What the coup in Niger means for West Africa and the world
Niger was seen as a beacon of democratic progress and security in sub-Saharan Africa.
But last month, its elected president was overthrown.
Now, a coup threatens to destabilize the region.
”It is really an explosive cocktail that we are witnessing in Niger,” Joseph Sany says. “One that will harm the Nigeriens themselves, and if not address diplomatically, it’ll be catastrophic.”
Today, On Point: The coup in Niger and what it means for West Africa and the world.
Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has led peacebuilding and civil society missions in more than 20 countries in Africa. He also writes for the blog “African Praxis.” Author of “Reintegration of ex-combatants: A balancing act: The dilemmas of reintegration in Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
Sarah Harrison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. Former associate general counsel at the Department of Defense and counsel to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African Affairs.
Amb. Kiari Liman Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to Washington.
Kwesi Aning, professor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.
KIARI LIMAN TINGUIRI: In the morning, I receive calls from friend and colleagues. There was no rumors and there was no any tension situation that might be a hint or a reason or a justification for a coup. So everybody was surprised.
CHAKRABARTI: Kiari Liman Tinguiri is — or was, depending on who you ask — Niger’s ambassador to the United States. One month ago, his country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, was deposed in a coup d’etat. Soon after, coup leaders themselves called Ambassador Tinguiri. They wanted him to join Niger’s new military government.
LIMAN TINGUIRI: They tries to impress me. They call me to join them. I am genuinely democrat. I believe in election. I believe in the rule of the law. I believe in the will of the people. I will never serve a military regime. That’s very clear.
CHAKRABARTI: So coup leaders swiftly proclaimed that they’d stripped him of his ambassador’s post. Tinguiri rejects that for one simple reason.
LIMAN TINGUIRI: An ambassador is accredited by a recognized government to another recognized government. So as long as the United States has not recognized the junta, the junta has no legitimacy, not legal power either, to fire an ambassador or to appoint another one. I talk with the U.S. government and I’m aware that they’re doing whatever they can to free President Mohamed Bazoum and his family, and to restore legitimate constitutional order in Niger.
CHAKRABARTI: Niger is a huge country in the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel. Following the July 26 coup, Niger became the latest country in the Sahel to fall under military rule. That list includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Sudan. And the Sahel has been plagued by Jihadi terrorists for years. However, prior to the coup, and with the help of the U.S. and French counter-terrorism forces, Niger was making progress towards peace and democracy — one of the reasons why the July 26 coup caught many in the Sahel and in the west by surprise.
Again, Ambassador Liman Tinguiri:
LIMAN TINGUIRI: What is looming is a disaster for Niger. That’s what came in my mind. Sadness, sadness, sadness. Sadness because there is no reason whatsoever. We were doing well and the security. Doing better than any of our neighbors who have been doing in the last six months better in security than ever before in the last 15 years. So security situation was improving.
CHAKRABARTI: The military men who now run the government say they are perfectly capable of dealing with terrorist groups. Tinguiri doesn’t believe them.
LIMAN TINGUIRI: The junta will protect itself in the capital and leave the countryside to the jihadists. This jihadist will rule the population. They’ll impose illegal tax, they’ll impose their law, and soon you will have jihadists controlling the whole west of Africa from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.
And if that is done, then it’ll be the sanctuary for them to destabilize the world. Don’t forget, this area represents six times the size of Afghanistan and by distance, it’s more closer than all European and American capital than is Kabul. So it’s us, it’s the region, it’s the world that exactly what will happen, if unfortunately the coup succeed.
CHAKRABARTI: Kiari Liman Tinguiri, officially Niger’s ambassador to Washington.
Well, it has been a month since Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed. The impact of the coup on Niger, on regional development and security and on the West is now easier to see. There still remains a fragile window to restore stability to Niger, but as that window shrinks, it calls into question the culpability of European and American actions — or the lack of actions in the Sahel.
As one U.S. defense official is quoted as saying, “The entire national defense strategy for the United States includes exactly one paragraph about Africa. That tells you how much we prioritize the continent.”
Joseph Sany is vice president of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has led peacebuilding and civil society missions in more than 20 African nations. He’s also author of Reintegration of ex-combatants: A balancing act: The dilemmas of reintegration in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Joseph Sany, welcome to On Point.
