francafrique,’ il faut abandonner unde diplomatie directive,“ Le Monde, in: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/09/19/pour-sortir-du-malentendu-sur-la-mort-de-la-francafrique-il-faut-abandonner-une-diplomatie-directive_6190006_3212.html.

[19] Mahamne Tahirou Ali Bako (2023): Terrorisme : Les Nigériens sont satisfaits de l’implication de leur armée et ne veulent pas de l’aide d’une armée étrangère Dépêche No. 653 d’Afrobarometer. 

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