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Vol 64 No 16

Published 3rd August 2023


Niger

A coup foretold but not averted

Facing harsh sanctions and military action by the Economic Community of West African States the junta is cracking down on its domestic foes

The political class in Niamey and sundry intelligence sources had been speculating about the possibility of President Mohamed Bazoum's overthrow for months. There had been grumblings in the army ever since he was sworn in on 2 April, 2021 (AC Vol 61 No 25, Dauphin goes to the polls).

That was just days after he escaped an attempted putsch. His saviour then was Gen Abdourahmane Tiani , the commander of the 2,000-strong presidential guard, the same man who detained Bazoum on 26 July and has now been proclaimed president and head of Niger's Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie (CNSP) junta.

Tiani's reasons for deposing the man he had been protecting for the past two years are obscure. His televised speech about security and governance sounded like the boilerplate justifications rolled out by other putschists in the region. He argued for military cooperation with Burkina Faso and Mali. But it was those countries' military regimes that had stopped cooperating with Niger's western-supported forces.

Speculation had been mounting that Bazoum had been about to order the general into retirement to assert his authority. This might explain why the coup began like a limited mutiny. 

Tiani's presidential guard was confining Bazoum to his home while former President Mahamadou Issoufou was trying to talk the general down. At the same time, loyalist troops guarded the national television station while others travelled towards Niamey, apparently prepared to crush the revolt.

Then, something shifted within the Nigérien military leadership and, at midnight on 26-27 July, officers from several military units went on television to announce the CNSP's seizure of power.

The next day their statement was endorsed, somewhat equivocally, by the armed forces chiefs of staff. They instructed all military units to maintain their normal duties, fighting terrorist groups. This was, they said 'to avoid a murderous confrontation between the different forces' or any harm to Bazoum himself, whom they continued to style 'President of the Republic'.

Tiani on top
On 28 July, Tiani spoke on television as the new head of the CNSP, a role assumed only after lengthy negotiations among the top brass. Another significant figure in the drama is Gen Salifou Mody, armed forces chief of staff until his dismissal in April. When Chad's transitional President Mahamat Idriss Déby 'Kaka' visited Niamey to mediate on 30 July he was pictured meeting both Tiani and Mody, but separately. 

Tiani had initially acted alone but was apparently able to attract enough support across many of the army's branches to convince the chiefs of staff to accept the putsch, albeit cautiously.

In March, Mody visited Bamako and secured a green light for Nigérien troops to cross into Malian territory if in hot pursuit of jihadists. But Bazoum had been a fierce critic of the Mali junta under Colonel Assimi Goïta. Had he authorised Mody's trip or did he see it as undermining the ECOWAS line on Bamako?

Mody was sacked a few weeks later. Perhaps his dismissal in April stirred sympathy and anti-Bazoum sentiment among officers believing he had been scapegoated. And that may have encouraged Tiani, hearing speculation about his removal, to conclude senior officers would back him if he moved against Bazoum.

Tiani has served in Bazoum's home area around Nguigmi in the south-east, but has been less involved in the campaigns against Boko Haram or jihadists in the tri-border region where Niger meets Mali and Burkina Faso. 

He was a colonel when President Issoufou appointed him to command the presidential guard, a post he held for a decade. Bazoum reconfirmed him in the post but lately he has been planning changes. The issue was due to be discussed in government on 27 July, claimed a source.

Jihadist attacks
Tiani is from Filingué in Tillabéri region in the west. Many senior officers, many of them Zarma people of the Niger river valley, come from the area. This region has been attacked by jihadists crossing from Mali despite Bazoum's efforts to strengthen defences there, supported by French and other European forces.Hopes for a compromise in the stand-off with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are dependent on the dynamics in the Nigérien military and across the political and administrative class.

Attitudes among the business elite in Niamey and in Maradi, Niger's second city, which has close economic links with Kano and other centres in northern Nigeria, could also be important. It will be hard for the junta to brush off the concerns of Hausa traders hit by ECOWAS sanctions.

Bazoum's membership of a minority Arab group from Diffa region, close to Lake Chad, was exploited by oppositionists in the 2020-21 presidential election who accused him of being Libyan. Yet he clinched a decisive victory, winning heavily across Tahoua and Maradi regions, strongholds of the Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme (PNDS-Tarraya) party that he and former President Issoufou had built during the early democracy years.

Bazoum's frequent visits to communities in regions around the country were earning him popularity, even in Niamey, an 'opposition town'. As news spread of his detention, crowds came out in his support across the capital. Noisy demonstrations backing the putschists have dominated television broadcasts but the pro-Bazoum protests have continued, notably in Tahoua.

