Rule by Junta

It’s typical of the West that it manages to make other people’s problems its own. In the Sahel, it may have some excuse. This highly peripheral region, which, until about a decade ago, was a concern only for humanitarians and the lesser departments of aid organizations, has quickly become central to Western preoccupations. First it was migration, then terrorism, now Russia; indeed, all three together at this point. In 1999, after a coup in Niger, I remember receiving a letter from a German aid worker including a tiny newspaper clipping with a single paragraph devoted to what it called the ‘Coup in die Wüste’, or ‘coup in the desert’ (the distinction between the Sahel and Sahara failed to register back then). By contrast, the Niger coup of 26 July – the latest in a series of West African overthrows that began in Mali in August 2020, continued in Guinea in September 2021 and reached Burkina Faso twice in 2022 – has provoked a global media frenzy. This time, I had to decline countless media requests simply for lack of time and headspace after granting countless others.

The coup took place in a fraught international context and sparked fears that it might herald a ‘Khaki Winter’ – that is, a string of copycat takeovers – in a region which, historically, has experienced the most coups on the most coup-prone continent in the world. Yet, even leaving all that aside, Niger’s putsch has some particularly dramatic features. It explodes the country’s status as the Sahel’s ‘last man standing’, a model of stability and democracy in the imagination of Western diplomats; the coup leaders have acted more recklessly than in the three other countries; and they are now being confronted more aggressively by both the West and the regional groupings of states, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WEAMU).

Exactly how and why the coup began, it is too early to tell. Western observers were almost unanimously stunned by the news. Because it did not follow the pattern of Mali and Burkina Faso, where military takeovers came about in the wake of large anti-government protests, it looked to them like a bolt from the blue. But save for the fact that a coup is necessarily surprising, being the result of stealth action, this one failed to astonish the people of Niger. It follows at least two other coup attempts since 2021, one of which occurred just two days before President Mohammed Bazoum’s inauguration. If Nigeriens did not express their discontent in the same way as the Malians and Burkinabes, this did not mean they were any more satisfied with their government; they were simply less organized. A protest coalition called M62, founded in August 2022 and named after the sixty-two years of independence from France, attempted to mobilize their resentments, but it was foiled by the regime. This unfolded in a political context where civil society activism had become a spent force and the independence of the media was considerably diminished. Over the years, both protest movements and critical journalists have been brought to heel through the Nigerien state’s liberal use of bribery and threats, including fiscal auditing and other administrative chicanery.

The previous coup attempts were merely the tip of the iceberg. In February, a military officer close to President Bazoum told me that coup-plotting had become routine, even banal, in high military circles. He added that in meetings between the president and the military command, the generals and colonels were frosty and sulking, while Bazoum was at a loss as to how to break through to them. He had to resort to continuous monitoring and engage in a game of re-appointments and disguised removals in what proved, ultimately, a futile attempt to outpace potential coup-makers. Given the degree of state surveillance, however, a coup could succeed only if it were perpetrated by the security body most trusted by Bazoum: the Presidential Guard. This body had thwarted coups not only under Bazoum but also under his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou. Having served under both administrations, the Guard’s commander, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, enjoyed the firm confidence of Bazoum. In an interview the detained president managed to give to Jeune Afrique from his place of custody, he denied the rumour that he was about to discharge Tchiani.

The bone of contention between these branches of the state was security policy. Under Issoufou, Niger opposed the 2011 NATO intervention to dislodge Khadafi, predicting it would destroy Libya and set off a security and migration crisis in the region. But when the prophesy came true, Issoufou decided to seek the help of the West to contain the fallout. There was a rational reason for this. Freshly into power, Issoufou and Bazoum’s party, the PNDS (or Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism) had plans for large-scale social spending in health and education. It also intended to replenish the civil service, which had not recruited in years. To carry through this programme, security expenditure had to be minimized, which was achievable only if someone else helped to shoulder the costs.  

On a broader level, relations between the newly elected government and military were rotten from the outset. In July 2011, after just four months in power, Issoufou foiled a coup attempt. One of the alleged plotters, Lt. Ousmane Awal Hambaly – a member of the Presidential Guard – saw his case dismissed and was released in 2012, but was subsequently involved in yet another coup attempt in 2015. At his second trial, he claimed that he had been ‘baited’ by Tchiani, who convinced him to plan the coup along with other military officers. Tchiani had by this time acquired a reputation for cooking up coup plots that he would then defuse, in order to make himself indispensable to his presidential patrons. Whatever the truth of the matter, such coup attempts served to make Issoufou paranoid about the military. According to hard-to-verify anecdotes – the non-existence of investigative journalism means that Niger’s public opinion relies mostly on gossip and rumours – such paranoia got in the way of beefing up the army for the fight against the Jihadists.

