Explainer: What’s behind the Niger coup?

After last week’s surprise coup in Niger, the Russian military group Wagner is taking advantage of the chaos and anti-French sentiment, says journalist Garé Amadou in Niamey, while ordinary Nigeriens are preparing for the worst

Is there real, solid support for Russia in Niger?
Russia’s support in Niger is limited to so-called pan-Africanist or alter-globalisation circles, mainly through social media networks. Occasionally, however, street demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of the French army from Niger are made by civil society or trade unions. During these, Russian flags are regularly waved. M62, a civil society umbrella organisation set up in 2022, is one of the leading movements surfing a wave of anti-French sentiment, along with the belief that Russian military support through the Wagner group can help Niger in the fight against terrorism. Some members of M62 make no secret of their desire to see Niger forge relations with the paramilitary Wagner.

But the pro-Russia movement can also be found among politicians. The first, who is known for his pan-Africanist ideas and links with Russia, is Abdouramane Oumarou of the Incin Africa party. He frequently travels back and forth to Russia to meet leading figures. The second is the MPD party president, Sulhu. He was arrested on charges of colluding with a foreign power to destabilise Niger. According to our information, that power is Russia. He is said to have received a substantial sum of money to make contacts in this direction. Another group, the Umoja party, has the the same pro-Russian stance.

This development of a pro-Russian movement in Niger is taking place against the backdrop of France’s failure to combat the spread of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel.

How is the already-established Russian presence in the neighbouring country of Mali perceived in Niger?
Generally speaking, the people of Niger take a positive view of Russia’s presence in Mali. They are victims of the propaganda from the Malian junta – the CNSP (National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland) – about the Wagner group’s supposed effectiveness in the fight against terrorism.

They don’t hesitate to extol the virtues of Wagner’s relationship with the Malian army, and tend to reject the regular accusations of mass crimes made against Wagner in Mali. The atrocity in Moura, when 500 people were massacred by Russia-led soldiers – with the Malian president saying the victims were terrorists, despite the UN saying they were mostly civilians – is an example of many Nigeriens embracing pro-Wagner propaganda.

Protesters hold a Russian flag and a banner with images of: Niger’s coup leader, General Abdourahamane Tiani; Burkina Faso’s junta leader Capt Ibrahim Traoré; the leader of Mali’s junta, Assimi Goïta; and Guinea’s junta leader, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya.
Protesters hold a Russian flag and a banner with images of Niger’s coup leader, General Abdourahamane Tiani; Burkina Faso’s junta leader Capt Ibrahim Traoré; the leader of Mali’s junta, Assimi Goïta; and Guinea’s junta leader, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Many are focusing on how this coup connects to the rest of the Sahel – should we be seeing something distinctive in what’s happening in Niger?
What’s happening in Niger is very different. This was just a few top brass who saw retirement looming and were trying to pull a fast one on a democratically elected regime in order to extend their tenure in the army. The appeal to Russia has been made to counter the international community’s disapproval of the coup.

This explains the CSNP junta’s trip to Bamako, in Mali, which was intended to facilitate contacts with Wagner. The aim is to ensure the junta’s own security, as is the case in Central African Republic and Mali.

For the junta, it is also a question of finding a substitute force in the face of foreign forces’ refusal to work with them.

Wagner (or Russia) has probably asked for guarantees, which explains the announcement by the Nigerien junta, ending defence agreements that had linked Niger to France for decades.

How well does France understand Niger and its people and how strong are the ties?
The French know Niger’s sociology better than any other western country. This is due to the fact that Niger was a French colony until 1960 and age-old cultural and linguistic ties connect the two countries. Anti-French feeling did not take hold as it did in Burkina Faso and Mali.

Are people worried about the future? Which is the greater fear – US-backed Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) military intervention or Wagner group/Russian intervention?
People are really worried about the future. The situation is already untenable, with rising prices of basic necessities coupled with the disruption of the electricity supply, which Nigeria used to supply to Niger. As for western or Russian military intervention, Nigeriens’ main concern is that terrorism be eradicated in the country, and that security be restored in areas that have seen displacement of populations due to the terrorist threat. Generally speaking, people are rather sceptical about western intervention in the Sahel. People consider it ineffective.

Despite accusations against Wagner, Nigeriens have a high opinion of the Russians and a certain admiration for Putin. He is seen as a strong man who fights against what most Nigeriens see as the negative values of the west – attitudes to homosexuality, rejection of religion, and alleged Islamophobia. It’s the same feeling among a good part of Ecowas populations. The west is seen as decadent, while Russia is seen as the last defender of the moral values dear to Africans, such as marriage between men and women and respect for religion.

Supporters of Niger’s coup leaders take part in a rally at a stadium in Niamey
Supporters of Niger’s coup leaders take part in a rally at a stadium in Niamey. Photograph: Reuters

What do Nigeriens think will happen next? Generally speaking, Nigeriens are convinced that Ecowas will intervene militarily in Niger. News of the mobilisation of subregional troops is reaching Nigerien ears. It is also reported that there has been an apparent failure of negotiations initiated by Ecowas. People have already started stocking up on foodstuffs to prepare for any eventuality.

The fate of President MohamedBazoum and his family is in the hands of the junta and the international community, notably Ecowas and the African Union. If there is a military intervention, there is a strong chance that many people, including Bazoum, will lose their lives. According to the information we have, even if Bazoum is in the presidential guard camp, where his residence is located, he is not really in the hands of the putschists. He is under the protection of his heavily armed bodyguard. This explains why he is able to communicate with world leaders. The putschists are unable to take him, as they fear he may be killed in the process, which could plunge Niger into chaos. Contrary to appearances, the other army corps are not supportive of the coup.

The only ones actually detained by the putschists are the ministers and other senior officials of the Bazoum regime arrested a few days after the coup. This is why they communicate very little.

Garé Amadou is an author and journalist in Niamey and the editor of Niger’s weekly political newspaper Le Canard Déchaîné.

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