THE POLITICO-MILITARY CRISIS IN NIGER INTENSIFIES THE RISK OF BLOWING UP THE SUB-SAHARAN AND NORTH AFRICA REGIONS
Article by Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui
The military coup of July 26, 2023 in Niger was linked, on the one hand, to the insecurity in particular in Libya since the uprisings of 2011 followed by the conflict of medium intensity and, on the other hand, recurrent political turbulence in Mali. These so-called “low and medium intensity” crises and conflicts in Algeria’s neighbouring countries continue to undermine stability in the Sahel region with an impact on sub-regional economic development.
Thus, over a large expanse of the border of Algeria, a number of plagues have multiplied. Algerian borders are threatened as much by violent extremist groups as by arms trafficking from Libya, drug trafficking from Morocco and the eastern side of the Sahel, and the movement of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Many informed analysts and observers will say that Niger’s armed forces are prone to coups. This time they overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum citing the worsening security situation linked to Islamist violence, corruption and economic difficulties. The head of the military junta, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, has warned the regional bloc, ECOWAS, and its allies against military intervention aimed at reinstating Mohamed Bazoum in his functions. This coup in Niger is the latest in Africa marking a steady decline in governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, over the past four years, the military has seized power in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Sudan and Chad. This coup in Niger remains worrying for the stability of the region and the sub-region where the armed forces with their partners of the Atlantic Alliance not only carry out operations to fight against Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) but also carried out actions against transnational banditry including arms and narcotics trafficking as well as illegal immigration. Niamey has thus become an essential Sahel pivot for anti-terrorist operations in particular. This country, rich in uranium resources, useful for energy conversion and alternative industry, with a population of 26 million inhabitants, and heavily dependent on foreign aid, is one of the gateways for migrants heading crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. In this sense, that migrant smugglers could exploit the current security crisis in Niger to extract the maximum dividends.
With the proliferation of conflicts of varying intensity, the Sahelo-Saharan strip has become a prosperous space for the trafficking of all kinds of weapons. The circulation of arms is both a consequence of and a factor in the development of other trafficking (drugs, migrants, etc.) These arms coming out from Benghazi passing through Chad and Niger after the 2011 war in Libya reveals large-scale arms trafficking in the Sahel. The mercenaries from Mauritania, Mali or Niger who fought in the ranks of the regular Libyan army have retreated to their heavily armed countries of origin. The traffic via Niger continues by these “ex-mercenaries” who have hidden weapons in Mauritania and Niger territory. This armament is sold to the highest bidder and the terrorist groups present in the region (AQMI, MUJAO, Boko Haram, Daeesh, Al-Shebab, etc.) benefit greatly from it, thanks to the income generated by drug trafficking and hostage ransoms.
In terms of analysis, it is clear that the army of Niger has a long tradition of military coups. Indeed, the day before taking over the power, President Mohamed Bazoum himself had escaped an attempted putsch, and quite recently another attempt was foiled while he was in Turkey. With such frequency, and with the army’s apparent conviction that it is a political actor in its own right, the possibility of a coup was high. Niger undeniably has a problem with its army, which is structurally considered “putschist”. The political system, after the ups and downs linked to the attempt of President Mamadou Tandja (in power from 1999 to 2010) when he was deposed by the military at the time of running for a third term through an amendment to the Constitution, seems more and more a frame of reference. The ruling party, the PNDS-Tarayya, led by President Bazoum, is not a party of compromise, but rather of authority. The main effect of this ambition was to use the resources of power to achieve what Nigeriens called “the crushing” (of other political parties). The most used tool in this sense was the possibility of political mobility, called “political nomad”, that is to say the fact of changing membership, as an MP, when one had been elected under any particular political party. A “political nomad” also used in Mali by Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the former President also overthrown by a military coup. According to informed observers, the Nigerien political system has kept the appearance of a democracy but has in fact become a sort of one-party regime, with an opposition on the one hand co-opted and on the other affected by judicial inquiries. The consequence of this evolution is that if politics cannot be done on its own terrain, that of relations between political parties and activities within political institutions (National Assembly, regional assemblies and municipalities), it is done where it should not be done, that is means in the administration and the army. Some observers point out that the PNDS has an indirect share of responsibility in this putsch described as an “opportunistic putsch” whose authors were inspired by military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and exploited the discontent of the Nigerien population in the face of the economic and security situation (violent Islamist extremist activities in the South-west and South-east) and popular resentment towards the global west in general and France in particular.
INTERNATIONAL ACTORS PRESENT IN NIGER
France is currently present on Niger soil with around 1,500 soldiers who were initially part of a vast operation in the West African region. Faced with growing anti-French resentment in the former colonies of the African continent in search of recovering their economic independence and that of values, Paris had to resign itself to withdrawing most of its troops from Mali and Burkina Faso, in particular. A military takeover in Chad, hitherto a close ally of France, further weakened the alliance. Since the take-over of power in Niger by General Tchiani, France and the European Union (EU) have immediately suspended their security cooperation and their financial aid to Niger. As a reminder, in February 2023, the EU announced a USD 30 million military training budget.
The United States of America, for its part, which has a thousand soldiers and significant investments, is, according to informed observers, faced with a dilemma concerning its future security alliance with Niger. More than USD 500 million has been allocated by US between 2012 and 2021 for military assistance and equipment for Niger, considered by Washington to be one of the largest security assistance programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The US armed forces are flying surveillance drones and armed drones from the Agadez region (North of the country) following an agreement with Niger aimed at improving the response to security threats in the region. In addition, the US military organizes annual military exercises, called “Flintlock”, with various African armies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the coup that: “…hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Niger were at risk…”
Germany, in addition to Italy, also has just over 100 soldiers based in Niger. A report by the German weekly “Hamburg Die Zeit”, points out that: “…..Germany is the most important partner of the West and the last bastion of the United States and Europe on a stretch of land of considerable strategic importance that falls. Without Western military support, the G5 Sahel regional force whose capacity was reduced after the withdrawal from Mali in May 2022 may find it even more difficult to stem the wave of jihadist violence that is spreading in the Sahara. ……”
As for China and Russia, their presence in Niger remains very restrained at present.
Facing with this politico-military crisis in Niger, Algeria officially condemned the coup and warned against any external military intervention which risks of blowing-up the sub-region with a security effect on Sahel, North Africa and the western Mediterranean. By this means, Algeria indirectly reaffirms the fundamental principles which guide its border management policy, namely:
– The principle of good neighbourliness;
– The principle of the intangibility of borders;
– The principle of respect for the demarcation of borders and the development of border regions;
– The principle of sovereignty in its land and airspaces;
– The principle of not accepting any foreign military base in its soil;
– The principle of non-interference.
The new reshaping of the geopolitical and geo-economic world map means that the African continent will continue to be for the next decades, the theatre of issues related, essentially, to the control of strategic resources (rare Earth) and games of influence of extra-regional power actors with an increasing crises and conflicts of low and medium intensity.
August 6, 2023
Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui, Chairman of NSV consultancy & studies centre, Alumnus NDU-NESA Center for Strategic Studies, and active member of the ‘Track 2’ working group of the United Nations system (UNSCR-1540)
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