The reign of the PNDS began with good intentions, but was soon beset by serious flaws that made a viable security policy more difficult to achieve down the line. Two, in particular, turned the public against the ruling party. The first was endemic corruption, which had given democracy a bad name in Niger, and which the PNDS had promised to root out. In 2011, the government created a toll-free number to denounce acts of corruption, as well as a permanent body to combat it, raising hopes of reform that were later dashed. The second flaw was the recasting of the political system. Throughout the 2000s, Nigerien politics operated on the basis of opposing coalition blocs that jockeyed for position and forced each party to compromise with one another. This created a political balance that gave hope to opposition forces and reduced the public’s fear of being excluded from political rent-seeking or participation. It was this balance that the PNDS set out to destroy, in a bid to consolidate its permanent hold on power. Opposition parties were fragmented (Nigeriens use the energetic French term concassage, as in the crushing of a hard material), then absorbed through the lavish disbursement of treasures: plum jobs, contracts, tolerance for embezzlement and other improprieties. PNDS-led governments made room for dozens of ministers – always more than forty – along with hundreds of advisers and ‘high representatives’. Parties that refused this form of ‘inclusion’ were persecuted, notably by the above–mentioned anti-corruption body (the toll-free number was discontinued early on). The one organization that resisted assimilation throughout the PNDS’s tenure was the Moden (Nigerien Democratic Movement), better known as Lumana, which had a stranglehold on the country’s western region, including the capital, Niamey. Its candidate, Hama Amadou, spent the 2016 presidential campaign in jail.

The dominance of the PNDS had deleterious consequences for Niger’s democracy. It depoliticized the public sphere, which thereby increased the politicization of other areas of national life, including the civil service, where promotion came to depend on allegiance to the party and its coalition, and the army. De facto single-party rule was established. The cost was the deep unpopularity of the regime, the weakening of democratic institutions and the law – which were forced to serve partisan goals – and a declining sense of national unity, as people in the west of the country, and more generally in the south, felt they were second-class citizens compared to those in the Tahoua region (fief of the PNDS) and the north. Trust in elections was eroded. If the system of political balance was corrupting, the de facto single-party system was no less so, as well as being oppressive and non-inclusive. Nigeriens called it ‘the Gouri System’, from the Hausa word for ‘wish’, taken from one of President Issoufou’s slogans.

Thus, by the end of the 2010s, Niger had two pressing problems: unrelenting Jihadist violence, and a diseased democracy unable to deliver true legitimacy to the elected. In this context, the presence of the West looked like an added problem. It was more limited than in Mali, where the French counterterrorism Barkhane force and the UN’s peacekeeping MINUSMA mission operated. Before falling out with Mali’s junta and moving the remnants of Barkhane to Niger in late 2022, the French were active mostly in the north of the country, where they protected uranium mining sites. For their part, the Americans have two bases for the surveillance of the vast wastes of the central Sahara, while European forces offered training and technical assistance. This foreign presence was seen as intrusive, and the PNDS could not sell it to the public because of its own divisive style of rule. In the era of compromise politics, it could have made its case to opposition parties and genuinely independent civil society groupings, and a trusted, independent press could have been engaged. The public could have been swayed through debate. But the PNDS presented any criticism as a threat issuing from a radicalized opposition (PNDS activists called their Lumana counterparts ‘the delinquents’), rather than a legitimate grievance. In any case, the government seemed able simply to ignore popular discontent, since their police forces could deal with it easily enough. The only place where it erupted was Niamey, a city divided half-and-half between locals and migrants which, unlike the capitals of Burkina Faso and Mali, Ouagadougou and Bamako, lacks a unified identity base.

