Did the Niger coup just succeed? And other questions answered about what’s next in the Sahel

Aug 10, 2023

It’s tough to tell which is more important: what did or did not happen. First, what happened: On August 10, a military junta declared a new government in Niger. This came after the junta, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, seized power on July 26 from Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, who remains under house arrest.

Then there is what did not happen. On July 30, Bola Tinubu, the Nigerian president and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) chair, gave the coup leaders a one-week ultimatum to restore the country’s previous leadership or face a military intervention from the regional bloc—a deadline that came and went with no action. On August 10, ECOWAS leaders met and issued a statement with a mixed message: it ordered the activation of a “standby force,” but also resolved to “keep all options on the table for the peaceful resolution of the crisis.”

Below, Atlantic Council experts answer the crucial questions these developments raise for policymakers in the Sahel, Europe, and the United States.

1. Why has ECOWAS backed away from its ultimatum?

Tinubu is politically weak and facing significant pushback domestically, including from major northern Nigerian Muslim leaders. He was only recently elected after a contested election, and his recent decisions aimed at improving Nigeria’s economy, above all his move to end Nigeria’s fuel subsidy, are unpopular and causing disruption to the economy. At the same time, Nigeria is struggling with its own insurgencies in northern Nigeria, and northern Nigerians and southern Nigeriens are more or less the same people. There is a great deal of cross-border movement and commerce, which sanctions disrupt. While many Nigerians, northerners included, appreciate that the coup hurts their neighbor’s stability and security, they also appreciate the harm done by sanctions and have a difficult time rallying to the idea of a military intervention.

In addition, in practical terms, marshaling a military force requires more time and planning than Tinubu probably realized. These countries tend not to have significant rapid reaction forces; they can’t just drop battalions wherever they want on short notice, as France and the United States can. What exactly would Nigeria and ECOWAS do if they could put together the required forces? But the longer it takes, the more politically untenable any military intervention becomes.

ECOWAS’s failure to effect any change will be a blow to its influence. There will be important ramifications in terms of ECOWAS’s relations with Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, which all have juntas that ECOWAS has been pushing to transition to civilian rule. ECOWAS has forced them to accept “transition timetables” for holding elections and has been trying to push these juntas to comply. ECOWAS’s ability to do so is much reduced by this affair. The region’s juntas, I am sure, feel emboldened.

Michael Shurkin is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Besides setting an initial deadline that gave the putschists time to consolidate support within the Nigerien military and rally the Nigerien population, especially among the youth, against what it could point to as outside interference, ECOWAS violated the first rule of diplomatic engagement: never make a promise or a threat unless you are prepared to follow through. ECOWAS has never successfully intervened to reverse a coup. (The case of Senegal’s intervention in The Gambia in 2017 is a unique circumstance that does not really count. The Gambia is a very small country surrounded on three sides by Senegal, whose army was the force mandated by ECOWAS to intervene in a case where a president was refusing to accept an election loss.) Moreover, ECOWAS has not prepared for an intervention in Niger. In the end, only two members, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, would even say that they would support a military intervention with forces and they offered no specific commitments.

This elementary mistake was compounded by another one by Nigeria: never make an international commitment unless you have broad domestic support. Tinubu soon found that the Nigerian senate, where his party holds the majority, would not back intervention and both the main Muslim umbrella organization led by the sultan of Sokoto and the Nigerian Catholic Bishops’ Conference came out against the use of force.

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J. Peter Pham is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the first-ever US special envoy for the Sahel region.

I am not sure that ECOWAS has backed away from its ultimatum. The last news I read was calling for a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the member states. Nevertheless, I do agree that a military intervention is highly unlikely for a simple reason: the lack of military capabilities, especially for the transportation of troops. At a minimum, logistical support from the United States or France would be a requisite, and I doubt the two countries would be ready to provide it. A de facto blockade of Niger may be the decision by default, even if its effectiveness would be limited.

Gérard Araud is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and a former ambassador of France to the United States (2014-2019).

The ultimatum was conceived as a negotiation strategy rather than a timetable to prepare for an intervention. ECOWAS hoped to push the junta to back off. If the likelihood of the intervention decreased with time, though, Niger is still not off the hook. Coastal ECOWAS countries understand that much is at stake and if putschists in Niamey aren’t put in line, their own political survival is at risk. Successful examples are appealing. That’s why ECOWAS decided at today’s meeting to retain intervention as an option on the table. However, it’s still more likely that ECOWAS would rather exercise its pressure through sanctions, which have an even greater potential to bite than in the case of Mali or Burkina Faso.

Petr Tůma is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

2. Did the coup in Niger just succeed?

Yes, the coup succeeded, as France decided not to intervene in its first hours. Now it is too late.

—Gérard Araud

Yes. The only hope for reversing it is a domestic rebellion and possible civil war. A prominent Tuareg former rebel leader has announced he was forming a group to do precisely that. Western countries should stay far away from him.

Michael Shurkin

Yes.  The “golden hour” for reversing a coup is the first day or two, at most. After that, it becomes very difficult unless there is active opposition within the military. In Niger, to avoid fratricidal conflict, the senior brass acquiesced to the coup. And with the appointment of a new cabinet, the junta is increasingly getting settled in.

J. Peter Pham

3. What is at stake for France and the European Union?

The coup is confirming the collapse of France’s policy in the Sahel, which it has implemented since its intervention in Mali in 2013 and, more widely, of its policy in Francophone Africa. The question is whether it will stop there or if it will affect other countries where the same anti-French feeling is flaming (Senegal?). France has to radically change its policy: this will be painful for its armed forces, which have always played a major role in its conception. For the European Union (EU), the questions will be more pedestrian: How to relate with military juntas? How to dissociate itself from France without antagonizing it?

