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Two years ago, the president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was elected in the West African country’s first peaceful, democratic change of government since independence from France in 1960.
He almost didn’t make it – a coup was attempted to thwart him from taking office, but was reportedly stopped by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the commander of the Presidential Guard, according to Al Jazeera.
A few days after that same guard ousted Bazoum in a coup in July, army commanders suspended Niger’s constitution, all political parties, closed all borders, and declared Tchiani – who led the coup – the new head of the transitional council, and de facto head of the country, reported the Associated Press.
“(We decided to) put an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance,” he said on television, adding it was “necessary” to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country.
There has been no talk of returning to civilian rule. Instead, the Economic Community of West African States has slapped sanctions on Niger for illegally detaining Bazoum, according to France24.
The turn of events has caused concern and dismay across Africa, and elsewhere.
The stakes are high because landlocked Niger sits amid some of the most unstable parts of the planet: war-torn Libya is one, for example, while regions of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, and the vast and dangerous Sahara Desert of southern Algeria host jihadists who have gained in strength over the past few years.
Thousands have been killed and six million displaced in the entire region due to jihadist insurgencies.
Niger, one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world, hosts some of those refugees displaced by the insurgents. At the same time, the country is Africa’s second-biggest uranium producer.
Meanwhile, Niger had been especially important to the US and the West, wrote National Public Radio, because the country had until the coup hosted US drone bases, around 1,100 American troops, 1,500 French soldiers, and other foreign personnel. It had been vital to America and Europe’s counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State and other militant forces in the Sahel.
After the coup, American and French officials have also signaled their support for Bazoum and the democratic process that elected him to office in 2021, Politico reported.
But American and French generals had also been working closely with the Nigerien military for years, a cooperation that held back – until the coup –rising anti-French sentiment in the region, that was often assisted by the Russian military contractor and mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group. For example, France moved its soldiers to Niger from Mali after a military coup last year that was assisted by Wagner.
Now French soldiers are slated to leave the country by late December, noted Radio France Internationale, in one of many examples of French influence waning in the region.
And, as the Intercept explained, the US military trained one of the officers who organized the coup. An unnamed American official told the Intercept that their training adhered to US and international law, but they had no control over foreign military personnel.
In the meantime, the then leader of the Wagner Group, an arm of Kremlin influence in Africa, took credit for the coup. In a statement posted on the social media site Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin (now deceased) suggested that Wagner had supported the military junta and would now help Niger deal with terrorists rather than the US and France.
“What happened is the struggle of the people of Niger against the colonialists,” Prigozhin said. “This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists.”
Days after the coup, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital Niamey, denouncing France, waving Russian flags, with some even setting a door at the French Embassy ablaze, Africanews wrote.
Some have suggested that there is a connection between the coup and Niger’s ousted president declining to attend Putin’s Africa summit earlier this month. But others say coups are nothing new in a region that regularly sees them.
Niger has had five successful coups since 1960. This latest one is one of seven – with one in Guinea, one in Gabon, and two each in Burkina Faso and Mali – in West Africa in the past three years, underscoring the region’s moniker, the “coup belt.”
The intrigue over the country’s future is far from over.
THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED