– Only four days remain in the deadline established by a coalition of West African nations for Niger to return to democratic rule, a demand that has been shunned by fellow military-led Burkina Faso and Mali, who have jointly warned that any intervention would amount to a declaration of war.
While conflict is far from guaranteed, the conditions for a major escalation are quickly brewing on a continent that has played host to some of the deadliest wars of the past century. Such a confrontation would have vast ramifications, not only for the peoples of the Sahel region, but far beyond, with the potential to draw in the likes of the United States, France and Russia among other invested powers.
And with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Chair Nigerian President Bola Tinubu committed to undoing Nigerien General Abdourahamane “Omar” Tchiani’s takeover of the neighboring nation last week, the threat of a confrontation looms heavy on the horizon.
“I think we shouldn’t underestimate ECOWAS’ resolve to see this coup fail in Niger,” Ibrahim Maiga, senior adviser of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel Project, told Newsweek.
“Tinubu has shown firmness in terms of seeing this not go through, and Tinubu is loyal for all the strong decisions that he took in his country,” he added. “So, we shouldn’t underestimate his willingness to go that far, including the use of military intervention.”
Gentle, who previously served as special adviser to Mali’s prime minister between two military coups that occurred in that country in 2020 and 2021, was skeptical of Burkina Faso and Mali’s capacity to resist such an incursion through military force, but he spoke to the urgency through which they have responded.
“They suspect that, if ECOWAS were to succeed in reversing the coup in Niger, they would all be under threat of seeing ECOWAS coming to their own countries,” You got May. “So, it’s actually for their own security too and for themselves.”
On the other hand, if ECOWAS fails to restore Niger’s democracy and “if the coup in Niger succeeds,” You got May, “I think that other countries should start fearing that something similar will happen to them.”
The high stakes of the situation in Niger extend beyond the Sahel but its causes are ultimately rooted in longstanding issues at home and in the immediate region.
Despite the impoverished conditions in which much of the country’s roughly 25 million people live, Niger is home to a wealth of resources, including uranium that serves as a major export to European nations such as former colonizer France. Niger secured its independence in 1960 and has since experienced intermittent periods of military and democratic rule, the latest of which occurred with President Mohamed Bazoum, who appears to be in custody since his ousting last week.
As is the case in many post-colonial states in West Africa, France has maintained strong influence in Niger, including a military presence. Around 1,500 French troops are stationed there as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations against groups active in the broader Sahel region, including those tied to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
Niger’s importance to the French military footprint in Africa has grown in recent years as French forces were expelled from neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as from the Central African Republic. In each of these countries, growing anti-French sentiment has been matched by a swell of support for Russia and its leading private military company, the Wagner Group, whose chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, welcomed Tchiani’s takeover.
Russian flags and anti-French slogans were abundant in Niger among supporters of the upheaval and the establishment of the now-ruling National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. Non-state actors have also seized on the discontent, with a group known as the M62 Movement threatening to detain European nationals until foreign troops are expelled from the country.
Gentle, however, asserted that Moscow’s influence was not the driving factor behind the mutiny and the rise in anti-Western sentiment. Instead, he pointed to factors both local and regional.
“It all goes back to the history of colonialism, neocolonialism, but recently what makes anti-French sentiment stronger is the perception that France is not playing a fair game in its fight against terrorism,” You got May.
While Niger has had greater success in the fight against Sahel-based insurgency than Burkina Faso and Mali, insecurity remains a major issue in the country in spite of a decade of French support. Also weighing on the minds of Nigeriens is a “growing disenchantment with the democratic elite” leading the country who “have not given the example of right and effective governance, addressing people’s needs, performing up to people’s expectations,” according to Maiga.
J. Peter Pham, an Atlantic Council fellow who served as U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes from 2018 to 2020 and then as special envoy for Sahel up until 2021, also spoke to these underlying issues.
He argued that, throughout his tenure, he emphasized that “the crisis of the region is, ultimately, one of state legitimacy, of the social contract between citizens and their governments—which, of course, implies an honest effort on the part of the latter to deliver security in its fullest sense, beginning with security from physical attacks by jihadist insurgents—as well as government forces—but also embracing some modicum of basic necessities of life.”
“The challenge for governments is that after decades of nonperformance, the patience of citizens is exhausted and many, manipulated by disinformation campaigns exploiting legitimate grievances, are willing to embrace the mirage of a quick fix,” Pham told Newsweek.
Like Maiga, he noted the rise in anti-French sentiment that he too partially blamed on the rise of concerted disinformation campaigns while also noting legitimate divisions between the positions of Washington and its European allies, even as they seek to band together resist Moscow’s actions thousands of miles away in Ukraine.
“I have long argued that while the United States shares values and many interests with our European allies, the latter are not completely aligned, especially in the Sahel,” Pham said. “We need to keep that in mind and, while we do not want open breaches while the conflict continues in Ukraine, neither should we be hesitant to ensure that our African partners, military forces and civilian populations, are clear on the strategic motivations and objectives of our engagement.”
