The Attempted Coup in Niger: Avoiding Armed Conflict
The Attempted Coup in Niger: Avoiding Armed Conflict
A supporter holds a picture of Niger's National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), as with others rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023. AFP
Q&A / Africa 17 minutes

The Attempted Coup in Niger: Avoiding Armed Conflict

On 26 July, high-ranking Nigerien officers announced on national television that they had overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, who was democratically elected in 2021. In this Q&A, Crisis Group analysts lay out the reasons for the coup as well as the stakes going forward.

What happened in Niger on 26 July?

In the early morning of 26 July, soldiers from the presidential guard confined President Mohamed Bazoum and his family to the presidential palace, in a move met with widespread surprise. The interior minister, loyal to Bazoum, was also arrested that morning. Defence and security forces placed units at strategic locations throughout the capital. The presidency’s Twitter account announced that the army and national guard were ready to attack the mutinous presidential guard if they did not back down.

That afternoon, hundreds of Bazoum supporters gathered to protest outside the National Assembly. Dozens of them then headed to the presidential palace. The presidential guard fired warning shots to disperse the crowd, wounding several protesters. At the same time, the chiefs of Niger’s defence and security forces gathered at a barracks to discuss the risks of entering a conflict with the presidential guard – the best-equipped armed force in the capital. After hours of consultation, the officers decided to avoid a confrontation that would divide the defence and security forces and might endanger the lives of the president and his family held hostage at the palace. The military leaders later rallied behind the presidential guard, joining them to co-found the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) – a junta which has assumed interim responsibility for running the country. That evening, a group of ten high-ranking officers representing the main branches of the defence and security forces announced on national television that they had ousted Bazoum.

The next day, the chief of staff of the Nigerien armed forces affirmed his support for the junta’s announcement. On 28 July, General Abdourahamane Tiani, who has headed the presidential guard since 2011, gave a televised speech proclaiming that he would head the CNSP. Former general chief of staff of the armed forces, General Salifou Modi, whom Bazoum had demoted in March, became second in command. This scenario recalls previous coups in Niger, particularly those in 1999 and 2010, when one branch of the military seized power and was later joined by the rest of the defence and security forces, likewise ostensibly to avert clashes between brothers in arms.

There was no show of support for Bazoum or even the democratic system he represents.

On 30 July, thousands of people took to the streets in support of the junta in Niamey, known as a stronghold of opposition to President Bazoum. Hundreds of the demonstrators shouted anti-French slogans as they made their way toward the French embassy. There was no show of support for Bazoum or even the democratic system he represents, aside from a few modest gatherings organised by officials from his party – the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS-Tarayya) – the afternoon of the coup in Niamey and in smaller cities like Tahoua, a party bastion. On 31 July, several PNDS-Tarayya leaders, including chairman Foumakoye Gado, were arrested. Pressure from the CNSP undoubtedly made it difficult for the party to organise more widespread protests in support of the deposed president.

What provoked this attempted coup?

The events of 26 July are directly tied to pre-existing tensions between President Bazoum and parts of the military hierarchy. These tensions are nothing new and in fact date back to before Bazoum assumed the presidency. On 31 March 2021, the day before Bazoum’s inauguration, officers launched a failed coup to prevent him from taking office.

The military has played an ambivalent role in Nigerien history: it is both a state institution and a sort of counter-power able to overthrow civilian leaders when circumstances align. Since 1960, there have been five successful coups in Niger, as well as several failed attempts, and six of its ten presidents have been members of the armed forces.

Fully aware of this background, Bazoum, like his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou, devoted time and effort to building stable relations with the security forces, doing his best to involve them in running the country while keeping a close eye on them. Over the last few months, Bazoum had made changes in the military leadership – changes that seem to have displeased high-ranking officers including Tiani and Modi, the two generals who now lead the junta. In March, Bazoum replaced the leader of the national gendarmerie and the chief of staff of the armed forces. More recently, he signed a decree retiring six generals, including some of the most influential in the country. According to sources close to the president, a decree relieving Tiani of his position as leader of the presidential guard was also in the works. This last move seems to have precipitated the coup.

President Bazoum, perhaps more than his civilian predecessors, has incurred resentment from high-ranking officers.

