Notwithstanding that three months have already passed after overthrowing of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger and coming into power of military servicemen headed by the Commander of the Republican Guard General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the development of the situation in this country still is in the focus of close attention. And it is connected, in the first turn, with the contradictions that arose between the two main external players – France and its senior partner, the USA, with regard to the ways and means of resolving this crisis.
The fact is that, of all the Western countries, the reaction of France to this coup was the roughest one. As appears, its foreign policy today is mostly guided by situational emotions in response to the processes taking part in the world rather than by a thought-out strategy even for the near future.
President Emmanuel Macron, counting on all possible support by his allies in Africa, in particular by the USA, refused to recognize the new government, supported the decision of the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on possible use of force against Niger (which was initiated by himself with the help from some particular Francophone leaders of this organization) and peremptorily demanded from the new leaders – calling them “non-legitimate actors” – to restore the overthrown President in power.
Same as Sarkozy, who in 2011 provoked the NATO states to a military intervention into Libya in order to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Macron attempted to resolve the problem of Niger by using others – with the help of the ECOWAS countries’ armed forces.
Additionally, as mentioned by the American edition Consortium News, Paris believed that the coup initiated by the Republican Guard would not have a wide-scale support from the military circles and the population, making its organizers seek ways for resolving the crisis with his mediation.
But Niamey did not yield under the pressure and gave a no less rough response: it publicly denounced five agreements with France on military and technical cooperation concluded within the period from 1977 to 2020 and demanded withdrawal of the French troops within 30 days, accompanied by recalling the French ambassador, that actually made President Macron a political pariah in Niamey.
Moreover, it turned out that the paths of Washington and Paris greatly diverge in resolving of this conflict. The White House, verbally advocating restoration of the Constitutional order, places emphasis on supporting stability in the country for the purpose of resolving its key strategic objective in Niger – to maintain, at any cost, its military bases, the ten years’ agreement for placing which in the territory of this country will expire in the next year, and not to allow bringing into the country the troops of the Russian Wagner PMC. As regards Mr. Bazoum, the USA in its policy does not give top priority to his return into power, they only advocate his liberation in order not to put extending of the validity period of the military bases agreement under threat.
The Paris strategists’ forecast regarding near disruption in the military circles and the population’s opposing to the military regime did not come true either. Though, according to the observations of The Washington Post, the junta is lacerated by “internal contradictions”, it still managed to attract to its side a significant part of the population – especially the youth, in whose circles the former President Mohamed Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou are believed to be French puppets. As regards the support of the coup by the population, according to the data of the Indian analytical center Gateway House, 78 percent of the local males with university education supported the coup in a telephone survey and gave their preferences to cooperation with Russia and not with France or USA.
On the whole, to understand the US policy in the Sahel zone and Washington’s attitude to the events in Niger one must proceed from the provisions of the new African strategy of the USA in Africa, adopted last year by Joe Biden’s office. Their essence is that Africa to the south of Sahara, including 46 of the 54 African states, has the decisive importance for promotion of the US global priorities, as it is one of the fast-growing regions of the world in terms of population, with the largest free trade zone and the most numerous regional group of states in the UN, that being of enormous importance for support of the interests of the US national security.
As regards Niger, in the understanding of the former Commander of the US Special Operations forces in Africa in 2017-2019, General Marcus Hicks, this sounds as: “Niger was the last bastion of hope and security in the Sahel”, that is why “The idea that we’d leave a vacuum for further malign Russian influence would be a real tragedy.”
Here, the American general forgot to mention China that, as noted by one of Fox News experts, “was pursued” by Washington in order to make up for the lost opportunities during the years when the Black Continent was forgotten. And indeed, China has become the second – after France – largest investor into the economy of Niger in the recent years. According to the US Embassy in Niamey, the total volume of its direct investment into this country as of the end of 2020 amounted to 2.68 billion dollars, mainly into intelligence and development of uranium and oil deposits.
