Niger – Coup a Significant Loss to Security in Sahel

Miltary Coup in Niger July 2023

On July 26, 2023, military officers of Niger’s armed forces seized power after detaining the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. This action has reversed many years of U.S. efforts to assist that country’s transition to a democratic nation. It is also a setback to U.S. efforts to counter jihadist power and influence in the Sahel region of Western Africa. This is the fifth coup in Niger since 1960 (Aljazeera) when it gained its independence as a French colony.

The coup leaders stated that they acted in response to a deteriorating security situation, lack of action against jihadists, and ‘bad governance’. The ousted president is being held in his private residence near the presidential palace in Niamey, the Niger capital. The coup leaders have established a transitional government called the ‘National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland’. General Abdou Sidikou Issa, Niger’s Chief of Defense, has declared the army’s support for the coup. Some members of the Niger government and senior leaders of political parties have been arrested and detained.

General Tchiani. The coup was led by the president’s own ‘Presidential Guard’. It appears that General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the leader of the Presidential Guard since 2011, has taken the reins of power in Niger. Tchiani has received military training in the United States and France. He received training at the College of International Security Affairs at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C. The Niger president had attempted to force Tchiani into retirement.

West African Nations Reaction. The news of the coup was viewed with dismay by several nations in the region. Some neighboring countries are threatening military intervention against the coup leaders if the president is not restored to power within a week. Nations belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have stated that they will restore the president to power using military force; however, that is very unlikely to happen. Niger could be suspended from ECOWAS and be subject to economic sanctions. An economic blockade by ECOWAS could be severe economic ramifications for the landlocked country. ECOWAS has established a no-fly zone for commericial flights in and out of Niger. The country’s finanicial assets in ECOWAS central and commerical bans have been frozen, and a travel ban has been instituted.

Support for the Coup Leaders. A few countries where recent military coups have taken place, like Mali (Africa Center) and Burkina Faso (SOF News), have stated they would support the Niger junta if it is attacked. Both nations were suspended from ECOWAS after military coups replaced the civilian governments of each country.

Reaction of ‘The West’. The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and other nations have strongly objected to the coup and are pressuring the junta to give up power and return the nation to democratic rule. Many nations have suspended aid programs. There are no indications that the U.S. or European powers will intervene with military force. Of course, if the security situation deteriorates significantly then a ‘limited military operation’ could be conducted to evacuate embassy staff and families as well as foreign nationals.

Status of Foreigners. Embassies are advising their diplomatic staff and foreign nationals to ‘shelter in place’, register with their respective embassies, and await further instructions. Many nations have provided updated information for their citizens on the security situation in Niger. (United Kingdom, United States, Canada, etc.) There have been large crowds at the airport in Niamey and foreigners have been advised not to go to the airport until instructed. The airport is currently closed and is scheduled to reopen on August 5th.

Evacuations. Some countries have begun planning for the evacuation of their citizens and scaling back their embassy personnel in Niamey. France, Spain, and Italy appear to be the leading nations willing to conduct evacuations – promising that they will evacuate citizens of European Union countries. There are news reports that as of Tuesday, August 1st more than 250 Europeans were evacuated from the capital on a French military Airbus 330 that flew to Paris. (New York Times) It is reported that a military plane also departed Niger for Rome as well on Wednesday. French soldiers are at the airport processing evacuees for flights being conducted by the French and Italian military.

U.S. in Niger. As of mid-2023, the U.S. had over 1,100 troops stationed in Niger (some estimates say more); mostly in the capital and in the northern city of Agadez. This is the second-largest U.S. military presence in Africa after the U.S. base – Camp Lemonier – in Djibouti. Niger has been a top recipient of U.S. security assistance and humanitarian aid. It has been, up to now, an important partner for the U.S. and European nations in the middle of a troubled region in the Sahel. Insurgents and terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Harma (SOF News) are active in the border regions of Niger.