—Gérard Araud

In the aftermath of the 2021 Mali military coup, when the junta opted for cooperation with the Wagner group, France and its European partners had to withdraw their forces from the country. As Burkina Faso suffered a military coup soon after, Niger appeared as the best option for Europeans to continue helping local governments in fighting against terrorism. Importantly, Russia had no presence in the country. The current coup risks upending European military deployments not only in Niger but also in the broader Sahel region, as there are not many other options available. One can still consider Chad or Mauritania, but these are fortunately not the hot spots of terrorist activities.

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Further instability in Niger, which may follow if the coup succeeds, could become an even bigger challenge for Europeans than Mali or Burkina Faso. One of the main migration routes to the southern Mediterranean coast from Sub-Saharan Africa goes through Niger, namely the city of Agadez, a well-known regional crossroad for migrants.

—Petr Tůma

France clearly is suffering a blow to its prestige and influence in the region. (France will be fine in the long term—the Sahel just isn’t that important to it.) Recent events have proven that there is not much France can do that will not be negatively perceived by many if not most Sahelians, regardless of France’s intentions or the utility of French assistance. It is time for France to leave Africa and close its bases there.

The EU can weather this storm, as other bloc members do not provoke the same allergic reaction that France does. That said, the coup almost certainly will exacerbate the region’s security problems, which among other things adds to the refugee crisis.

Michael Shurkin

France will probably have to withdraw its 1,500 troops from Niger, dealing another blow to its postcolonial ambitions of having a special role in its former colonies. The junta has already announced the withdrawal of Niger from five different military and security cooperation agreements. In many respects, the fact that the coup was not reversed and Bazoum was not rescued from his safe room in the first hours of the mutiny are indicative of the state of affairs. In the heyday of Françafrique, there is no question of how it would have played out. To use another French term, the dénouement is complete.

J. Peter Pham

4. Should the United States now get more involved?

Yes. The United States can go where France cannot and should not. It can and should do more in terms of all manner of assistance. The catch is that by essentially acquiescing to the coup in Niger, not to mention those in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, it is betraying its own rhetoric regarding democracy promotion.

Michael Shurkin

Yes. Not only has the United States made a significant investment—over $500 million in military assistance and roughly $2 billion in humanitarian and development aid over a decade, stretching across three administrations of both parties, as well as lives sacrificed, something we should not forget—but that commitment has paid off in gains on both the security and human development fronts. The first six months of this year saw the lowest levels of extremist violence in Niger since 2018—and this was at a time when the Global Terrorism Index recorded jihadist activity spiking across the rest of the Sahel.

Moreover, it is rather telling that while anti-French rhetoric has reached a fever pitch in Niger and the French embassy was even attacked by mobs who set its gates on fire, there has not been a single protestor at the new US Embassy nor any call for the departure of the more than one thousand US military personnel on the two air bases in Niger.

Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland mentioned an offer of US “good offices.” The United States can do that as well as much more. It is in the United States’ own interests.

J. Peter Pham

ECOWAS should take the lead and the United States should support it. Yet, there is space for parallel US diplomatic engagement in explaining to the junta what it would really mean to cut cooperation with the West, as well as the pitfalls of getting into bed with Russia.

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—Petr Tůma

The United States may be tempted to step in for the reasons other experts have emphasized, but I am deeply skeptical considering what has happened in Niger: a fairly correct democratic process, a reformed French policy striving to respect local sensitivities, an approval of the French presence by the parliament, etc., and still, a military coup. I understand that military requirements will lead the United States to try to stay in Niger, but any legitimization of the junta would be a blow to our friends within ECOWAS.

—Gérard Araud

5. Have Burkina Faso and Mali come out stronger by supporting the coup?

In terms of popular opinion, yes, although Niger’s decline over the long term only compounds their own problems.

Michael Shurkin

No. Despite getting some publicity for chest-thumping, especially from Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the head of the junta in Burkina Faso, their own inadequacies showed even more clearly. At the end of the day, for all the talk of declarations of war and standing by Niger, all they could do was send a joint delegation in “solidarity.” This is no surprise since both countries have enough of a challenge fighting extremists in their own territory and no capacity for even getting forces deployed abroad even if they had them.

J. Peter Pham

Yes, Mali and Burkina Faso may see the coup in Niger, the closest partner of France in the region, as a political success and the confirmation of popular support for their policies. It may also have an echo elsewhere in the region.

—Gérard Araud

I don’t believe so, especially from a long-term perspective. Both countries are economically dependent on cooperation and aid coming from abroad. Their behavior, which contributes to instability in the region, will certainly make their partners and donors more reluctant, and working with Russia will not make up for it. Their project is not sustainable in the long run, especially amid the spread of terrorism, which is likely to follow the current turmoil.

—Petr Tůma

6. What does this reveal about Nigeria’s regional leadership?

It shows that Nigeria’s leadership is limited by its own domestic problems, as well as the popular sentiment that views it and ECOWAS as instruments of Western powers, however irrational that view is.

Michael Shurkin

The problem with Nigeria’s foreign policy has always been its domestic limitations, but it also suffers from the dismal state of its military forces, as has been shown in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

—Gérard Araud

The ongoing crisis—with a new putschist alliance being shaped in the region—creates an even stronger demand for leadership among ECOWAS countries. It will depend on how the situation evolves, but there’s a good chance that it’ll further strengthen Abuja’s position in the region. There are still plenty of options for pressuring Niger’s junta beyond military intervention and Nigeria is well-positioned here.

—Petr Tůma

A “work-in-progress” would be a generous characterization.

J. Peter Pham

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