For now the junta has the upper hand but looks far from confident. It has started arresting Bazoum's ministers, including Issoufou's son Sani Mahamadou, and the chairman of the PNDS, Fourmakoye Gado.

Cross-community cohesion
Niger is proud of its cross-community cohesion and Peuhl (or Fulani) and Tuareg people have often held top government roles under Bazoum, as under Issoufou. But they have been victimised as jihadist sympathisers by southern nationalists in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali and there are fears populist hardliners might try to encourage similar divisions in Niger.

Some argue that Bazoum erred by carving out more of his own agenda rather than following the roadmap set by Issoufou. Bazoum had been a long-serving minister in Issoufou's governments and had retained its main policy themes: food security, rural development, strong commitment to ECOWAS and a close security partnership with the west. His own priorities, supporting the return of displaced people and expanding girls' access to secondary education, were complementary. But Bazoum's push to restore governance standards that were becoming frayed towards the end of the Issoufou era, probably alienated some powerful interests.

NIAMEY JUNTA TESTS REGIONAL RESOLVE ON COUPS

West African leaders' hard-line stance towards General Abdourahamane Tiani's military junta in Niamey, which is holding President Mohamed Bazoum and his family prisoner in the presidential residence, risks serious confrontation with the putschists.

Meeting in Abuja on 30 July, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) under the chairmanship of Nigeria's President Bola Ahmed Tinubu closed the frontiers, banned all flights, trade and energy shipments and froze all bank assets, setting a one-week deadline for the restoration of constitutional order. The country is land-locked and highly vulnerable to financial sanctions too.

ECOWAS leaders did not rule out using force, saying their military chiefs of staff would meet urgently to consider the options. On 28 July the African Union's (AU) Peace and Security Council had already issued its own two-week deadline for the restoration of democracy, while the United States, France, Britain and the European Union have frozen or threatened to suspend financial and military support.

Yet it is far from certain that these measures will be any more effective with the fourth junta to take power in the region in as many years than with its predecessors. 

With their backs against the wall, Tiani and his allies, cheered on by crowds fired up with anti-French rhetoric, are aligning themselves with their fellow officers in Mali and Burkina Faso in blaming Paris for the Sahel security crisis. And they are accepting the congratulations of Russia's Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin while mulling his offers of help. 

At the second Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg on 27-28 July, Russian officials called for Bazoum's release and formally backed the AU position. But opaque relations between Wagner and the Kremlin allow a useful ambiguity for President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow would welcome a chance to extend its influence in Niger, which has hitherto closely aligned with the west. 

After ECOWAS sanctions against Mali in 2021 backfired, triggering a wave of nationalistic support for Colonel Assimi Goïta's junta, the bloc held back from imposing such measures on Guinea and Burkina Faso after their military takeovers. But that has made it look weak.

All three countries have promised elections for next year but on vague terms that may allow the putschists to 'civilianise' themselves before winning elections, whether rigged or by surfing the support of the street. 

ECOWAS officials know that sanctions are blunt, sometimes ineffective and potentially counter-productive, but they have to crack down on Niger or risk exposing themselves as toothless and see the putschist wave spread further. Ghana's national security minister Albert Kan-Daapah told the Chatham House foreign policy think tank in London that the bloc could not compromise on its opposition to military rule.

The bloc's threat of recourse to force is vague, perhaps deliberately so. ECOWAS is in the early stages of reviving the Nigeria-dominated Ecomog (ECOWAS Monitoring Group), the regional force deployed to Liberia in 1990, as a permanent entity (AC Vol 62 No 19, Doublethink in ECOWAS). Long term, it aims to have a troop strength of 5,000.

This could take many months to assemble, so initially they plan to set up a rapid intervention force of 1,650. Its mandate would include deployment to countries where constitutional government has been deposed, but officials have not set out what conditions would trigger such an intervention.

Despite claims by the junta in Niamey, a full-scale ECOWAS invasion seems wildly implausible. Niger has a well-trained, 25,000-strong army and the junta says it will enlist military support from its counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso if invaded.

Much more likely would be the deployment of troops in neighbouring states at border crossings to enforce the blockade. Before the ECOWAS deadline of 5 August, there is a narrow window for diplomacy before sanctions start to bite.

The first effort at external mediation fell to Chad's President Mahamat Idriss Déby 'Kaka'. He joined West African leaders at the Abuja summit before flying on to Niamey, where he met Tiani, the still detained Bazoum and former President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has been urging the putschists to abandon the coup.



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