President Bazoum, perhaps more than his civilian predecessors, has incurred resentment from high-ranking officers. These officers disapproved, for instance, of his decision to strengthen Niger’s alliance with Western partners and welcome into the country an unprecedented contingent of foreign forces, in particular from France, the United States, Italy, Germany and Belgium. These forces have been training Nigerien troops and helping them fight jihadist groups. Since their expulsion from Mali and, to a lesser degree, Burkina Faso, Western partners have considered Niger their staunchest ally in the Sahel. Bazoum’s predecessor Issoufou also pursued this policy, but Bazoum has expanded it, at the same time that pro-sovereignty sentiment, which rejects what it labels as neo-colonial Western influence in favour of assertions of national independence, was growing in popularity in the region. In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger a significant part of the population openly rejects a Western, particularly a French, military presence.

This background also helps explain the complicated relationship between President Bazoum and General Modi, whom Issoufou had appointed the military’s chief of staff in January 2020. Modi’s mission was to strengthen the army, which was trying to fend off major jihadist attacks. According to sources close to Bazoum, the general often criticised political authorities in private, claiming they had given too much freedom of action to Western security partners, especially the French. He deplored the fact that the French were not keeping him fully informed of their operations. Information gathered by Crisis Group in Niger indicates as well that the French authorities were complaining to Bazoum about obstacles they were encountering in their efforts to cooperate with his military chief of staff. In March, not long after Modi travelled to Mali to meet with that country’s military leaders, Bazoum removed him from his position, appointing him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates instead. Modi does not seem to have taken up his new post.

In addition to this fraught relationship with military leadership, President Bazoum also had to manage a delicate transition of power from his predecessor Issoufou. Elected based on a promise to keep pursuing Issoufou’s agenda, Bazoum also retained a large part of his predecessor’s team. Over the last two years, Bazoum nevertheless appointed those said to be closest to him to key positions, both within the state apparatus and at public-sector companies. Though Issoufou and Bazoum were publicly friendly, a relationship developed over the course of a long political struggle, tensions soon became palpable among their respective followers, creating a rift in the governing party. Behind the façade of continuity in Nigerien political life, there were clear tensions among the ruling elite.

The close relationship between former President Issoufou and General Tiani since the latter became leader of the presidential guard in 2011 has led the public to wonder if Issoufou may have been involved in the coup, but there seems to be little evidence that he was. Issoufou has much to lose, in fact, as the military takeover threatens the party he built and jeopardises the democratic legacy he proudly claims. That legacy earned him recognition from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. From the outset of the coup, he has been trying to mediate between the junta and Bazoum, though so far his efforts have been in vain. During a meeting with European diplomats on 29 July, Issoufou “said he was offended by the insinuations tying him to the coup”. Moreover, his son, Mahamane Sani Issoufou, minister of petroleum and energy in Bazoum’s government, was arrested without charge on 31 July, along with other PNDS-Tarayya officials.

Is the overthrow of Bazoum due simply to power struggles among military factions? 

The tensions within the Nigerien ruling elite, both civilian and military, are not solely responsible for the 26 July coup. As in Mali and Burkina Faso, there are deeper causes, stemming from Niger’s volatile security situation and floundering democratic system.

Niger has been battling insecurity along its borders with Burkina Faso, Mali and – in the Lake Chad basin – Nigeria and Chad since 2015. But unlike its neighbours in the central Sahel, which have seen jihadist groups steadily advance over the past two years, Niger has recorded a significant decrease in jihadist attacks. This decline is explained not only by military operations better organised with partners, but also by President Bazoum’s decision to commit to talks with jihadist groups, the disarmament and social reintegration of militants who turned themselves in to the authorities, intercommunity dialogue and the incorporation of self-defence groups, or community militias, into the defence and security forces.

Yet these positive results, which military leaders including General Modi credited to Bazoum just a few months ago, are being held against the president in the wake of the putsch. When the junta announced that it had seized power, it justified the takeover by showcasing its opposition to Bazoum’s security choices. The generals especially criticised his decision to free prisoners with ties to jihadist groups – a choice he made in a bid to promote dialogue with the insurgents. They also attacked his decision to incorporate community militia members into the defence and security forces, despite the fact that this move helped Niger limit the proliferation of armed self-defence groups. In contrast, such groups have continued to operate in Mali and Burkina Faso, where instead of helping improve security, they have fuelled deadly violence. Nevertheless, this integration policy is not appreciated by career soldiers, who often feel it undermines their status.

