On July 26, 2023, the Presidential Guard carried out a coup against Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum, arresting him and some of his government officials. By the next day, the Nigerian army announced its support for the coup and the establishment of a military council called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). The head of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, then went on national television to declare himself president.
These events in the West African country had many deliberations and analyses, especially regarding the multiplicity of actors, the diversity of positions, and the different ways of responding to them. This prompts analyzing the nature of the scene in Niger before and after the coup, in addition to identifying the possibilities of the next step of the coup leaders, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as the Western and international positions.
The Nature of the Current Scene
Since the early hours of Bazoum’s detention and the suspicion that a military coup would take place in Niger, analyses and interpretations proliferated to explain the situation. Some viewed it as part of the interactions in the international system and its complexities resulting from Russian involvement in the context of its interest in the African continent, which increased since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in February 2022, and the intensification of competition with the West in various geostrategic fields. Others interpreted the coup as a domino effect following a series of successful coups in West Africa since 2020.
As neither of these two interpretations can be dismissed, the overall picture of the situation in Niger, in addition to the nature of the coup and the parties behind it, include many factors that contributed to its occurrence. Knowing the coup’s nature and parties beforehand would have led observers to expect that such coup would happen. The following are among those factors.
The Deterioration of the Security Situation
In its first statement, the CNSP cited the deterioration of the security situation, where the African Sahel is witnessing a high activity of terrorist groups and organizations, such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and others, especially in the border areas between Mali and Niger, as the provinces of Tillabéri and Tahoua, situated in the west of the country, have been under a state of emergency since 2017.
Tensions Within the Authority
The U.S. State Department dismisses the hypothesis that Russia was involved in the military coup in Niger. It views the coup as an internal dispute between Bazoum and Gen. Tchiani, who had been appointed to his position by former President Mahamadou Issoufou. Speculation about Tchiani’s imminent replacement were included in reports indicating that Bazoum intended to replace Issoufrou loyalists in military and political positions. Therefore, the coup and the subsequent support of the army came as a preemptive step to avert the president’s intentions.
The Growing Opposition to France
Perhaps Nigerian army leaders were influenced by the increasing anger over the French presence in Niger. Such anger was manifested by the deadly clash between protesters and a French military convoy in western Niger in November 2021, in addition to Niger’s proximity to countries hostile to France, such as Mali and Burkina Faso. (The military council in Mali decided to expel the French ambassador in January 2022, while Burkina Faso demanded the departure of the French forces at the beginning of 2023.) In addition, Bazoum had close relations with France, which created a contradiction between Niger and its neighbors.
Main Livelihood Issues
The African Sahel region in general, and Niger in particular, suffer from poor social and economic conditions. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 41.8 percent of its population living in extreme poverty according to 2021 World Bank statistics. Half of Niger’s population is under the age of 15 and almost 50 percent of school-age children are not in school. In addition, six out of eight Nigerian provinces suffer from a cholera epidemic. Despite this, the French and American presence has always prioritized security and counterterrorism issues—without considering the main factors leading to these phenomena—and allocating most of their aid and grants to training and arming troops, thereby exacerbating the population’s anger against the foreign presence.
The social fabric in Niger is characterized by a high degree of complexity and ethnic and tribal diversity. While Bazoum hails from an Arab origin, this did not provide him with a supportive social force, as the Arab tribes there are a minority and their origins go back to the Horn of Africa, Libya, and Chad. When he started his electoral campaign, Bazoum was accused by the opposition of being of foreign origin, and he faced a failed coup attempt two days before his inauguration. In contrast, the coup leader, Gen. Tchiani belongs to the Hausa tribe, which constitutes 50 percent of Niger’s population.
Democracy Was a Novelty
Bazoum is the first democratically elected president to take power through elections since the country’s independence from France in 1960. This emerging experience was faced by the military’s reluctance to withdraw from the political scene. Sometimes, the African public opinion sides with the military institutions in their coups, deeming them as a correction of the course of governance in the country without the need to wait for the next electoral term. Therefore, the democratic theories of trust, legitimacy, and the ballot box may not have the same weight and status as they do in other regions and continents.
The Possibility of Russian Involvement
Washington’s exclusion of any Russian role in instigating the coup may come from the perspective of downplaying Russia’s capabilities and influence in Africa. Yet the coup came one day after a Russian-African summit was held in St. Petersburg in which Russian President Vladimir Putin, having pulled out of the Black Sea grain export agreement with Ukraine, pledged to provide 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grain to African countries, especially since both Mali and Burkina Faso, which neighbor Niger, had recently shifted from rapprochement with the West to close relations with Russia, harboring members of the Wagner Group, a Russian state-funded private military company.
Almost a month after the coup, there are no indications that the newly formed CNSP intends to relinquish power or return it to Bazoum, despite the African and international pressure exerted on the council. Rather, the subsequent indicators of the coup support the hypothesis of its sustainability and consolidation.
Making Changes in the Army
The changes that affected the nation’s chief of staff, land forces, defense ministry, national guard, gendarmerie, and external intelligence all indicate that the CNSP is starting a new phase of the governance system in the country and is preparing the country’s institutions for a completely different next stage. The changes in the military and security leadership may be related to replacing loyalists of the former president or France in preparation for a possible conflict with them.
