The July 26 coup in Niger came as a surprise. No one had seen it coming either inside the country or in the French or American government offices, although they are generally well informed about the situation in African countries. A paradox for a country which has just experienced its fifth coup d’état and as many attempts, not to mention the countless mood swings in the barracks.
A coup d’état with unspeakable reasons
This coup is not the result of a mutiny or anger on the part of the military which degenerated into a takeover of power as was the case, for example, in Mali in March 2012 with Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo. On the contrary, that of Niger was carefully planned. So to ensure the success of this enterprise, the regiments loyal to the former president, Mohamed Bazoum, were moved away from the capital Niamey.
Beyond the immediate success of the coup, General Abdourahamane Tiani, the new strongman of Niger, does not benefit from strong support in the ranks of the army and its hierarchy. It was after two days of bitter discussions that the chief of staff Abdou Sidikou Issa sided with the coup makers, with the sole objective of avoiding a bloodbath. The new power seems relatively weak, especially since Tiani is far from unanimous in an army undermined by multiple conflicts between regiments, networks and community affiliations. Tiani has managed to skilfully compensate for this weakness through his confrontation with the regional authorities of West Africa.
The official reasons justifying this pronunciamiento are, to say the least, classic. During his statement read on national television, Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane, one of the representatives of the putschists, announced the creation of a National Council for the Protection of the Fatherland (CNSP). He explained that their action is “motivated by the sole desire to protect Niger from the continued deterioration of the security situation, and this without the deposed authorities giving us a glimpse of a real solution to the crisis”. In their quest for legitimacy, the generals mention the fight against corruption and the need for a change of strategy in the fight against jihadist attacks.
It is difficult to hear these arguments from those who, for years, participated as army leaders in this strategy. The vice-president of the CNSP, General Salifou Modi, former chief of staff, had also, a few months earlier, welcomed President Bazoum’s record. As for corruption, the biggest affair uncovered three years ago concerns precisely the army with overbilling and embezzlement which have continued for years.
Some saw in this coup the hand of the former President of the Republic Mahamadou Issoufou who after two mandates had handed over to Bazoum. The fact that he did not immediately condemn the action of the generals or that he would have taken up their arguments during private conversations with certain chancery officials, seem tenuous facts to support this accusation. For his part, he refuted all these allegations. It is difficult to see his interest in participating in this coup, when his son Sani Mahamadou had just been appointed minister of petroleum affairs while the country is preparing to increase its hydrocarbon production tenfold.
The work of this coup d’état is above all an operation of the presidential guard, an elite army unit made up of 700 especially well-equipped men. Tiani, who assumed the title of president of the Transition Council, had played his role perfectly by foiling a coup attempt against Bazoum a few days before his induction into the presidency.
Tiani is considered very close to Issoufou, he owes him his appointment and was reappointed by Bazoum. An opportunity for this brigadier general to enrich himself. He owns many livestock in his native region, Filingué, as well as property and houses. In 2015 during a coup attempt, his name was mentioned but due to lack of evidence, he was not prosecuted.
The reasons given to explain this coup are to be found in the relationship between Bazoum and the security apparatus. In fact, at the end of March this year he had appointed new heads of staff of the Defense and Security Forces, had also made changes to the management of the national gendarmerie and was also to undertake a reorganization of the presidential guard. The risk for Tiani of losing his position was almost certain. The dismissal of Bazoum was the only solution to perpetuate his enrichment. A system that transforms the function, or position in the administration, as a source of financing to maintain a clientelist network. This is also part of the particular role that senior officers play on the political scene. Indeed in Niger, this is not a unique case, there is no airtight boundary between senior officer and politician. Of the ten presidents of Niger, six are military personnel.
The alternating between the military and civilian power is not new. To take a single example, which recalls the current situation, during the pre-colonial period, in the 19th century the kingdom of Katsina, located straddling Niger and Nigeria, suffered jihadist attacks led by Ousman dan Fodio. This crisis will provoke violent competitions between the kaouraye, the warlords and the sarakouna, the sovereigns for control of power. Even if these warriors could not formally reign, they will succeed in effectively directing the destiny of the kingdoms.
At the start of the colonial era around 1910, Niger was directly administered by French officers. The administrative officers were distinguished from the purely military ones. Civilian personnel were reduced to a few units.