The coup reflects the state’s broader inability to provide the population with adequate services.

Beyond security issues, the coup reflects the state’s broader inability to provide the population with adequate services. President Bazoum made sincere efforts to reform institutions and the exercise of power. His government arrested high-ranking administrators (including a minister in office) who were implicated in corruption. He also wanted to focus on education, particularly of girls – a welcome shift at a time when security spending was depleting the state budget. But his ability to change the real practices of the state and its representatives was limited by the importance of maintaining the political balance that had brought him to power.

The country’s leaders are also hindered by the fundamental limitations of the state’s resources: with a budget of nearly 3,000 billion CFA francs to administer an estimated population of 25.5 million, Niger can invest only about 120,000 CFA francs (almost $200) per capita each year. Moreover, the management of these limited resources is marred by “corruption and racketeering”. Even with support from other public and private players, the Nigerien government simply does not have the means to lift the population out of poverty. No matter how sincere they are about this goal, the country’s leaders have little chance of convincing young people that they have the power to better the population’s lot.

Lastly, it is no accident that the military takeover in Niger comes on the heels of a several others in nearby countries: two in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), one in Guinea (September 2021) and two in Burkina Faso (January and September 2022). Though the reasons for the coups differ from country to country, the success of one increases the chances of success for subsequent putsches. West African public opinion now seems to view coups as acceptable amid persistent insecurity and a crisis of confidence in democratic systems. For many young city dwellers in particular, a junta seems like the best way to remedy a democratic system that has disappointed them. But the military takeover in Niamey does not seem to herald a new start or better management of public institutions. Having held high office in the administrations of both Bazoum and his predecessor, the generals composing the junta are at least partly responsible for the results these two presidents obtained. The military institutions they headed have also faced a number of corruption scandals. Moreover, not one of the military regimes that has recently come to power in the Sahel has meaningfully improved the lives of young people.

How have Niger’s neighbours and partners reacted?

The overwhelming majority of Niger’s neighbours and international partners have condemned the attempted coup, demanding a return to constitutional order as well as Bazoum’s release and reinstatement as president.

ECOWAS issued an ultimatum, granting the junta one week to reverse the coup and free President Bazoum.

At a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc on 30 July, the member state presidents announced a series of sanctions including closing borders with Niger. The West African Economic and Monetary Union, which brings together eight countries sharing the CFA franc as a currency, imposed immediate, drastic economic and financial sanctions. ECOWAS issued an ultimatum, granting the junta one week to reverse the coup and free President Bazoum. If the junta does not comply, ECOWAS is considering harsher sanctions and even military intervention to restore constitutional order. The bloc sent Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby to Niamey on 30 July to deliver its firm message. ECOWAS also sent a delegation led by a former Nigerian president, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, whom the bloc appointed chief mediator for talks with the Nigerien junta. It seems that the delegation, which arrived in Niamey on 3 August, left the same day without obtaining results or meeting with the junta’s leader.

Two factors explain the firm ECOWAS approach, which contrasts sharply with its timidity following the last two coups in Burkina Faso in 2022. First, Niger is the fourth country in the regional bloc (which has fifteen member states) to have experienced a coup in the past three years. ECOWAS fears that if it does not react strongly, more civilian leaders may be overthrown as the jihadist threat looms ever larger. Secondly, Nigeria’s new President Bola Tinubu, who took office in May, is leading ECOWAS and its coup containment policy in a new direction. Tinubu is repositioning his country as a key player in the bloc following years in which Nigerian leaders neglected it.

Nevertheless, this hardline approach is hardly unanimous within the organisation. A rift is growing between a small bloc of four countries where the military overthrew the government by force and the rest of the member states, which include regional heavyweights such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, which aim to put a stop to the spiral of coups. The military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, which are suspended from participation in ECOWAS deliberations, expressed support for the Nigerien junta. In a joint declaration, the juntas of Burkina Faso and Mali threatened that they would consider ECOWAS military intervention in Niger to be a declaration of war on their own countries.

