How Niger got here and what it could mean for West Africa’s future

The West African country of Niger has been thrown into turmoil following a coup that removed the nation’s democratically elected leader. In a strange twist of fate, Niger’s leader was ousted by members of the military presidential guard who were sworn to protect him but instead installed their general as the country’s new head of government. 

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While democratic backsliding has been seen all over the world, Niger’s fall is the latest government to crumble in the region, and “democracy is not just struggling but collapsing at an alarming rate in our own West African neighborhood,” Human Capital Africa CEO Oby Ezekwesili tweeted.

Despite Western condemnation of the coup, as well as international sanctions, Niger’s new ruler has remained steadfast that the rebellion was necessary. How did Niger get here, and what’s next for the country of 25 million people? 

What happened? 

The coup occurred when presidential guards led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani “blockaded the presidential palace in [Niger’s capital] Niamey” and detained President Mohamed Bazoum, The Guardian reported. At the beginning of the coup, sources told Al Jazeera that it “remains unclear where Bazoum is or if he is still being detained,” though he’s now believed to be held by Tchiani’s guards within the presidential palace after photos of him emerged on Facebook. 

Following the coup, Tchiani installed himself as the new leader of Niger. In a speech on the country’s state-run television, he referred to himself as the president and said the coup was necessary to “preserve our homeland in the face of the continuing deterioration of our country’s security situation.” He added that there was “no real solution to the crisis in sight from the ousted authorities” and that the “current security approach has failed to secure our country.” 

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Tchiani subsequently announced the formation of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), a military junta comprised of the top commanders of the Niger Armed Forces. Following their takeover, CNSP leaders “dissolved the constitution, suspended all institutions and closed the nation’s borders,” BBC News reported — moves indicative of prior military juntas in the region. The CNSP also reportedly arrested several senior politicians from the ousted government. 

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While the larger Niger military has backed Tchiani and his guards, remnants of the toppled government still insist they’re in charge. Bazoum’s foreign minister, Hassoumi Massoudou, declared himself acting head of state following Bazoum’s capture and told France24 that the government’s “legal and legitimate power is the one exercised by the elected president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum.”

What led to the coup?

Niger has dealt with waves of political instability for decades, and Tchiani’s takeover marked the “fifth successful coup in the West African nation’s history since it gained independence from France in 1960, with other unsuccessful attempts in between,” Al Jazeera noted. 

Military juntas were previously formed in the 1970s and ’90s until the country’s instability cooled in 2011 with the inauguration of Mahamadou Issoufou as a democratically elected president. Issoufou was reelected in 2016 and handed the reigns to Bazoum in 2021, giving the country the “opportunity to finally experience … after 60 years a democratic transition” of power, RFI reported. 

However, power struggles began the moment Bazoum took over. A military unit “tried to seize the presidential palace days before the just-elected Bazoum was due to be sworn in,” Reuters reported. Though this coup attempt was stopped, it was the beginning of a larger uprising within the country. 

What has the international response been?

Western countries, African nations and international organizations have condemned the coup and attempted to abate the new government. The European Union began the proceedings by freezing a large portion of its aid to Niger. The EU’s foreign policy head, Josep Borrell, said that his organization “does not recognize and will not recognize the authorities resulting from the putsch in Niger” and that Bazoum “remains the only legitimate president of Niger.” He added, “In addition to the immediate suspension of budget support, all security cooperation activities are suspended sine die with immediate effect.”

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Numerous American officials warned Niger that U.S. aid could be cut off and that they were working to prevent this. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with the president of neighboring Nigeria and reiterated that “substantial cooperation with the government of Niger is contingent on Niger’s continued commitment to democratic standards,” per a White House readout. This sentiment was echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose department said in a statement that the U.S. would support Bazoum. The uprising was “threatening years of successful cooperation and hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance that support the Nigerien people,” the statement continued. 

How will the rest of West Africa be affected? 

Niger lies in a region of West Africa known as the Sahel. This area has been afflicted with numerous coups in recent years that have made it the “longest corridor of military rule on Earth,” The New York Times reported. Stretching from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east, Niger’s coup has completed a line of junta-run countries spanning 3,500 miles. 

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The fall of Niger’s government will have wide-reaching consequences for the Sahel, as Bazoum was one of the last democratically elected leaders in the region. His government was “supported by the Westerns in his fight against terrorism, first, and resistance to Russia, second,” Ambassador Rama Yade of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center told NPR. Beyond this, Bazoum’s Niger has had a “very important role in the counterterrorism strategy led by France and the U.S. but also by the Europeans.” 

Given the rare support of Western standards by a Sahel-region country, “what’s going on here in the Sahel will have an impact not only on Africa but also, I think, in Ukraine, Europe and on the global stage,” Yade added. This seems to be one of the reasons that the Biden administration has refrained from calling the incident an outright coup, as doing so could “trigger an end to U.S. security aid to a country that’s key to battling terrorism and curbing Russian influence in Africa,” Politico reported. 

Aside from international issues, the economic and political instability that has been creeping throughout the Sahel may have no end in sight following Niger’s fall, and “I’m very worried that Sahelian Africa is going to melt down,” Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford, told the Times. 

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