JOSEPH SANY: Thank you for having me, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So now that we do have a month since that fateful day in July, in late July, do you or other Africa analysts have a better sense as to what exactly precipitated the coup? Because as you heard the ambassador say, it caught so many by surprise. Do we better understand now why it happened?
SANY: I think it’s still not clear, but some argue that there were some internal disputes. Because General Tchiani, it seems, was supposed to lose his position. But however, what’s happening overall, we know that when leaders, democratically elected leaders, focus more on security elements — I’m not saying that’s the case — but more on security elements or aspect and do not pay the same level of attention to democratic defense and institutions, and also are not able to respond to citizen needs, they make themselves vulnerable to this type of situation.
SANY: And that’s the overall trend we have seen.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Now, when you mentioned General Tchiani, this is the man who led the coup and now is the self-declared leader of Niger?
SANY: Correct. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We’re gonna come back to him in a moment. But when you said, when leaders do not place adequate focus and support on democratic institutions, on the needs of the people, that provides an opening for coups or attempted coups. But my understanding was that this is one of the reasons why people, again, were surprised by what happened in Niger. Because unlike Mali or Chad or Sudan or Burkina Faso — that strip in the Sahel that has fallen to military rule — Niger was on a path towards democratic progress and stability.
SANY: Correct. That’s why Niger coup is a little bit — is an outlier and a shocking one, and a dangerous one as well. Because, as you said, and what the ambassador said, is correct: Niger was on that path. President Bazoum was democratically elected. He was doing the right things. He may have not been enough, but he was on the right path. He was the right momentum.
And so the junta really is a betrayal. Not only what they have done, this coup d’etat is a betrayal to the Nigerian people themselves. And you see, it is a betrayal to the democratic aspirations of the Nigerians and the region. I mean, it’s true. It’s true that Bazoum was doing the right thing, and that’s why we, why everyone was caught off guard on this one.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so coming back then to General Abdourahamane Tchiani. It sounds like you said that his motivation to overthrow the democratically elected government of Niger may have been informed in part by his own self-interest?
SANY: Yes. Because there are no political or security reasons to do coup. And it seems it started as a personal dispute or a disagreement of decisions made by the president, personal decisions. So it’s really important to emphasize how different —
SANY: The differences between the coup in Niger and the coup in, let’s say, in Burkina or Mali, for that matter, or Guinea. There, there were some violation or some lack of real, tangible results. But in Niger, Tchiani could not even in the opening speech, could not articulate clearly and convincingly why the coup.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Mm. However, as you said earlier, and I would even say as we’ve seen recently here in the United States, there have to be — there has to be a weakening of the democratic institutions, of a government, right?
CHAKRABARTI: Or a weakening of the fielty of members of the military who participate in a coup. Both those things had to exist in order for Tchiani to be successful.
SANY: Correct. I think yes. In the case of Niger, both things existed even though there were progress, however. But what we are noticing is a general trend in the region. And that’s my biggest fear is that leaders will then become very suspicious of the military. And instead of developing the democratic defenses that exist — so for example, strengthening Parliament, making sure that the civic space is robust enough political party can exercise their activities — I’m afraid they will create a system of suspicions, surveillance, and checking on the military.
That will be the wrong response. Because those things, by doing so, they really weaken the only defenses they have against any illegal takeover or a coup.
SANY: The Democratic defenses.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We have to take a break in just one minute, and I wanna talk a little bit more about what’s been happening just in the last few days in Niger.
But before we do that, Mr. Sany, just tell us for a quick 30 seconds more about General Tchiani, because my understanding was prior to July 26, he was hardly known outside of Niger and definitely not a major figure in the eyes of the west.
SANY: Yes, Tchiani is a long-term soldier. I mean, he has led aspect — different corps of the military, the Nigerian military forces. So he was, he was at the core, it’s a key part of the military the Nigerian Defense Forces for a long time. He worked under the former president Mahamadou Issoufou for 10 years and worked again with Bazoum. So he’s a well-known entity in Niger.
SANY: He’s a well-known entity by the military force. Now, does he command the support of the entire military? That’s a question. It’s an open question. Not so sure.
CHAKRABARTI: today our exploration begins with a focus on Niger one month after the surprising military coup there. And then we’re broadening it out to the Sahel region in Africa more generally and the massive changes that have happened there over the past several years, specifically with the integrity of national governments, the rise of jihadist violence and how both of those things redound not just upon the people of the Sahel, but globally.
I’m joined today by Joseph Sany, he’s vice president of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He also writes the blog African Praxis. And in a moment we will get the view from the west as well.
But Joseph Sany, I wanna just pick up a little bit more on the specifics of what happened on July 26 and then the recent events that have taken place there. We talked about General Tchiani , who’s now the self-proclaimed leader of Niger. Why didn’t other members of the military stop the coup?
SANY: That’s a very — it’s a great question, Meghna. The reality is that the first hours of coup, I would suspect there were some confusion and negotiation behind closed door because not all bodies of the military were on board the first hour. But, you know, there is some sort of esprit de corps and probably, they managed to bring at least the leadership of other aspect, of other bodies of the military together.
And probably had some promises were made, deals were made. But again, I’m not sure that the entire military is still on board. I think the junta is still trying to consolidate its power, and that’s why the diplomatic pressure and the threat of military intervention is credible and may help see this through.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that brings us to sort of the most recent developments in the Sahel and West Africa more generally. Because ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has said the coup in Niger must be reversed, right? To halt what they’re calling the spiral of coups in the region.
And in response to that language, or the threat of military intervention in Niger, General Tchiani just recently, in the past several days, ordered the Nigerian armed forces to go on maximum alert. And in fact, also asked military leadership in Mali and Burkino Faso descent troops to help defend them.
So this is troubling for many reasons, including the fact that, interestingly, Tchiani himself has experience as a military leader in ECOWAS, right? He was deployed to Ivory Coast. He’s also helped in campaigns against militant Islamist groups in Boko Haram. He’s in fact been in U.S. peacekeeping operations in both Ivory Coast and Sudan and Congo. So how do you read these latest developments?
SANY: It’s posture. I mean, as you mentioned, General Tchiani is a familiar — knows the system, knows a multinational system, it’s something is he was part of. And so, but in this case, he has no choice but to hire the troop, correct? And then to build some alliances. Again, but let me be clear, the military option should be the last option.
SANY: However, there is no credible diplomatic solution or option without that threat. So it’s important even though we don’t want to get there — I mean we should not. But there is — diplomacy still has a chance. And I think it’s important, first of all to make sure that whatever the deal, whatever negotiation, to make sure that President Bazoum is safe and his family as well, as well as the members of his government that are still under the house arrest or illegally detained or taken hostage. But General Tchiani has to do what he has to do in the face of this military pressure.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, before we get a view from an American analyst here, I want to ask you about something that the ambassador said earlier in the show. He said, he essentially looked at Niger, his home country as a bulwark against the takeover of the whole of West Africa, he said, by militant jihadists. Because destabilized nations are entrees for the expansion of militant jihadi rule. And he said if the takeover of all of West Africa from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic happens, then, he says, West Africa will become a sanctuary for jihadis to destabilize the world. Is that indeed the scope of the danger we are looking at?
SANY: There is, let me say there is, it is dangerous to let this fly. I think Niger is the bulwark. I agree. And the threat is real. You know, the jihadists do not need to take over the entire region, but just by them controlling one or two countries, they are threatening everybody interest, including the United States interest. I mean, they may just attack our embassies, our interest in the region. So that’s enough to keep and motivate the United States and the rest of the world to act.
SANY: And then remember the Sahel is the European backdoor. So, by controlling the Sahel, Europe, our allies in Europe are not safe either.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, a little bit later we will talk about the both historical and contemporary role that France plays in the story of the Sahel.
CHAKRABARTI: But Joseph Sany, stand by for just a moment here because I want to now bring Sarah Harrison into the conversation. She’s joining us from Austin, Texas. She’s a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and was former associate general counsel in the Defense Department focusing on African affairs. Sarah Harrison, welcome.
SARAH HARRISON: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: So I first wanna just get a little sense as to, again, why from the U.S. perspective, Washington was so surprised by what happened last month in Niger. Because from my understanding, the United States has a fairly strong military partnership with the Nigerian military. There’s been an increase in U.S. support for the Nigerian military, more than $500 million in security assistance in the past decade, roughly. So that implies a close-ish relationship. So why was Washington also surprised by the rapid fall of the democratically elected government of Niger?
