Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly last September, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum set the scene. His country, impoverished and battered by the vicissitudes of climate change, was at the nexus of a security crisis that transcended its borders. To Niger’s northeast, the fragile, fractured state of Libya had become a “platform for transnational organized crime,” and an illicit trafficking hotbed for arms, drugs, and migrants. It was, Bazoum said, a font of “structural insecurity” and Islamist militancy that proliferated throughout the Sahel — the vast, semiarid belt of Africa that sits below the Sahara Desert, with Niger at its center.

Bazoum then spoke of the “ecosystem of violence” that had metastasized to the west in Mali, where failures to reckon with growing insurgencies, including a years-long French-led peacekeeping effort, had fueled popular discontent and led to military juntas seizing power. A similar putsch followed suit in neighboring Burkina Faso. But Niger, while no stranger to unrest and insurgency, had avoided this fate, Bazoum said. He pointed to his own democratic election — the first in his nation’s history since independence from France — and the peaceful transfer of power that took place in Niamey, the capital, in 2021.

“My country is showing great resilience based on wise governance, promoting a culture of tolerance … as well as the rules of democracy and the rule of law,” Bazoum told the gathered dignitaries in New York. He added that the “best way” to ward against “terrorist violence” was to strengthen democratic institutions.

Such rhetoric was positively received by Niger’s Western allies, chiefly France and the United States. At a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington last December, Bazoum was given pride of place, seated next to President Biden at a meeting with the continent’s leaders. As pro-Moscow army men in Mali angrily turned against Paris, France withdrew its peacekeeping forces there and shifted them to friendlier Niger, which also houses a squadron of U.S. drones and a detachment of U.S. Special Forces. On a visit to Niamey in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed Bazoum’s government while proffering some $150 million in humanitarian assistance to the wider Sahel region.

“Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world,” Blinken told a news conference. “But it remains true to the values we share. Niger has been quick to defend the democratic values under threat in neighboring countries.”

In this context, the turbulent events of the past couple of days are a rude shock. At the time of writing, Bazoum was detained by Nigerien military officers who had carried out what appeared to be a coup Wednesday night, invoking the same failures of governance that had supposedly motivated the coups next door. By Thursday, there was growing doubt that the action could be reversed. An army spokesman announced the suspension of all political parties, as soldiers fanned out across Niamey. In scenes redolent of the putsches in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, jubilant supporters of military intervention were photographed in the capital, some waving Russian flags.

Waiting for the dust to settle, the French Foreign Ministry called for a regional process that “enables the immediate restoration of civilian authority.” Blinken, who was traveling in the South Pacific, told reporters that if the coup holds, it would compromise Niamey’s ties with Washington. The United States “own strong economic and security partnership with Niger depends on democratic governance and respect for the rule of law,” Blinken said.

Far away in Russia, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group which operates in Mali, the Central African Republic, and other crisis hot spots on the continent, said on the Telegram app that Niger was “actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonizers” — a jab at the country’s close security ties to both Washington and Paris, which may now be in jeopardy.

“It’s a massive blow to the U.S. We have vouched for this leader like no other in the region,” Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, told the Wall Street Journal, adding that Niger had now gone “firmly from the Western camp to a model for Russian opportunism.”

Speculation and confusion surround what instigated the coup. Niger’s security situation had improved from the previous year, while Bazoum has invested considerably in the country’s economy and defense. Reports pointed to tensions between the president and Omar Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, the elite force which surrounded Bazoum’s compound Wednesday night. Turf wars and rivalries within the Nigerien military apparatus — as well as the growing unease over the scourge of Islamist militancy spreading across the border with Burkina Faso — may also play a role.

There is “an ideology within the military that civilians are not competent to deal with this issue,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a Nigerien political scientist, in an interview with France 24. “It is this military ideology that led to the coups in Burkina and Mali. In Niger, some generals consider that security management is excessively politicized, that decisions aim above all to protect power, and that this approach is detrimental to operations in the field.”

And so the bulwark imagined by Blinken and his French counterparts appears to have collapsed. “There have always been important tensions within Niger’s government and within and between parts of the armed forces that do not easily fit the characterization of a resilient democracy, even if Niger’s fragile democratic achievements remained important,” Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands, told me.

Meanwhile, the approach of military juntas in Niger’s neighborhood hardly inspires confidence. “In Mali and Burkina Faso, violence has worsened since the most recent coups, in 2021 and 2022, respectively,” my colleagues Rachel Chason and Adela Suliman reported. “Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by Islamist groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have increased. So have violent crackdowns by both countries’ armies, which have been accused of killing civilians. Mali’s government has welcomed the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, which was implicated in a massacre of more than 300 civilians last year.”

And while the coup plotters allowed supporters to mass in the streets, many Nigeriens bitterly oppose their putsch. “I heard some people rejoicing, but they don’t know military regimes,” Dijé Hassane, a 38-year-old housewife, told my colleagues. “They will not do better than Bazoum. … They are going to take us back 30 years, jeopardizing everything done so far.”

By Ishaan TharoorIshaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. In 2021, he won the Arthur Ross Media Award in Commentary from the American Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Twitter

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