Kountché’s coup d’état in 1974 and his longevity – he remained in power until 1987 – greatly contributed to the politicization of the army. The military were appointed to all high positions in the public service, whether town halls, governorates, embassies, ministries, etc. A trend that continued. The Nigerien political scene is as much occupied by the military as by civilians. The consequence is that the agenda of senior officers can be identical to that of politicians, including on the issues of taking power, which some attempt through elections, and others through forceful coups.
Crisis of political representation
In two years in power, Bazoum’s record is the least worst, compared to Mali and Burkina Faso. He succeeded Issoufou Mahamadou. Both are members of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), which despite its promising name, pursued a policy of profiteering, corruption and repression.
From the start Bazoum attempted to resolve the security crisis by using military means and negotiations simultaneously. Across the country, discussions took place with representatives of different communities and Islamist fighters through the mediation of notables. He refused to arm civilian militias and integrated those that existed into the army. He was aware of the risks of intercommunity conflicts, the same ones that occur in Burkina Faso and Mali. The putschists accused him of having freed jihadists but that was the price to pay for initiating discussions with the rebels.
A mixed result but which leaves his country as the least affected by Islamist attacks. As for the reception of the French army, particularly after its departure from Mali and then from Burkina Faso, it was done within a specific framework. The direction of military operations was entirely in the hands of Nigerien officers, with the French army only intervening as reinforcement.
But a less worse record is not a good record, especially for the people of Niger. The problems encountered are numerous. The shrinking of democratic life in the country marked by the imprisonment of civil society activists such as Abdoulaye Seydou, leader of the M62 coalition, Idrissa Adamou National Coordinator of the NGO Notre Cause Commune (Our Common Cause) or Badja Abdou Awal member of the MPCR (Movement for the Promotion of Responsible Citizenship). The right to information was also undermined with the arrests of two investigative journalists Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar. The government used the tactic of banning opposition rallies at the last moment, thus allowing it to arrest the leaders.
It is in this context that the last presidential elections took place. Despite incidents during the vote, it is difficult to speak of massive fraud or over-turning of the results. But the sincerity of the vote is in question because the other candidates were unable to freely conduct their electoral campaign. Bazoum also owes his election victory to a weak, divided and largely discredited opposition. One of the main opponents was involved in a criminal case. He was an accomplice to one of his wives, guilty of stealing babies in Nigeria.
The deterioration of democratic life in the country is accompanied by an economic crisis which is hitting the population hard. It is those in the countryside that are most affected. According to OCHA, the United Nations humanitarian agency, seven million people are food insecure. Youth unemployment is endemic. Niger’s Human Development Index is one of the lowest in the world.
The Role of the French Army
If the political conditions for accepting the French army remain different from those which took place in Mali and Burkina Faso, many Nigeriens are opposed to them.
Several factors explain this disapproval. History first, the conditions of colonization were particularly harsh and brutal against the populations, symbolized by the repression against the Sawaba movement.
In 1957, within the framework of the framework law for French Africa, the Sawaba Party won the elections. Coming from trade union circles, this nationalist and Marxist organization demanded immediate independence for Niger. A key country at the time for its supply of uranium to France, the colonial power, in defiance of the Constitution, sent a new prefect who seized power. Thus, as the Dutch historian Klaas van Walraven points out, it was France which inaugurated the first coup d’état and the breakdown of constitutional order in Niger and more generally in Africa. The Sawaba movement was then banned, it attempted, in vain, to seize power, and a terrible repression followed against the leaders and activists of this organization.
If the reception conditions of the French army have changed, it is not certain that the behaviour of the French soldiers has changed much in view of the Tera affair. It was in this village, following a demonstration against the French army convoy which was crossing the territory, that repression ensued. Three young people were killed and seventeen others injured, probably victims of fire from French soldiers.
No serious investigation was carried out and the Bazoum government buried the case, thus offering impunity to those responsible for these assassinations.
Bazoum took a risk by accepting that his country should be one of the bases of the French army in Africa. French policy on the Continent does not have a good press for many reasons. We can cite, without being exhaustive, the colonial history, the policy of Françafrique, the behaviour of most French people there, its immigration policy, the repeated attacks against Islam in France. All this is reinforced by Macron’s arrogant attitude during his trips to the Continent. His offensive statements in 2017 on the excessively high fertility rate of Nigerian women remain in many memories.