While the CNSP imposed restrictions on movement and travel, thousands of its supporters took to the streets in demonstrations of support. In addition, nearly 30,000 coup supporters gathered at Seyni Kountche Stadium in Niamey.
Preparing the Theater of Operations
The subsequent decisions of the coup indicate the CNSP’s insistence on defending the power its gained, even in the face of the threat of a military campaign against it. On August 7, CNSP closed the country’s airspace and moved elite forces into Niamey to protect the presidential palace and the airport. CNSP also formed “civil security committees” and traffic checkpoints in anticipation of any military intervention.
Threatening of using Wagner
The Associated Press reported that officials from Niger met with leaders from Wagner through mediation from Mali. The meeting came at the request of one of the coup leaders in order to strengthen Niger’s position against any possible Western-African military intervention. However, introducing Wagner into the scene can be considered as a pressure that enhances CNSP’s negotiating position with the West.
Limiting Enmity to France
The cancellation of Niger’s defense agreements with France while excepting of the United States indicate that the CNSP is seeking to legitimize its actions to gain the trust and satisfaction of the people. Nevertheless, CNSP maintains its relations with other countries, such as the United States, which does not have a colonial past in Niger. One of the indications of this is that the communication channels between Niamey and Washington are still open even after the coup.
Calculated Political Appointments
The appointment of Lamine Zaini, an economist and former minister of finance, as prime minister can be interpreted in many ways, foremost of which is the interest of the coup leaders in Niger’s economic situation, especially in light of the regional and Western economic sanctions imposed on Niger, which are believed to exacerbate the country’s already deteriorating economic conditions. On the other hand, Zaini’s appointment indicates the CNSP’s need to present a face with African experience. The new prime minister—who previously held the position of representative of the African Development Bank in Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, and Gabon—has relations with the pillars of politics and economy in different African countries.
No Civil Unrest
Since the first moments of the coup, supporters of Bazoum called and appealed to the public to take to the streets and reject the coup. However, the local scene in Niger remains stable with no demonstrations to oppose the president’s removal or even protests against the military actions and closures. This relative stability enhances the chances of the coup leaders to continue their plans.
The Regional and International Response Possibilities
The CNSP is now facing the possibilities and scenarios of a likely intervention by military forces prepared by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with French support, in order to restore the constitutional legitimacy and bring Bazoum back to power. ECOWAS gave the coup leaders an August 6 deadline to relinquish power. Despite the expired warning deadline, sources say that ECOWAS has not backed down, but rather its armies need more preparation, especially since its last meeting on Niger on August 10 kept the military intervention a proposed option. Several factors support the likelihood of a military intervention.
Containing the Democratic Setback
Nigeria played a prominent regional role in preserving constitutional legitimacy and combating coups. Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, the country has determined its regional strategy, known as the “Nigerian Project,” which is based on the idea that gaining power and prestige in the international community depends on adopting a democratic vision by a country. While Africa witnessed a series of successful and successive coups since 2020—Guinea (2021), Mali (2021), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger—this increases the risks and possibilities of a domino effect, where such coups encourage and motivate other military leaders to undertake coup attempts in their countries, especially with the existence of a regional bloc supporting them. This requires an intervention to stop that period of coups and deter any other coups.
Despite that both the United States and France see it unlikely that Russia was involved in the coup, they fear that the coup would provide an opportunity for Russia to approach Niger, one of the most important Western allies in Africa, and continue to expand the Russian influence through the Wagner Group at the expense of Western powers. Countries like Mali and Burkina Faso have shifted their allegiance from the West to Russia as a result of their military coups.
A History Crowded with Interventions
In fact, the threat of military intervention carried out by ECOWAS is not the first of its kind, as ECOWAS has a long history of interventions in Côte d'Ivoire (2003), Liberia (2003), Guinea-Bissau (2012), Mali (2013), and Gambia (2017). In December 2022, ECOWAS agreed to establish a regional force to not only combat terrorism but to also intervene in preventing coups.
The African coast suffers from the spread of many terrorist organizations and groups, such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. The coup in Niger reveals the risks of the expansion of such organizations. Statistics indicate that the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali led to an increase in terrorism deaths; the two countries account for 73 percent of terrorism deaths in the Sahel in 2022 and 52 percent of all deaths from terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index.
Thus, the national armies seem incapable of combating terrorism without receiving foreign support. In the case of Niger, it is likely that the coup will be an opportunity for the rise of terrorism, as Bazoum is one of the trusted leaders by the West in a region that suffers from insecurity and he also allowed his country to become the spearhead of the American operations in combating terrorism.
However, military intervention, whether by Western or African parties, entails several complexities and difficulties, it is also different from any previous intervention led by ECOWAS in combating terrorism or coups. These complexities include the following:
Lack of Influence Tools
In fact, ECOWAS countries do not have the same leverage that they once had to solve similar crises in the past. Countries with allied relations with France interfered either on the side of their former French colonies or in countries that fell within the Portuguese colonial influence. The interference against African states was intended to put them under the French influence or the African bloc close to France, as in the case of Guinea-Bissau, which ECOWAS intervened in twice in 1998 and 2012. But in the case of Niger, a former French colony, it falls within two blocs, one of which is hostile to France and close to Russia (the bloc that supports the coup leaders) and the other is close to the West and is represented by ECOWAS countries.