U.S Reaction. In the past week the United States has suspended its counterterrorism training (The Hill) with soldiers in Niger. Currently (as of Tuesday, August 1st), the U.S. has no plans to evacuate U.S. citizens or diplomatic staff. The U.S. State Department is pursuing diplomatic efforts to reverse the coup. Meanwhile, top Pentagon officials remain in contact with the Niger military to avoid friction and incidents.

Map of Niger

A Troubled Region. Niger is a land-locked country surrounded by other nations that are experiencing insurgent and terrorist activity. The countries of Libya, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria are all experiencing strife by violent extremist groups. Western nations – U.S. and European countries – have sent a lot of aid and advisors to the region to counter the jihadist groups. The U.S. Special Operations Command – Africa (SOCAFRICA) conducts an annual military exercise in the region where West and Central African nations are trained up in counterinsurgency operations. Niger has been a participant in the Flintlock exercises for many years.

U.S. Drone Bases in Niger. There are two sites where U.S. drones conduct intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions that cover the Sahel and eastern Africa. The United States has spent millions of dollars establishing Air Base 201 (AFRICOM) in Agadez, Niger for the purpose of basing drones for ISR. The ISR flights began in 2019 from the Agadez airbase (War Zone provides a detailed description of AB 201); in addition to ISR flights from a second base in Niger. Most of the U.S. military presence is at the Agadez airbase (Google Maps).

U.S. Special Forces Presence in Niger. United States Special Forces has had a years-long presence in Niger working with that nations military forces. The Green Berets have sought (SOF News) to enhance the capabilities of the country’s anti-terrorism units to counter the various terrorist / insurgent groups found in the region. (SOF News). The deployment of U.S. advisors, usually from the 3rd Special Forces Group (SOF News), to Niger has come with a cost. In October 2017, four soldiers lost their lives in an ambush in Niger (SOF News) by insurgents.

SOF Training Nigerien Troops 2017 Flintlock

Photo: U.S. SOF Training Nigerien Troops during Flintlock Exercise in March, 2017 (Photo by SPC Zayid Ballesteros, U.S. Army)

European Involvement in the Region. Many nations from Europe have contributed troops to the Sahel region in an attempt to mitigate the jihadist threat. The French have lead these efforts in this regard – an example was the establishment of Task Force Takuba (SOF News) – a European SOF organization that conducted operations in the Sahel – as well as Operation Barkhane (Wikipedia). There are reports that there are at least 1,000 French troops in Niger.

Russia’s Involvement? Russia has quietly displaced American and European military advisors in some African nations with paramilitary members of the Wagner Group. In 2022, Mali expelled 5,000 French troops; and 1,500 mercenairies from the Wagner Group soon arrived. The coup in Niger was greeted with favorable comments from Russian leaders and the head of the Wagner Group. The head of the Russian paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, described the Niger coup as a good event and has promised assistance to the junta if requested. There are no indications that the Wagner Group played a role in the coup.

Conclusion. The military coup is a significant setback to the efforts to defeat or degrade insurgent and terrorist jihadist organizations in the western and central Sahel region of Africa. It is unlikely that the coup will be reversed – despite the diplomatic efforts of the many nations criticizing the coup leaders and calling for the return of the president to power. Threats by some regional nations to use military force to restore the Nigerien president to office are likely not to be followed through with military intervention. The United States has lost an important ally in its effort to stave off the ever-growing jihadist threat in the region.

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Maps: All maps courtesy of or derived from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Related articles:

“SF Deaths in Niger – The Aftermath”, SOF News, October 20, 2017.
“Special Forces in Niger – Countering Terrorist Groups“, SOF News, October 4, 2017.
“SOF and Boko Haram – Nigeria’s Long-Term Insurgent Nightmare”, SOF News, December 28, 2016.

References:

Niger: In Focus, Congressional Research Service, CRS IF12464, July 31, 2023, PDF, 3 pages. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF12464


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