Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Niger's presidential guard detained democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on 26 July, only to launch a military coup. In a television broadcast, senior officers from various branches of the defence and security forces announced that they had formed a junta. A Nigerian army spokesman shared, "The defence and security forces have decided to end the regime you know. This follows the continued deterioration of the security situation and poor social and economic management." Not long after the seizure of power, several pro- and anti-coup protests flared up in Niger and followed condemnatory reactions from the international community. These developments are currently causing high tensions in the West African country. Although the conflict may seem like an external, Nigerian, issue, the West, and so does the Netherlands, has a huge stake in the causes and possible outcomes of the coup. What needs to change in our policy towards African countries, such as Niger, to prevent similar escalations?
Western backdrop to Niger coup
Niger has been plagued by a constant threat of coups since 1960. The recent military coup is the fifth successful coup since the country gained independence from France. Some other attempts failed, such as in 2021, just after Niger's first ever democratic change of power. This political instability is fuelled by the high level of insecurity in Niger, which is one of the poorest countries in the world: the Nigerien population is struggling with severe effects of climate change, Islamic terrorism, low literacy, corruption, and disaffection.
Western countries will have to recognise that they also had a hand in this. Nigerians were undermined by colonial ruler France until 1960. The local population had few opportunities and little political power. But even after formal independence, Niger was kept structurally dependent on France. For instance, through the promotion of an export-dominated and predominantly manufacturing Nigerian economy, through the Nigerian currency previously equated to the French franc and now to the euro, and through continued French political influence. Niger continues to experience the effects of colonialism. For example, proficiency in the French language is necessary for access to the elite and senior political and administrative positions in Niger. Also, the Nigerese-Nigerian border - drawn by French and English colonial powers - is irrelevant to the local population and so unrest or jihadism in one country easily spills over to the other.
Niger is also persistently exploited by the European economy for its natural resources. Niger has one of the world's largest deposits of uranium, a key ingredient in the nuclear industry. Niger's largest mining areas are managed by French state-owned Orano. The country itself only sees little revenue from mining. Niger has relatively little power against hefty Western, often tax-dodging, companies that are sometimes bigger than the country itself. In this way, the country does not get to invest in its own economy and decide where its resources go.
Awareness of the lasting effects of colonialism in Niger, through hierarchical Western policies towards the country, is therefore creating heightened anti-Western sentiment. For instance, after the Niger coup, French flags were burned and the French embassy was attacked.
In the process, the West bears much of the blame for the global effects of climate change, including in Niger. The country struggles with high temperatures, recurring droughts, and air pollution. The country suffers enormously from climate change, while contributing relatively little to it compared to the much-polluting countries in the West, such as the United States.
Moreover, the major problem regarding Niger's insecurity, due to the fight against armed groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and IS, can also be partly traced to Western intervention. NATO's toppling of Libyan dictator Gaddafi in 2011 led to an influx of arms and armed groups into the Sahel. It helped terrorist organisations and separatist movements to better organise themselves in Niger and the rest of the Sahel region.
The failure of Western development cooperation with Niger
Western influence in Niger thus provides a major incentive for coups in several ways. Unfortunately, this disruptive effect is not mitigated through Western development cooperation, which is often inadequate or serves mainly Western purposes such as security and migration. Military presence of Western countries caused protests in 2019, for example, when the United States opened a drone base in Niger. Furthermore, both the Netherlands and the EU have entered into collaborations with Niger to deter illegal migration by human traffickers from Sub-Saharan Africa through West Africa to Europe. These euros also mean little to the local population and have proved very ineffective due to the weak Niger government, which has since been sidelined.
In addition to the development cooperation mentioned above, Western countries such as the Netherlands naturally provide development cooperation in the form of food, water and economic development. But the positive effects of Western development cooperation are a drop in the ocean when, at the same time, the Western economy continues to exploit Niger. Therefore, fair and sustainable policies towards African countries, such as Niger, should not only be achieved through development cooperation, but also through policies on climate change, tax avoidance, and international trade, for instance. There is therefore a great need for policy coherence: development policies should be coherent with other policy areas.
One reason why honest Western policy towards African countries is so urgent is that the current insecurity and poverty in these countries create all the more political dislocations. For instance, these poor conditions often generate support for coups among the population. This is visible in the many pro-coup protests in Niger and the hope that many Nigerians have in the coup leaders' promises to grow the economy.
The importance of preventing coups like this one
In Niger, the consequences of the coup for the local population, security, and Russian influence are enormous. Given that the EU, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, among others, have suspended their financial aid to Niger and neighbouring countries have closed their borders with the country, local people in landlocked and extremely poor Niger are suffering even more. Food prices are rising and humanitarian aid from the UN is arriving harder.
In addition, the Niger coup undermines the country's security all the more. For instance, extremist Islamist organisations operating in Niger are strategically profiting from the chaos created. There is also an increasing risk of war, as ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is threatening military intervention, and Burkina Faso and Mali have warned that any military intervention in Niger is a declaration of war on the two countries. Moreover, undemocratic power shifts in general often lead to a politicised army, which in turn offers potential for even more future coups.
Finally, the coup causes an increase in Russian influence in the Sahel region. Russia, and specifically the Wagner army, presents itself to African countries as an attractive alternative to the 'exploitative West'. In Niger, anti-French sentiment thus opened the way for Wagner, which, unlike the West, does support the recent coup. In this way, Russia knows how to mobilise anti-Western sentiment in West Africa for its own gain. And with success, because after the coup, protests waved Russian flags, shouted pro-Russian slogans, and called on Vladimir Putin to replace Macron as Niger's backer. Niger is likely to turn to Wagner as a partner in the fight against terrorism, just like neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which have expelled French troops. These Russian influences will keep growing anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment in Niger until the West offers a better alternative in the form of fair and sustainable policies towards African countries.