In search of other paths
These coups, for those who welcomed them with joy, represent an alternative not only to the power in place but also to the type of political system. It is not so much a question of calling into question democracy but rather its ruling elites who for decades, whether in opposition or in power, have pursued the same neoliberal policies, which place the country in an unfavourable position in the international division of labour.
The results of the surveys established by Afro-Barometre in June 2022 on a sample of 1,200 people are enlightening in this respect. On the question of Nigeriens’ attachment to democracy: “There are several ways to run a country. Would you disagree or agree with the following alternatives: Only one political party is allowed to run for office and govern?” “Strongly disagree” and “Disagree” represented more than 82% of respondents. To the statement: “Democracy is preferable to any other form of government.” 65% approve against only 12% for the statement: “In certain circumstances, a non-democratic government may be preferable.” This majority positioning of Nigeriens in favour of democracy is combined with the idea: “It is legitimate for the armed forces to take control of the government when elected leaders abuse their power for their own interests.” which received the agreement of 75%. This survey also expressed distrust for the officials of this country and the effectiveness of the fight against corruption. The seizure of power by the military is not seen by many Nigeriens as a setback of democracy, but on the contrary a means of improving governance by a body of the State which appears to be the most efficient.
On the Continent, there is essentially a search on the part of young people for an alternative, for a system which not only offers prospects but which restores the dignity and pride of being African. This research sometimes takes unexpected paths. Part of the popularity of Islamists among young people can be traced to this quest for change. These radical forms attract.
Some observers see jihadist conflicts as a kind of peasant revolution. A questioning of the social strata existing in the countryside and the privileges associated with them. Just as on another scale, we can mention the enthusiasm a few years ago for China which would, in its wake as a world power, lead the Continent.
We also remember the joy and pride in Africa during the election of Obama. In all cases, expectations were disappointed. The speeches of the military coup makers, regardless of their sincerity, are in line with these aspirations for profound change. A large part of young people experience this period as a renewal of their country. Even if there are strong differences between the putschists of Mali and Burkina Faso on the one hand and those of Niger on the other, who are an integral part of the old political inner circle.
ECOWAS or the alliance of West African autocrats
The putsch in Niger is obviously a hard blow both for the imperialist countries and for West African leaders. For the first, this represents a defeat, for the others a serious warning.
The extremely severe measures of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) can be explained firstly by the personality of the Nigerian president who is at the head of this body. His recent victory in the presidential elections, contested by the opposition, pushes him to implement his electoral program. Give Nigeria back the place it should occupy given the number of inhabitants and its economic power.
Bola Tinubu intends for his country to play a leading role in the West African region. Other leaders, like the Ivorian, Ouattara, and the Senegalese, Macky Sall, are trying, by appearing intractable on the issue of coups, to enhance their image as democrats, although they are very damaged.
For the first, Ouattara, we remember that it was through a rebellion supported by the Burkinabé dictator Blaise Compaoré in 2002 that he came to power a few years later and remained there with a third mandate, despite the Constitution. His friend Macky Sall has led the most significant attacks against democratic rights since the establishment of the multiparty system. His relentlessness against his main opponent Ousmane Sonko reveals the refusal of any alternation.
Finally, we must mention the Beninese President, Patrice Talon, a supporter of the ECOWAS hard line. He too has undermined the rule of law in his country, but unlike the others he claims it. During his visit to “La Rencontre des Entrepreneurs de France (Meeting of the Entrepreneurs of France)” in 2022, perhaps encouraged by his audience, he proudly announced
“From now on in Benin, strikes are prohibited in vital sectors such as health, police, firefighters and everything that contributes to the survival of fellow citizens. In other sectors, the strike is limited to a maximum of two days per month and ten days per year” and conceded: “It’s true, it’s a step backwards in relation to democratic achievements”.
It is this band of villains which operates the economic blockade against Niger leading to dramatic consequences for the populations of one of the poorest countries in the world. Nigeria has cut its electricity exports on which Niger depends for 90% of its light. 6,000 tonnes of goods from the World Food Program are blocked at the Benin border. Already after only a week of the blockade, the price of rice had increased by 20%.
ECOWAS calls for the restoration of constitutional legality while the latest sanctions taken against Mali were deemed illegal by the Court of Justice of the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMOA). As for a military intervention in Niger, most observers consider that it would have no legal basis.