More grievously, the PNDS lost its bet that the West would help eradicate the Jihadist presence. Had this bet been won, the party would be in power today. But not only did the West fail to help on that front; it became an obstacle to collective security once the putsches in Mali and Burkina Faso brought to power juntas that chose not to rely on it. Prior to these developments, the three countries, together with Chad and Mauritania, were building momentum for the G5 Sahel: a collective security apparatus that would encompass the whole Sahel. Junta-led Mali and Burkina Faso crashed out of it in 2022 and made clear they would not work with Niger on collective security matters as long as Niger partnered with the French. From then on, Niger faced a dilemma, especially since the elite in the Sahel, and in Francophone West Africa more broadly, traditionally tends to scapegoat the French for their own failures, relying on the familiar yet elusive concept of Françafrique. In addition, a more recent ideological brew that combines decolonial radicalism, fringe ideologies like Kemetism (a religious belief that Black Africa is heir to Pharaonic Egypt), and the prickly sovereigntism of the weak, has seeped into the public via social media networks, sometimes from sources in France’s Black community. A Russophilia that was peculiar to Mali, going back to the reign of independence leader Modibo Keita, also percolated in this mixture. And France’s own mistakes, which stemmed from its highly inegalitarian relations with its African partners, poured fuel on the fire.

The PNDS’s Niger saw no reason to break its agreements with the West. But the military, who were influenced by the same ideological messaging, thought collective security with Mali and Burkina Faso was more important than partnership with these foreign powers. That’s why they sulked in meetings with the government. Bazoum, it seems, tried listening to them. Early this year, his chief of defence, Salifou Mody, was sent to Bamako to negotiate collective security measures. It is possible that Bazoum heard he did more than that, since he removed him in April and gave him the embassy in the Emirates, a potential source of rich pickings. But this manoeuvre failed to save the incumbent. Brought to power by the coup as second in line, Mody is now busy building ties with Bamako and Ouagadougou, and the Niamey junta has ‘denounced’ the partnership with France.

In theory, the coup could fix Niger’s two main problems. It could ‘reboot’ its democracy, which had been frozen by the Gouri System, and it could lead to the development of a better security policy. If the PNDS’s trajectory is any indication, the two outcomes are related. But does the junta care about democracy? And what about the West and Nigeria, both of which responded harshly to the putsch, the first suspending all aid, the second threatening war?

The process of restarting democracy by coup is no extraordinary occurrence in Niger. In fact, it has happened three times in the past, in 1996 (arguably), 1999 and 2010. But now the domestic and international climate is different. Niamey’s putschists are inspired by the examples of Bamako and Ouagadougou, whose juntas have weathered sanctions and stood up to the ‘international community’ and ECOWAS, while barely committing to a return to democratic governance. As in these other countries, the Nigerien junta is currently enjoying the adulation of the public, glad to see the fall of the Gouri System. They may interpret this as a form of legitimization that exempts them from having to return to the democratic process. Meanwhile, the ideological climate pushing toward a rupture with France and the West will also help to set the stage for authoritarianism – even though the West could be criticised for turning a blind eye to the PNDS’s own authoritarian tendencies and abetting them by default. The events in Burkina Faso and Mali indicate that, after a year or so, genuine support for juntas dwindles to the committed ideologues and those who have staked their future on their regime. Others tend to accept them because the material changes to their lives are minimal. If there is still a dearth of political participation, there is also a traditional Sahelian acceptance that this is what military rule looks like. The result is a form of political regression – although democracy as practised under Mali’s Ibrahim Boubakar Keita or Niger’s Gouri System hardly amounted to progress either.  

In all three countries, then, democratic restoration can come only from outside pressure – that of ECOWAS in particular. But in Niger, this pressure got off to a bad start. Because Nigeria was caught off-guard by the putsch, exasperated by the feeling of one coup too many, and under a leader – Bola Tinubu – who is determined to give ECOWAS a truly Nigerian stamp (even though Nigerians know and understand very little about their French-speaking neighbours), its response was severe. It included threats of military intervention along with sanctions such as cutting Niger’s electricity supply, over 70% of which comes from Nigeria. The Niamey putschists, naïve not to expect this backlash, have responded with outrage –  recalling ambassadors, breaking off agreements and refusing to receive emissaries.

If the putschists manage to entrench their rule and maintain their intransigence, declining to reach any compromise with the Nigerians and Westerners, which would inevitably involve a break with the methods of the Malian and Burkinabe juntas, the likely outcome will be the withdrawal of European security and development aid (if not humanitarian funding) and the continuation of ECOWAS sanctions, which are likely to be more damaging for Niger than they were for Mali. The Nigerien population will suffer, but they will take it as one more calamity among many, especially given their proverbial fear of ‘the soldier’. There will then be two unknowns: the attitude of the Americans, who will want to hold on to their desert bases, and that of the Russians, should the junta decide to invite them to Niger in the form of Wagner. Which, given its recent rhetoric, is not impossible.

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.