HARRISON: Yeah. I think it depends actually on who you talk to. I’ve talked to some U.S. officials close to the matter who said that it wasn’t actually a surprise to some of the people who work the file. But more of a surprise to people at the highest levels, officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
And specifically for the reasons you’ve already discussed with Dr. Sany is that Niger has been seen by the west as a democratic — strong democratic security partner in the region. Even if that doesn’t necessarily reflect the lives of the people in Niger, the U.S. saw it as a very stable country to work with and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars, not just in security assistance, but in development assistance, humanitarian aid. The U.S. has sent hundreds of millions of dollars generally in foreign assistance over the last decade and really invested in that security partnership with the military.
So I think that for those who were shocked, it was because they thought they had, you know, AFRICOM and the Pentagon and the State Department, all thought they had a very strong security partnership with the military.
But as you described, you know, the coup was led by the presidential guard, and that’s not — that’s not the component of the security force that the U.S. government works closely with. It’s other security forces in Niger. And so they don’t have the relationship with Tchiani the way that they do with the new chief of defense under the junta, General Barmou.
CHAKRABARTI: So they have a close relationship with — let me just repeat that so I’m sure I understood it correctly —
HARRISON: Yeah, sure.
CHAKRABARTI: The United States has a closer relationship with one of the key members of the coup?
HARRISON: Yeah, actually so the the acting Deputy Secretary of State was asked by Secretary Blinken to fly to Niamey to talk to the junta and ask them to consider reversing this coup. And she — this is Victoria Nuland — and she tried to meet with President Bazoum, but was denied a meeting with him, but met for over two hours with General Barmou, who has been trained by the US military, has a master’s degree from the U.S., knows the amount that the — knows the massive investment the U.S. has made in the Nigerian military.
And she said she had a really — her readout was that she had a really difficult conversation with him. And, you know, the message was, “We’re not going to reverse this coup.” And after that meeting, the general told the Wall Street Journal that you know, if all of this U.S. assistance is going to be taken away and that’s the cost of our sovereignty, then let it be. Which I think was a real slap in the face to the U.S. considering its history of investing in Niger — not only in the security assistance and training and equipment it provides to the military, but it built a over a hundred million dollars base in Agadez, which is northeast of the capital.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so that base is actually an interesting character, if I can say, in this challenging story right now. I’m gonna come back to it. But, Joseph Sany, I think what Sarah said has been — is really, really interesting because we’re talking about vast sums of money of U.S. investment in Niger, but most of it sounds like it’s within the realm of security, rather than an equally large or larger investment in democratic development or economic development.
First of all, check me on that. And second of all, if that is indeed the case, perhaps that may be one of the reasons why there was this inherent, if unrecognized, democratic weakness in Niger. Because, as you were saying earlier, the democratic institutions that are required to stay strong, to maintain a country’s integrity weren’t as strong as they could be.
SANY: Yeah, yes. I think, I mean, we have said it before, people have written, and then even the U.S. government recognizes this — its securitized approach will not be sufficient to address the problems in the Sahel. So as we invest on securities so critically important to invest on those civilian and democratic institutions that will, if you will, immunized or build resilience of democracy in those regions. Without that approach, it would be very difficult, I think. And that’s why I think Congress passed the Global Fragility Act as a way to begin to address this kind of — those deficiencies in investment on non-securitized approaches.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. So let’s zoom out here for a little bit with both of you. And again, we’re not just focusing exclusively on Niger. But Niger is the latest and most surprising, I should say, nation to undergo a coup in the Sahel. And I want to step back a little bit and get a better understanding of why there’s been this rather rapid spread of juntas or coups in that half dozen countries or so I mentioned earlier.
And I’m reading that one of the triggers for that regional destabilization — and Joseph, I’m gonna start with you on this — is the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya back in 2011. What do you think about that?
SANY: There is that aspect. I mean, the collapse of the Gaddafi regime was like breaking down a levy, a critical levy, and so Gaddafi was very good at keeping those different groups — smugglers; violent, extremist terrorist organizations — at bay. Once that levy went off, all hell went loose. But the — but that’s just one aspect, frankly.
SANY: Because the underlying question — the underlying problems are also governors.
SANY: We had, yes, democratically elected regimes, but corrupt. We have inefficient governors. We have spaces that were ungoverned, literally. And those previous regimes, as I discussed earlier, spend their time on the strategy of strengthening the power. They handle overpower than governance. And so what happened? They rely on the military to protect them rather than democratic institutions.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Well, one of the outcomes of this though is that there has been a sharp rise in jihadi activity in the Sahel, particularly in the last sort of half dozen years. I’m seeing estimates that say that in 2016, fatalities from jihadi groups in the Sahel at large was a tiny number, maybe a little bit more than 200. By 2022, it rose to almost 8,000 people being killed by jihadi activity in the region. That’s an increase of what? 3000% in just a half dozen years? Sarah, how do you read that?
