On July 26, Niger’s military detained the country’s president Mohamed Bazoum. Two days later, General Abdourahamane Tchiani named himself as the country’s new leader. This is yet another coup plaguing the Sahel, the region where the southern boundary of the Sahara gives way to sub-Saharan Africa. With the coup in Niger, there is now a connected chain of coup-led governments stretching across the Sahel from Guinea on the Atlantic coast to Sudan on the Red Sea.
Up until the coup, Niger was held up as a beacon of stability in the Sahel region. It had a functioning democracy, a stable economy, and close military relations with France and the US in the context of the New Cold War between the US and China. The coup, accompanied by large anti-France and pro-Russia demonstrations, has further escalated the New Cold War in the region.
The coup provoked condemnation from the US, while France and the EU cut off financial support and security cooperation with Niger. Leading figures from Niger’s neighbors in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held an emergency meeting in neighboring Nigeria. ECOWAS closed borders with the country, suspended all commercial and financial transactions between Niger and ECOWAS member states, and froze Nigerien assets held in regional central banks. Moreover, they released an ultimatum threatening military intervention if Bazoum wasn’t restored to power by Sunday, August 6.
In response, the military leaderships of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso issued a joint statement on July 31 warning that military intervention in Niger would constitute a declaration of war against them, and threatened “disastrous consequences.” These countries are currently run by coup leaders of their own who have driven out French and UN troops while forging closer ties with Russian imperialism.
In the end, the August 6 deadline came and went, and the ECOWAS states backed out of their threatened military intervention. Nonetheless, the danger remains that the global inter-imperialist rivalry will spill over into a regional conflict in the western Sahel region. Such a conflict will not establish functioning democracies in the coup-led states and will only further erode democracy in the region.
New Cold War in West Africa
The coup in Niger was accompanied by pro-coup demonstrations outside the French embassy. Demonstrators waved Nigerien and Russian flags and chanted “Long live Russia,” “Long live Putin,” and “Down with France.”
The New Cold War has been reflected in different regional conflicts breaking out around the world. The war in Ukraine is the most high-profile example. In West Africa, it’s expressed as a dispute between the US’s ally, France, re-asserting its influence in its former colonies, facing off against growing influence of China’s ally, Russia. West Africa, Niger’s neighbor Mali in particular, has become a center of activity for the Wagner Group, the notorious private mercenary group used by the Russian regime.
In the aftermath of US imperialism’s failed “War on Terror,” jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram were able to build a base in the western Sahel. This was exacerbated by the NATO-led overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi in 2011. The resulting chaos saw the spread of arms and mercenaries into the Sahel. Under the guise of humanitarian intervention, both the US and France sent troops to the region as part of a counter-insurgency campaign.
In addition to trying to rebuild French imperialism’s reputation in West Africa, Emmanuel Macron relies on Niger’s uranium supply for France’s extensive nuclear power network. And the European Union relies on Niger to block refugees from entering EU countries. This one-sided relationship between French imperialism and its former colonies has led to a growth of anti-French sentiment in the region, especially as French and U.S. forces have failed to hold back the terror attacks. Russian imperialism, backed by figures in the West African ruling class, have leaned on these anti-French sentiments to give their own reactionary politics an anti-imperialist sheen. The Wagner Group, taking advantage of the same disarray that fueled the rise of the jihadist insurgents, has billed itself as a force that can more effectively take on those groups.
The result has been a rise in coups in the region preying off popular resentment against French imperialism and national government’s inability to take on the insurgents. In Niger’s neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, the coup leaders have since kicked out French and UN troops. Mali has brought in the Wagner Group. Burkina Faso claims not to have done so, but has still leaned more on Russian imperialism.
Tchiani’s coup in Niger follows a similar pattern. When Nigerien army spokesman Amadou Abdramane announced Bazoum’s ouster he cited “the continuous deterioration of the security situation” as well as “bad social and economic management” as rationale for the coup. A particular sticking point was Bazoum’s unwillingness to collaborate with Mali and Burkina Faso in the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The failure of French and US imperialism in the region, and the corresponding growth of Russian imperialism, poses the possibility of a regional war breaking out. While French and US imperialism want to re-assert dominance in the region, they’d prefer to avoid an all-out regional war. This helps explain why the ECOWAS states backed off of their August 6 ultimatum. Biden, while condemning the coup, avoided using the word “coup.” The Biden administration is still holding out hope that Tchiani can maintain support for US and French imperialism. Kiari Liman Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to the US, told Bloomberg TV that, under the weight of sanctions, the junta “will come to reason and give back power” without military intervention being necessary.
These are all possibilities. Tchiani has no specific imperialist interest. He was trained by French and US imperialism and even defended Bazoum against a previous coup attempt in 2021. But the New Cold War has a logic of its own and tensions are escalating. Even with the ECOWAS states backing out of military intervention, the Nigerien junta has closed its airspace in preparation for a future attack.
Biden’s Democracy Hypocrisy
When Biden ran for office in 2020, he sought to brand his foreign policy as building a “coalition of democracies.” This sought to reframe the New Cold War as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. The Biden administration has taken the same approach to Africa.
At the beginning of the year, numerous figures in the Biden administration, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris made tours of African countries, with Blinken visiting Niger in March. These visits had the ostensible aim of promoting democracy in the region. In reality, they were to promote US interests in the New Cold War, especially getting African support for Ukraine. When Blinken visited Niger, he specifically warned about the growing influence of Russia and the Wagner Group in the region, saying, “Where Wagner’s been present, bad things inevitably follow.”
Blinken’s comments aren’t wrong, but they’re incomplete. The Wagner Group has countless massacres under its belt. However, they’re only able to make inroads in regions where “bad things” have already been happening. Niger’s own democratic credentials prior to the coup were dubious. The government has routinely harassed and jailed journalists and opposition activists. The Nigerien army has been accused of massacring civilians in its war against the jihadists, and burying them in mass graves. Not only was Tchiani himself trained by the US military, but the US-trained officers were involved in eleven of the coups in West Africa since 2008.
Russian and Chinese imperialism won’t improve things, and “bad things will inevitably follow” any involvement of the Wagner Group. But Biden, Macron, and Bazoum can’t be relied on to genuinely defend democracy. Nor will military intervention by ECOWAS.
An alternative approach was shown in Burkina Faso in 2014 when workers rose up to overthrow the French-aligned military dictator Blaise Compoaré, and when they foiled a coup attempt the following year. Nigeria’s pro-US president Bola Tinubu was recently seeking Senate support for military intervention in Niger. However, his anti-poor actions at home have provoked mass strikes. Even in France, in the belly of the beast, Macron has faced working-class revolts against austerity measures and racist policing.
The working class in Niger, West Africa, and internationally, has the power to defend democracy, fight imperialism (regardless of which bloc) and build a socialist society that can meet people’s needs and deprive jihadist groups of their base of support.