In the West, France, the European Union and Germany have suspended all or part of their cooperation with Niger. The United States has also suspended security cooperation with Niger, though it has so far avoided calling the situation a coup – most likely in hopes that President Bazoum will be reinstated and because doing so would also require suspension of U.S. economic cooperation.

The relationship between the new junta and France has deteriorated quickly. The CNSP is particularly wary of France, which, since 2022, has placed Niger at the centre of its new security apparatus in the Sahel and maintained very close ties with President Bazoum. The junta claims that France had plans to bomb the presidential palace to force it to release Bazoum. As for France’s foreign minister, she accused the junta of organising protests outside the French embassy on 30 July. The junta also knows that, as in Mali and Burkina Faso, hostility to the French authorities runs deep among urban youth, which may help it establish a popular base. On 3 August, the CNSP revoked the country’s military cooperation agreements with France.

More unexpectedly, Russia, which has been Mali’s closest security ally since French troops left the country in 2022, officially declared its support for a rapid return to constitutional order in Niger, urging all parties to show restraint. At the same time, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group – the Russian private security company with ties to the Kremlin, which has deployed more than a thousand mercenaries in Mali and targeted Niger in its media campaigns – praised Bazoum’s overthrow, calling him a “pro-French president”. He also offered Wagner’s services to the junta. Algeria, which neighbours Niger to the north, condemned the coup but warned ECOWAS that military intervention would exacerbate the crisis. It called for a peaceful return to constitutional order.

What are the possible outcomes of this situation, which seems to be at an impasse?

The main protagonists’ positions are dangerously far apart. There are two mutually exclusive camps: on one side, the junta that has seized power and is holding the elected president and members of his family hostage, and on the other, the president’s supporters and international actors led by ECOWAS, who have demanded restoration of Bazoum to power, threatening to use force if needed to achieve that goal.

Regional sanctions are already hurting the landlocked country’s economy. Official forecasts say less than half (45 per cent) of the government’s 2023 budget will come from domestic sources, with the remaining 55 per cent coming from aid from a wide range of partners or loans from regional financial markets. Suspending international aid will undoubtedly result in deteriorating living conditions for Nigeriens who are already struggling. Closing the borders and halting financial transactions could have an even more immediate effect. Sanctions may put pressure on the junta, but they may also have the opposite effect, as they did in Mali and Burkina Faso. Despite the serious impact sanctions will have, they have already given rise to a swell of national pride that benefits the junta.

Fully aware of the limits of sanctions, ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, is considering the possibility of military intervention. The military chiefs of staff of ECOWAS member states met in Abuja from 2-4 August to outline what such an operation would look like. It would come with many risks, not only because the outcome would be uncertain, but also because it could destabilise Niger and the surrounding region, which is already facing a major security crisis. Even if ECOWAS succeeded in freeing Bazoum by force, it bears asking what sort of authority a president reinstated by neighbour armies would have when many Nigerien military leaders, politicians and civil society figures have publicly disavowed him over the last few days.

The opposing sides are defending very different sets of values. Mohamed Bazoum, on one hand, is a democratically elected president who has helped improve security and begun reforming the country’s governance, though clearly he has not yet won over all of the population. The junta, on the other hand, seized power by force. Its legitimacy resides solely in support from thousands of young protesters drawn to its populist rhetoric and its hostility to France. There is no comparison between the two sides in terms of democratic legitimacy.

All attempts at dialogue have failed to get the junta to back down.

So far, all attempts at dialogue have failed to get the junta to back down. ECOWAS’s one-week deadline for the CNSP to liberate Bazoum and restore constitutional order expired on the evening of 6 August. Slowly, but worryingly, Niger’s main international partners are beginning to believe that military intervention in Niger may be the only way out of the situation, though it comes with the risk of plunging the country into armed conflict with a very uncertain outcome. Dialogue is the only way to avoid such a conflict. To give dialogue a chance to succeed, ECOWAS should immediately temper its belligerent rhetoric and send a clear message in support of a negotiated exit to the crisis. Negotiations will succeed only if both sides agree to make concessions, which both have thus far refused to do. Painful as it may be, Bazoum’s side might, in the name of preserving unity and peace in Niger, consider a compromise: a transition during which civilians and the military, PNDS-Tarayya officials and CNSP members would accept a months-long truce. They could all use that time, along with the rest of the country’s political class and civil society, to argue for their respective visions for Niger’s future.

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