The Special Case of Niger
The lack of Bazoum’s strong power within Niger, attributed to his lack of ethnic or tribal weight and his lack of influence on the military institution, create several complications for any foreign interference and hinders what the international and African actors promote about restoring legitimacy and preserving democratic achievements of their content and impact. There are risks that any foreign interference could lead to a prolonged conflict or result in a civil war.
The Army’s Strength and the Country’s Vastness
Niger’s army is ranked as the fourth strongest in the ECOWAS. The country’s area constitutes about 17 percent of the total African continent, with a population around 350 million people. The army’s strength and the country’s vastness make it complicated for a foreign force to penetrate and control Niger. The possibilities of a prolonged and violent conflict in Niger , as well as an internal popular resistance that could lead to a wave of unrest, could possibly engulf the entire continent, a situation the international and African leaders want to avoid.
The Decline of Nigeria’s Power
Nigeria has influence and military power that enabled it to have influence within ECOWAS since its establishment in 1977. With its army consisting of 223,000 members, Nigeria was the cornerstone of previous ECOWAS interventions.
However, the Nigerian influence is diminishing under the impact of economic hardships and security challenges, as the Nigerian army struggles to establish security in 30 states. (The Boko Haram organization operates out of all of Nigeria’s 36 states). Any foreign intervention involves a great challenge not only for its military capabilities but also for its interior stability. Therefore, talking about a military role for the Nigerian army faces great opposition, especially among Senate members who rejected President Tinubu’s request to send military forces to Niger.
The African-African Division
Since 2020, the African continent has witnessed a division between its countries and their political systems after the series of coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and now Niger led to the military taking power. These countries oppose the ECOWAS plans to intervene militarily in Niger. Algeria and Chad took a similar position, which complicates any intervention and expands the scope of conflict or proxy war between the African actors.
The Western Tendency Towards Diplomacy
The West’s opposition against military action in Niger is increasing the difficulties against any intervention to carry out a military action in Niger. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told French Radio RFI that “diplomacy is the preferred way” to resolve the crisis in Niger, adding that this is the approach of the ECOWAS. Meanwhile Italy called for extending the previous ECOWAS deadline to restore the Nigerien president to his position.
The Future Scene: Maneuvering Between the Parties
The scene in Niger is characterized by extreme complexity and ambiguity due to the multiplicity of its parties and the importance of the changes taking place in Niger on the geopolitical scene in Africa. However, the future of the scene will be determined based on the current tug-of-war of positions that fall into three directions: the tendency pushed by some ECOWAS countries towards military intervention that France would support; a preference to maintain communication channels and give a chance to diplomacy represented by the United States; and the coup leaders, who are the only force in Niger today.
With the exclusion of military intervention, due to the difficulties and threats it faces, it seems that the current conflict will be determined by the interaction between the coup leaders and the United States, where the latter does not support the plans of France and ECOWAS to intervene militarily. Rather, it prefers to approach the situation realistically in terms of not tipping the balance of principles based on values of democracy and pluralism versus losing Niger’s geopolitical position for its benefit and thereby losing Niger to Russia. An indication of this is that Washington sent a high-ranking envoy to meet with the coup leaders: acting Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.
In light of the current situation, Washington is concentrating its policies towards Niger in two main dimensions: the continuation of Niger’s role as a pivotal point in counterterrorism operations while preserving the work and activity of the U.S. military bases there and, secondly, avoiding the coup leaders’ reapproach with Russia or making Niger a new platform for Wagner’s activity.
For their part, the coup leaders seem to be aware of the reality with little sense of its threat. An indication of this is what Nuland pointed out: the talks with the coup leader were difficult because they have the decision to determine their country’s position from the international competition in the African continent, and also from the polarization within the continent itself.
However the country suffers from security and economic crises that require the continuation of the flow of economic and military aid from Western countries, which is a basic condition for sustaining their rule without facing local unrest. The Nigerian military leverage in influencing the African geopolitical scene is met by the Nigerian military’s need for financial and military resources, which requires making some concessions, foremost of which is proceeding in the path of restoring the rule as per the constitution, a matter that does not necessarily entail restoring the president to power as much as it means presenting a roadmap for holding elections that may be within two years, committing to coordination with the United States and excluding communication with the Russian Wagner Group.
Therefore, there are increasing indications that the two parties have the ability to reach a compromise, supported by the relationship between the military institutions in Niger and the United States, relations that were missing in the previous models for both Mali and Burkina Faso. An example of this is General Moussa Barmou, the commander of the special operations forces in Niger who received training from the U.S. Army and was kept by the coup leaders in his position. This indicates an awareness from both parties of the nature of the scene—and that implicit understandings that may translate later into announced agreements are built between them.
 The sentence between brackets was not in the original text, it was added to clarify the meaning: the translator.