HARRISON: Yeah, that’s right. That’s actually a statistic I brought with me. If you look over the last decade across the continent, violence from jihadi groups has grown enormously. And 95% of that violence is happening in the Sahel and Somalia, another conflict zone where the U.S. is involved.
And in the Sahel, fatalities have grown immensely. And I agree with Dr. Sany, a lot of this is underlying governance issues. But I also think that some of the security responses are responsible for the increase in violence. So if you look at Mali and Burkina Faso, the neighbors of Niger, versus Niger, which we’ve described as, you know, more stable than its neighbors. You’ve seen the violence grow in these countries despite the increase in security assistance from the West prior to the coups and the security assistance now from Wagner and Mali, which seems to actually be increasing violence there and exacerbating the conflict.
And this is because of grievances that are driven by human rights violations, either by security forces in Burkina Faso or Mali or human rights abuses from Wagner or the civilian militias that are being armed in Burkina Faso. And that leads to continuation of violence when there are grievances against the government for those types of abuses because then they would, you know, potentially join these groups that are metastasizing in these countries and threatening the littoral states, which are just south of the Sahel.
HARRISON: In Niger, President Bazoum actually had a very interesting approach to the conflict because he was disarming civilian militias. And not allowing for civilian militias that were, you know, don’t have a lot of oversight and training on compliance with the law. And then he also had a good relationship with what’s called the periphery or just, you know, rural areas outside of the capital. He had strong relationships, which helps with building security and governance.
But also he was very supportive of dialogue programs with jihadist groups which has helped to maintain certain ceasefires and since the coup, it’s not clear yet if violence is going to increase in Niger post the coup. But we have seen some concerning attacks in the Tillaberi region where there were talks that held back violence and now might not any longer if those talks don’t continue.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. And by Wagner you mean the Russian mercenary group, which we’re gonna talk about a little bit more after the break.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re speaking today with Sarah Harrison. She’s a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, and with Joseph Sany. He’s vice President of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
I don’t wanna fully let go the triggering effect of the fall of Libya when it comes to the coups we’ve seen across the Sahel here. I don’t wanna fully let go of that. I acknowledge what Dr. Sany said a few minutes ago that it’s not the sole cause for the instability we’ve seen in the region. But it’s an interesting one to sort of use as a moment of self-examination for U.S. policy here, right?
Because — let’s not forget our history — there was a NATO coalition, a U.S.-backed one that destabilized Libya. It ended with Muammar Gaddafi being killed on October 20, 2011. Now, if memory serves, the follow-up Libyan government actually asked NATO to remain in-country at least until the end of 2011, but NATO ended its mission there on October 31, just 11 days after Gaddafi was killed.
My sense is that left the nascent Libyan government there to founder, and in fact, the country is still unstable more than a decade later. And it seems like, in part, Niger and the rest of the Sahel continues to pay the price for that. So Sarah, just your take on the long-term impacts of NATO and the United States’ destabilizing actions in parts of Africa.
HARRISON: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say the U.S. is good at going to war, not necessarily getting out of it or planning for the aftermath. President Obama said that his administration not preparing for the aftermath of the 2011 no fly zone that was imposed over Libya was the worst foreign policy failure of his tenure as president. And what we’ve seen from that, as we’ve described already, is that it created a vacuum for arms and other types of weapons to flow into the Sahel and fuel the jihadi groups that are there now.
And then the U.S. turned to the Sahel to, you know, arm and train and be present to try to fight these groups. You know, France was the first to lead the operation in 2013, in Mali because there was an uprising there.
HARRISON: Which turned into this long, much broader, decade long operation, Operation Barkhane, from France that U.S. helped support. But over that decade, so if we look, you know, we were talking about the statistics of the decade of violence in the Sahel and you brought up the number of the 2016 to 2022 fatalities that have increased by 3000%. The U.S. has increased its military assistance and security assistance in the Sahel over that time, but has there has not been a corresponding decline in violence.