The present leaders of the Pentagon follow the same logics. They played a decisive role in determining the USA’s policy with regard to the coup in this country. Thus, Sabrina Singh, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary, pointing, on their behalf, to the importance of Niger in combating Islamic terrorism in the Sahel zone, said that “[Niger is a partner and] we don’t want to see that partnership go … We’ve invested, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars into bases there, trained with the military there”, so they were interested in peaceful resolution.
At the same time, Bloomberg notes, in the American experts community they believe that the USA must act in the Sahel zone proceeding from their own interests, not depending on whether it is suitable for France or not. It can be concluded from this that Washington is ready to cooperate with any regime that will stay in power, seeking to obtain maximum indulgence therefrom.
And it indeed happens. While Paris, setting aside the diplomatic etiquette, was engaged in tugging ropes with its contrarious military partners, adding some fuel to the fire by making statements that it would not allow “the junta to oust its troops from the country”, Washington was meanwhile using all kinds of efforts to establish contacts with the new authorities.
To achieve the set objectives, as noted by the London-based Africa Report magazine, the Americans resort to the “carrot and stick” policy threatening with refusal to provide military as well as financial and economic assistance. They also widely spread the information that they are simultaneously negotiating creation of alternative bases in West Africa, just in case their military forces need to leave the territory of Niger. And eventually it began yielding its fruit.
According to the statement made by James Hecker, the US Air Force Commander in Europe and Africa, as far as in the first half of August they agreed with the military administration of Niger to resume UAV and piloted aircraft flights at Niger’s air bases, for the purpose of collecting intelligence information about jihadists’ disposition. In this case, it concerns the air base in the city of Agadez with the cost of 110 million dollars, built in 2019 for launching very effective devices of MQ-9 Reaper type, the base being one of the largest US military facilities in Africa; and also the 101 air base in the country’s capital, Niamey.
Speaking about the achieved agreement, the general noted that it had become possible thanks to the diplomatic efforts on their part. And this is not new that Pentagon in Africa sometimes began performing the functions of the State Department, when it comes within its sphere of action. As far as Niger is concerned, in this case they certainly made use of the services of their former charges, the coup participants, who had undergone military training in the USA, and whose number in the Niger government agencies is at least five as of today.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the head of the Niger Military Forces Headquarters, brigadier general Moussa Salaou Barmou, who had received his military education in the USA, has lately become the main channel of communications between the USA – the Pentagon, in the first turn, – and the Niger military government.
It is remarkable that, on August 19, the Prime Minister of the transitional government of Niger, Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, answering the question of The New York Times correspondent about the further fate of the American military troops numbering 1,000 servicemen, said that “time will come to review the agreements on their dislocation”, while emphasizing the “extremely reasonable position of the White House in search of resolution of the Niger crisis by diplomatic, and not military, means”.
This assessment on the part of the official Niamey of the White House’s approach to development of relations with Niger indicates that, ignoring the interests of France, it has long been in secret unilateral negotiations with the military government. A concrete confirmation of the same became the article in the Jeune Afrique magazine, that stated that “the USA, who have established contacts with the military administration in Niger, have convinced today’s ECOWAS chairman, the Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, to refuse from military intervention to Niger openly supported by the French President.
In these conditions, on September 24, two months after the coup, President Emmanuel Macron, having perceived that Washington has actually “framed him up”, and, as the Canadian The Global and Mail figuratively put it, “the USA in Niger threw France under the wheels of a bus”, was forced to declare the withdrawal of his troops from Niger. Mr. Biden’s Administration, continues the newspaper, again put France under the blow, this time flirting with the coupists in Niger… Washington, as appears, now is ready to conclude a deal with the military junta and leave 1,000 American servicemen in the country and the American UAV base, even if it means putting France in the second place in this region which was regarded by it as its sphere of influence for a long time.
According to many experts, France, who hoped for the “Atlantic solidarity” in resolving issues concerning both parties’ interests, did not expect that one partner could so offhandedly suppress the other one. If Paris could foresee such turn of the events they would have made arrangements with the military authorities about withdrawal of their troops on more favorable conditions for themselves, not connected to such drastic escalation of the bilateral relations.
