Niger’s coup signals trouble

By | August 7, 2023

Amanda Kadlec writes:

On the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the country earlier this year, Antony Blinken, speaking in the capital of Niamey, hailed Niger as a bastion of democratic stability in a sea of Sahelian chaos. But the internal reality is something quite different. Although their status is much improved over the past 20 years, Nigeriens are among the most economically, educationally and nutritionally deprived populations on the planet. The U.N. ranked Niger the least developed country in the world just two years ago. Over 90% of the population lives on less than $5 a day and over 40% on less than $2 a day. UNICEF, the U.N. agency focused on children, notes that over 50% of children aged 7 to 16 are not in school. Only 1 in 7 has access to electricity and only half have clean water to drink, rates that plummet in the rural areas that make up most of the country. And physical security is never a certainty. Nigeriens’ concerns are still centered on finding work, feeding their families and surviving past the age of 40. When [Abdourahmane] Tchiani took over [through a coup that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum], the central state was still weak and the military being built up by Western governments clearly had no interest in maintaining a civilian democratic state. Even Tchiani’s post-coup statements about ensuring good governance — whether sincere or not — are a mirror of the popular view that democracy as the West envisioned it just wasn’t delivering.

This is hardly to say that the Americans and Europeans are the bogeymen deserving all the blame. Niger receives 40% of its income from their foreign aid, and the country now has multiple other clients mining its minerals. China and Turkey, meanwhile, have worked their way into mining and construction rights in Niger and other parts of the region along with Russia. These newer players have not necessarily treated the Sahelian people or the natural environment any better. But the long legacy of pain inflicted by French dominance — a perception reinforced by troubled U.S.-allied counterterrorism missions — makes it the easy scapegoat to justify a coup that kicks out Westerners and their democracy-for-security carrot-and-stick diplomacy. A sizable contingent of Nigeriens and their neighbors are expressing that they want autonomy and agency over how they govern, and with a lot less of the West’s involvement. Tchiani is jumping on the bandwagon of the increasingly popularly held belief that democracy is a kind of white man’s shell game to keep the continent poor, powerless and under the thumb of the old colonial master by other means — a message perpetuated by Russian misinformation and disinformation.

Not all of Niger’s neighbors are on board with the coup, however. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States, from which Niger is now suspended, has imposed sanctions and says it is ready to intervene militarily if need be. This posture is also being labeled as serving the needs of France, against which neighboring pro-Russia leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as Guinea — also suspended members following coups of their own — have vowed to defend Tchiani if the French-aligned body intervenes with force. The irony is that while Niger’s coup leader curses an overbearing and ineffective West, he laments their threats to cut the military aid that he needs to fend off the country’s insurgencies. And he refuses to negotiate a return to civilian rule even as an ultimatum from opposed neighbors intensifies. Should Niger, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso unite against neighboring states in response to sanctions or more violent measures, Tchiani’s next steps could mean the difference between protracted domestic struggle for Niger and region-wide interstate, and possibly intercontinental war. [Continue reading…]

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