And, you know, it’s not necessarily because the U.S. has provided security assistance, but I think like you’re describing with Libya, the U.S. really needs to reassess its policy there and determine whether it should have been, like Dr. Sany said, investing more in governance. Because what really plagues the Sahel is poor governance.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And I think it, it was you who said in a conversation with our producer, that if you really wanna know what U.S. policy is versus what’s being said, follow the money. And we see a lot of the money going to security aid.
Now, Joseph Sany. There’s also — I mean, we could spend the entire hour talking about, again, France’s history in the region, but there are French interests and actions which are part of this. Sarah mentioned Russia and the Wagner group, which would seemingly only, you know, even as it’s committing human rights atrocities benefit from a destabilized Sahel in terms of its relationship with crime syndicates.
And then there’s also China, right? Because I understand that Niger is one of the main sources of uranium for China. In fact, there’s been a lot of China development money in the country. U.S., Russia, China. Are their interests divergent here when it comes to Niger?
SANY: So I think it’s important– First of all, I agree with Sarah that President Bazoum did all the right things. So he had a multi-pronged approach: development, security, and then peacebuilding approach to the situation in his country. So he did all the right things. That’s why it’s so shocking to see this coup.
Coming to the great power competition, so to speak, or the interest of great power in the region. I think first of all, there is — there is interest. The uranium is a key resource. I mean, Niger produces about, depending on the estimate, 7% to 5% of the world uranium that they have. So there is interest in that, particularly as we are thinking of — we have the energy crisis. There will be competition, that for sure. Now the question is, what will be the consequence of that competition in the context of chaos and who will win in that competition?
SANY: As I said before, Russia is more equipped to benefit from chaos than China, than the United States. So they have tools such as Wagners, mercenary groups, etcetera, to take advantage of the coups. That’s why I’m not surprised that in Russia-led media, this coup is being already weaponized to push out an anti-French or Western sentiment.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, you know, it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve fallen into a common trap that we fall into here in the West. And that is looking at what’s happening in Africa through the lens of this great power competition. Which then, whether deliberately or accidentally, treats the African nations themselves as just a pawn in games played by other countries, which is of course not what those nations — that’s not how they want to be treated. So I’m just catching myself in falling in that that well-worn trap, unfortunately.
So we’re gonna come back to what what Niger itself and the Nigerian people want for their futures in a moment. But Joseph and Sarah, if you could just stay with me for a minute, we wanted to get a perspective from an African in another nearby country, and we spoke to Kwesi Aning. He’s in Ghana’s capital of Accra. And he’s a professor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre. And here’s how the coup in Niger looks from his perspective.
KWESI ANING: Niger is known as the frying pan of West Africa. Anything that happens in Niger affects multiple countries because it shares international boundaries with seven countries. Niger is also seen as the last bastion before violent extremists get to the coastal states. So Niger is pretty important in several instances. The Gulf of Guinea coast transports massive amounts of oil to continental United States and also to Europe. So having proper government control over the Gulf of Guinea states that is made up of 26 countries is extremely crucial.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Aning says that he actually wasn’t surprised by the coup. He said it was inevitable because of one crucial mistake he believes was made by President Bazoum.
ANING: One of the things that we need to understand in relation to African politics, particularly West African politics, is the role of France in controlling these countries that supposedly are independent. Because the French across Central West Africa and the Sahel are detested because of their history in these countries. Repressive, exploitative, disrespectful of human rights and consistently ensuring that the humanity of the citizens of these countries are not respected.
So when President Bazoum invited the French, the generality of the people in West Africa wondered, why do you want to take this risk? So, it didn’t come to me as a surprise at all. I knew it would happen, but I wasn’t sure what would trigger this overthrow.
CHAKRABARTI: But Aning says a purely military response, as we’ve heard from Joseph Sany — he agrees with Sany on this point, I should be clear — that a purely military response is inadequate to meet the threat of jihadi terrorism across the Sahel.
ANING: In the past three years, there have been 5,300 terror-related attacks leading to 16,000 lives being lost. Now, when you compare these figures to road traffic accidents then they pale. Totally. So whilst terrorism and our need to respond and to degrade terrorism groups are important, for most Africans, it’s about bread and butter issues: good roads, good hospitals, good schools, jobs, training. So we need a combination of both the military and the developmental interventions. That is the way to be able to degrade these groups.
CHAKRABARTI: Again, he sees the threat of jihadist terrorism as very real in the Sahel, but he also thinks countries like Niger sometimes play up the threat to the Gulf of Guinea nations because it means more Western aid.
