Nigeria-led regional bloc ready to flex its muscle in Niger

Supporters of the coup hold a Russian flag at the start of a protest in Niamey against foreign interference on Thursday. Photograph: Sam Mednick/AP

In the square in central Niamey on Thursday, the anniversary of Niger’s independence from France, the mainly young men who gathered to demonstrate in favour of the military coup against President Mohamed Bazoum brought with them Russian flags and anti-French slogans.

It remained unclear whether the demonstration was spontaneous or organised to coincide with a speech by the coup leader Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani in which he decried the threat of interference by the west and regional powers led by Nigeria.

But the harnessing of anti-French – and more widely anti-foreign – sentiment has rapidly become a key element of how the coup is being framed by its leaders and supporters as the junta faces the threat of military intervention by the Ecowas regional grouping if Bazoum is not restored to power.

In the space of just over a week Niger has become the focus of a series of overlapping crises and issues that have spilled out from the instability of a coup-prone Sahel region destabilised by jihadi insurgencies, drawing in the biggest players in west Africa, with Nigeria – the most powerful Ecowas member – at the fore.

Niger, a recipient of substantial funding from the west and host of western military bases, has been thrust towards the region’s geopolitical frontline after countries including Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea have also succumbed to military takeovers and been courted by Russia.

And while it is highly probable that Tchiani and his fellow coup plotters moved against Bazoum for the most prosaic of self-serving reasons – the president’s threat to remove the general as the head of the presidential guard – the events in the capital, Niamey, have lifted the lid on wider discontents and tensions.

One is a lingering deep sense of hostility towards France over its post-colonial record in Francophone Africa, which is being stirred up to justify the coup.

“Even before this coup Ecowas was thinking about security arrangements the region needed to change both around the continued danger of radical islamists and more contention from puschists. Part of what Ecowas has been talking about was creating an effective anti-putsch force in the region, which is what Ecowas’s military chief of staffs have been discussing,” Vines says.

Particularly important, he argues, has been the political mood music in Nigeria, where President Bola Tinubu is “allergic to putschists, having had experience of being detained by them”.

Vines adds: “The other trigger point as seen from Abuja is the planned draw down of the Minusma [UN peacekeeping force] in Mali, which will end this year. Although it has not been effective it will create a further vacuum.”

It is a vacuum many see as ripe for exploitation by the likes of Russia and Wagner Group, which have already been heavily active in destabilising messages on social media that promote a neo-colonialist narrative aimed at France and other foreign actors in Niger.

It leaves open the question of next steps. On the military as well as the diplomatic fronts, it has been west African countries and Ecowas members taking the lead in missions to Niger, carrots alongside the stick of threatened force, offering an off-ramp for those behind the coup.

All of which, Vines argues, has been causing anxiety among Sahel states that have recently experienced their own coups and have warned – unconvincingly – that a military intervention would be seen as an act of war.

With the Ecowas ultimatum of restoring Bazoum to power, all options remain on the table for now.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has sought to represent himself breaking with France’s colonial history in Africa, disavowing the notion of Francafrique in favour of a new model of partnership, but long-lasting suspicions have been hard to shift.

A key issue is that despite the large amounts of aid and military assistance that have been channelled towards Niger from western countries, foreign cash flows have done little to visibly benefit the vast majority of young and impoverished Nigeriens who view the west’s support for Bazoum as business as usual for the country’s elites.

However, the coup leaders appear to have misjudged how their putsch would be received regionally and by the international community.

The biggest error, perhaps, was a misreading of a newly invigorated Ecowas determined not to replicate its weak response to other coups in the Sahel in the past few years. Among those who had noted a recent marked change in the bloc’s stance has been Alex Vines, the head of the Africa programme at the thinktank Chatham House who was recently in Abuja – where west African defence chiefs have been meeting.

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