In this case, Washington attempted at the interests of its strategic ally in Africa with whom it created a security system in the Sahel zone that, as emphasized by the American The Hufflington Post, sustained a crushing blow from the coup in Niger. That is why France’s withdrawal from Niger will most negatively influence the efficiency of anti-terrorist struggle in the Western Africa. Just now, there is noted increasing terrorist activity in a number of districts in Niger, as the result of which the losses of this country’s army were 29 persons.
Paris knew from the very beginning of the conflict that the USA were conducting behind-the-scenes struggle, however they did not expect it to become so serious. Everything became from the visit to Niamey on August 8 by the Deputy Head of the Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, that was deemed unsuccessful by most American media based on the fact that she was refused meetings with the Head of the State General Tchiani and the overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum.
However, there is created an impression that these assessments had a diversionary nature in order to conceal Washington’s true intentions to actually establish working contacts with the new military authorities. How can we then qualify the statement of the aforementioned general James Hecker about obtaining the military authorities’ permission to resume American UAVs’ flights in the first half of August, while at the same time Ms. Nuland was in negotiations with the head of the Niger Military Forces Headquarters General Moussa Salaou Barmou and his three subordinate colonels, warning him what woes were expecting them if they refused to cooperate with the USA. According to her, her interlocutors demonstrated full understanding of what ignoring the USA interests might result in.
And how then can be such tough reaction of France to her visit be explained. According to the information of Le Figaro, obtained from diplomatic sources, Paris was extremely dissatisfied by its results as they turned out to be absolutely opposite to what was expected at Quai d’Orsay. As formulated by one of the diplomats who commented the results of this visit by Ms. Nuland, “we don’t need to have enemies if we have such allies”.
Sending to Niger a new American ambassador, following Ms. Nuland’s visit, also caused strong irritation in Paris where they assessed this move as recognition of the military regime’s legitimacy. The French Le Monde termed this step of Washington “backstabbing”.
Will the Elysee Palace put up with such behavior on the part of the hegemon who has put France into a humiliating position will become clear as the situation develops further. At that, the withdrawal of the French troops from Niger should not be qualified as France’s total leaving this country. The coup is indeed a serious blow inflicted on Paris’ prestige, however it remains one of the key economic partners with serious leverages in the political life.
In many analysts’ opinion, in the conditions that have formed in the country and around it, one should not expect soon resolution of the crisis in Niger that enters into the stage of trying times today. Being one of the poorest states in the world, before the coup it received annually about 2 billion dollars of assistance for development purposes. Its budget for 2023 was drafted in the amount of 5.53 billion dollars, of which 2.2 billion, or 40 percent, had to be obtained from external sources. However introducing economic sanctions makes their performance very questionable.
After the USA officially declared the events of July 26 a coup d’état, Washington, in order to enhance its pressure on the military leadership, in order to make it more compliant at the negotiations in process, simultaneously declared the freezing of 200 million dollars for combating terrorism and 442 million dollars for implementation of a number of economic programs. Their resumption, according to the Press Secretary of the US State Department M. Miller, will require from the junta to restore democratic governance in the country within short and credible time frames.
France, whose aid for development purposes amounted to 130 million dollars last year, refused to provide in this year, and the ECOWAS countries suspended all commercial operations with Niger, freezing its assets in the central regional bank. The neighboring Nigeria, who supplies 70 percent of electric power to Niger, has stopped its supply.
All these combined led to growth of prices for food products and essential goods including medicines.
As regards the foreign policy course of the military government, it will be to a great extent determined by the interests of the global players and regional powers of the Middle East and Africa, bearing not only geopolitical but economic interest as well. At that, one should not expect that, following the examples of the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, it will be characterized by strong anti-Western course.
Viktor Goncharov, Expert in African studies, Candidate of Economic Science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.