ANING: I’ve just traveled from Togo, from Benin, the southern parts of Burkina Faso and the northern parts of Ghana, and just written a major report for the United Nations. I didn’t see this recruitment drive. I didn’t see a fear in the communities in which I traveled. People’s concerns were about whether they could grow vegetables all the year round, whether they could herd their cattle, whether they could farm their maize and their millet. So, it looks to me as if there is a narrative about this expansion that we need to disaggregate much better.
CHAKRABARTI: That was Kwesi Aning, professor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra in Ghana. Joseph Sany, what’s your response to what he said?
SANY: I think I — I agree with him, even though the comparison between the terrorist fatalities and the road is a little bit as we say, comparison is not reason because road accidents are not geocentric. So they’re not going out there to conquer territories and dictate laws and further abuses.
So, but overall, yes, he has a point. I think we have to be careful to prioritize security only. Because again, even when people mention Libya, Boko Haram did not wait for Libya to collapse to attack Nigeria, right?
SANY: The Tuareg rebellion in Mali did not wait for Libya. There was already a rebellion in Mali. So again we have to look at it from a governance and insufficient developmental response. The inability of the state to respond to citizen needs, the inability of leaders to put forward a genuine democratic agenda that respects human rights. So we have to look at it from that element, not only security alone.
SANY: And —
CHAKRABARTI: And if I can just jump in here because we only have a few minutes left. You’ve set it up for a perfect pivot to what needs to happen. And Sarah, let me turn to you because it’s been said over and over again this hour that, you know, obviously there’s the immediate urgency of the Nigerian coup at the moment, and that a diplomatic solution is far preferable to war. But as Joseph Sany said earlier, military intervention shouldn’t necessarily be taken off the table. Okay. We’ll see how that will unfold in the coming weeks and months.
But longer term, is this the wake-up call that the United States needed to really reassess how it’s spending its money or its policy in Africa, but particularly in the Sahel? Because as you mentioned earlier, a hundred million dollars for a military base in Niger and millions more dollars every year to support the people and equipment in that base and other, you know, vast sums of money for security. It sounds like, for long-term security in Niger, in the Sahel, and therefore for the United States, that money could be better used for strengthening the very democratic institutions that Joseph Sany has been talking about.
HARRISON: Yeah, a couple of things here. So one, I think U.S. officials who work the file would push back a little bit on saying that the U.S. is invested so heavily in security assistance and not other areas. It has invested greatly in agricultural reforms. Niger is an agricultural economy. So that’s really key to helping build the economy. It invests a lot of money in humanitarian aid. That is emergency assistance. It’s not, you know, more of the long-term sustainable assistance.
HARRISON: But they do push back a bit on that narrative even though there is so much money that is invested in security assistance. I think this is definitely a wake-up call for the U.S. I think they recognize that. I’ve talked to Biden administration officials who say that they are meeting at the highest levels. The cabinet is meeting on this issue, and I think there’s a lot of reflection happening to determine what is the way ahead, because their security relationships are imploding across the Sahel, in Mali and Burkina now in Niger and in Guinea.
In Guinea, the coup actually was occurring in the midst of a U.S. security training of U.S. military forces, where they were training the forces right as they were planning to leave and conduct the coup. So I — it should have been a wake-up call before, I think, Meghna, but now it definitely is.
And I think that Crisis Group, where I work, just had a really great briefing put out on what the Ivory Coast is doing. And it’s this mix of security assistance and socioeconomic reforms that are really helping to boost the lives of the youth in the northern region that is on the border with Burkina Faso.
HARRISON: And that kind of approach, of really integrating economic reforms and governance reforms, is going to be really key to stability in the Sahel. And so any partner that you know, partners with these countries moving forward is gonna have to remember that.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Joseph Sany, I’m gonna give you the last 20 seconds here, I’m afraid. You have mentioned that there’s also perhaps a hidden asset that we have in the African diaspora here. Can you just briefly tell us what you’re talking about?
SANY: Yes, I think we have something that other our competitors or other country don’t have. It is a vibrant diaspora, whether it is in business diplomacy, even religion. So I think we, in addition to our diversity, I think leveraging our diaspora could make a difference in this part of the world — whether small businesses, engaging with the diaspora in the United States and connecting them with the continent will be an asset that will serve us well.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Sarah Harrison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. I thank you both very much.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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