The geopolitical landscape in West Africa is currently experiencing a major test as a coup in Niger sends shockwaves through the region and beyond. Last week, a faction within the security forces captured the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, and declared themselves the new rulers of the nation. This unexpected power grab has plunged Niger into a state of uncertainty, prompting swift reactions from global powers and neighbors alike.
Mohamed Bazoum, despite being held captive, still enjoys the backing of the US, France, and most African leaders. These international backers have given the coup leaders a one-week ultimatum to step down and restore the legitimate president to his position. The United States and France, in particular, have taken a keen interest in the proceedings, given Niger’s strategic importance in the fight against jihadist forces in the Sahel region.
The United States, which has bet heavily on Niger in the anti-jihadist fight, has condemned the overthrow of President Bazoum in no uncertain terms. However, it has so far stopped short of labeling the event a “coup d’etat,” leaving a small space for diplomatic maneuvering.
Meanwhile, France, a former colonial power in Niger, has ordered the suspension of its direct aid and initiated the evacuation of its nationals and other Europeans from the country. In contrast to the French response, the United States has decided neither to evacuate its citizens nor suspend its aid to Niger at this stage. “We have no indication of direct threats to US citizens or our facilities” in Niger, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stated on Tuesday, indicating that the US did not see an immediate need to change its posture regarding its presence in Niger.
The US stance is seen as an attempt to keep a small window open for diplomacy and the restoration of President Bazoum. This comes as the US is providing several hundred million dollars in aid, particularly humanitarian aid, to Niger and has about 1,000 soldiers deployed in the country as part of the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Niamey in March – the first visit by an American diplomat to the country – has increased exchanges with partner countries in the region, as well as with France and President Bazoum himself. During his visit, he highlighted Washington’s support for Niamey through a program to reintegrate repentant jihadists, an irrigation improvement project, and agriculture resilient to climate change in this arid and poor country.
The Biden administration aspires to engage more deeply in Africa to counter growing influences there, particularly from Russia. However, the coup in Niger is complicating these efforts. Mr. Blinken made it clear that continued US aid to Niger would depend on developments on the ground and a return to democratic order.
The US is treading carefully, aware that officially labeling the event a “coup d’etat” would, under American law, obligate it to cease all economic or military cooperation, except those related to the fight against terrorism. This legal and semantic dance is an attempt by the United States to preserve some flexibility if the coup ultimately fails.
The situation in Niger is fluid and complex. The new figurehead of the country, General Abdourahamane Tiani, is not believed to have reached a full “consensus” within the army around him. From Washington’s perspective, General Tiani acted out of personal interest, fearing removal from office.
The developments in Niger are a stark reminder of the fragility of democracy in certain parts of the world. The international community, led by the US and France, is making efforts to restore the democratic order in Niger, but the outcome is far from certain. As the clock ticks towards the one-week deadline, the world watches and waits, hoping for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Niger.