A military attack by ECOWAS would undoubtedly cause a conflagration in the region, especially since Mali and Burkina Faso are committed to defending Niger. It is illusory to think that once Bazoum is reinstated as president, if he is still alive, the military operation would be over. ECOWAS would be obliged to maintain a strong contingent to ensure the sustainability of power and would in fact become an army of occupation.
Most countries and international organizations are either opposed or very reluctant to such an adventure. The USA itself is not in favour of intervention. The only one who, against all odds, declares that he supports all options is Emmanuel Macron. Its support also does more harm to the reputation of ECOWAS, already well tarnished by its silence on electoral fraud or constitutional modifications aimed at perpetuating the power of autocrats.
Accentuation of crises in the Sahel
Recent coups in the Sahel are reshuffling the cards in the region. We note a significant progression in the advance of jihadist fighters, with a strengthening of the Islamic State particularly in the regions of Soum and Oudalan known as the three borders (of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger). There is a real danger, that of seeing the Nigerien army, like that of Burkina Faso and Mali, taking the all-military route and abandoning the dialogues that have taken place across the country. Such a policy would lead to an explosion of violence of which civilians would be the main victims. A real risk encouraged by distraught soldiers faced with a dragging conflict.
Russia has managed to establish itself over the long term and benefits from an aura among a part, often the youngest, of the population. Niger’s pronunciamiento puts the USA in a complicated situation. They have a drone air base in Agadez in the centre of the country, but also near the international airport in Niamey and finally the CIA operates a base in Dirkou, in the north of the country, equipped with “Predator” drones which allow them very detailed surveillance of the area. Which explains Washington’s caution and the choice to take diplomatic channels
France is in a difficult position. Removed from Mali then Burkina Faso, it tries to maintain its troops in Niger but interest is limited. The latter are condemned to do nothing since all cooperation with the Nigerien military forces is suspended. Unless they are required to support, in any way, the ECOWAS military intervention. French troops represent a real danger for the sovereignty of Niger. The example of a French commando preparing an operation to liberate Bazoum, cancelled at the last moment at his request, shows that the French army can very well exceed its mandate as a support force for the Nigerien army against the jihadists.
This will not be the first time that the army has interfered in the affairs of countries where it is based. In 2007, troops of the 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment lent a hand to the Central African army to protect the Bozizé dictatorship. In March 2011, Ouattara came to power against Gbagbo with the help of Operation Licorne troops. Recently in Chad, Barkhane’s air forces bombed columns of rebels from the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) from February 3 to 6, 2019, an organization completely removed from Islamist fighters, in order to save Déby’s dictatorship.
In this situation, the efforts of French imperialism to restore its image with its “Foundation for Democracy in Africa” seem very paltry. To parody the title of a famous work by René Dumont, we can say, and this is to be taken in both directions, in Africa France is off to a bad start.
The Role of the Trade Unions
The common people in Niger are suffering from “increasingly galloping unjustified rate of inflation leading to the high cost of living due to the unprecedented rise in the price of essential products”. The attacks on the French embassy and the demand for the removal of French troops will not directly improve the lives of the common people. However, the junta has successfully used this nationalism and the threat of an invasion by ECOWAS to rally the common people in support of their coup. This includes, for example the leaders of the largest trade union federation in Niger.
The Democratic Confederation of Workers of Niger (Confederation Democratique des Travailleurs du Niger – CDTN), the largest trade union centre, condemned the coup on 27th July:
• “CDTN expresses its indignation at this undermining of the democratic gains fought for by Nigerians in general and workers in particular.”
• “CDTN demands that the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) immediately re-establish the institutions of the Republic and withdraw unconditionally from the political scene.”
However, presumably under pressure from the raising anti-French feeling fuelled by the junta, the CDTN issued a press release on 27th August in which they:
“Invite all Nigeriens in general and workers in particular to mobilize around the CNSP [military government] in order to set a good example to the world.
Finally, the UDTN calls on its activists to remain vigilant and committed in order to respond massively to instructions within the framework of the defense of our dear homeland.”
In January 2023, four trade union centres in Niger undertook a 48 hour strike over demands made since 2012. These include the harmonization of allowances for all state employees, recruitment in education and health and raising of the minimum wage. The trade unions in Niger should be demanding the implementation of these demands now that France has removed her diplomats and agreed to remove her soldiers Niger before the end of this year.
 René Dumont, L’Afrique noire est mal partie (Black Africa is off to a bad start), Paris, Seuil, 1962.