The U.S. also maintains roughly 1,000 troops in Niger, including at an air base in the city of Agadez, which has served as the center for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) drone operations. U.S. operations in the country drew international attention in 2017 when four U.S. Special Forces and four Nigerien Armed Forces personnel were killed in an ambush claimed by ISIS’ Greater Sahara branch.
With international tensions now overshadowing the extant jihadi threat, an AFRICOM spokesperson told Newsweek that “AFRICOM is continuing to monitor the situation in Niger and statements made by officials, including statements from ECOWAS and neighboring countries.”
As defense chiefs of active ECOWAS member states gathered to discuss their response to the situation in Niger, including the potential use of force, Niger’s former defense chief and current deputy junta leader, Major General Salifou Modi, who was sacked by President Bazoum in March, traveled to both Mali and Burkina Faso to shore up ties between the countries.
So, while Pham too doubted that Burkina Faso and Mali could muster up a serious military challenge to a potential ECOWAS intervention against Niger given the two nations’ ongoing struggles with insurgency, he said “they are trying to signal their political commitment, despite their lack of actual capacity.”
ECOWAS does have a history of such interventions dating back to 1990, when the West African coalition deployed troops to defend Liberia’s government amid civil war. But this campaign, like those that followed, produced mixed results, with Liberia returning to civil war in 2003, drawing a second intervention. The recent military takeovers in Burkina Faso and Mali have further undermined ECOWAS’ record, as did the 2021 seizure of power by the armed forces in Guinea, which, along with Algeria, has joined in the rejection of intervention in Niger.
But Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at the Development Reimagined think tank, warned that “intervening has never been this dicey” as it is in the case of Niger, as it marks the first time two separate nations, themselves suspended members of ECOWAS, have vowed to meet such action with force.
“That means this is no longer intervention,” Eguegu told Newsweek. “The moment that troops from Nigeria or Chad cross into Niger, we now have a war in West Africa. These are not militant groups, these are countries with standing armies, conventional armies, so this is going to be a conventional war.”
And he warned that “West Africa, particularly the Sahel region, is not in the condition to deal with the war,” not least because of the ongoing threat posed by militant groups and the lack of capacity of neighboring states to handle the inevitable mass flow of refugees that would result from such a protracted conflict.
The risks are compounded when the possibility of foreign powers being drawn in are considered, as was the case in the NATO-led intervention against longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. The subsequent destabilization of Libya helped to cultivate fertile ground for militant activities across the Sahel in what Eguegu called a “very devastating” event of which “African countries are still dealing with the outcome.”
Tchiani referenced the example of Libya directly on Wednesday during a speech in which he vowed his country would stand strong against those who seek to “destroy” it and thanked the countries that were standing in solidarity with his defiance of external threats.
The component of great-power competition between the West, China and Russia is also aggravating temperaments surrounding the situation in Niger.
“Because of the tension between Russia and the West now, many groups of people, militias and even some disgruntled military officers see the opportunity for power grabs and that is what is happening,” Eguegu said. “And the West sees this dynamic as well and says, ‘We have to intervene because this has to stop somewhere.'”
Still, Eguegu argued there was a chance for a “middle ground” response, but he warned that any form of intervention risked escalating in the absence of a plan “to go diplomatically and politically and engage with these putschists and try to solve this issue politically.”
“The stakes are very high, not only the stakes, but the collateral of this being a debacle is very high,” Eguegu said. “It’s not even a military problem, the issue is a political problem.”
So far, Russia has not endorsed the military takeover in Niger and has called for a restoration of constitutional order. At the same time, Moscow has warned against any outside intervention.
At a time when relations between the West and Russia are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, throughout which the Soviet Union forged partnerships with anti-colonial movements across Africa, Moscow has sought to reinvigorate its ties on the continent, including through a high-profile leaders’ summit held in Saint Petersburg late last month.
Colin P. Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group who has specialized in counterterrorism research and testified before Congress on the issue, warned of “the worst-case scenario” should tensions in Niger flare up into a “regional conflagration.”
“This could take on the dimensions of a regional proxy war, with Western countries supporting ECOWAS and Russia supporting Niger—and Burkina Faso and Mali, if they joined in—with muscle from the Wagner Group,” Clarke told Newsweek. “Civilians would be caught in the crossfire and it would vastly increase the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster, while also driving migration throughout the region, putting further stress on governments already overwhelmed by climate change and spillover violence.”
In that event, “the only clear winner” identified by Clarke “would be jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which would use the instability to recruit and fundraise, while also seeking to capitalize on the chaos by taking over new swaths of territory.”
And though these jihadi groups are the common enemy of both African nations and the great powers vying for influence on the continent, Clarke argued it was unlikely that the likes of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Beijing would be able to put their differences aside to pursue common goals in Africa.
“What’s happening in the Sahel is not a sideshow to great power competition, it is great power competition,” Clarke said. “The events unfolding are not doing so in a vacuum. The U.S., France, China, and Russia each have their own vested interests in Sahelian countries.”
“But the geopolitical dynamics have changed drastically within the past several years. Western countries have very little influence or ability to project power in this region,” he added. “Russia has far more clout than it did even just a few years ago. And, per Beijing’s typical modus operandi, the Chinese are waiting patiently, looking for opportunities to maximize their economic interests without being sucked into a military quagmire.”