Niger coup is not just another African conflict – it is a major ally of the West and it would surprise no-one to learn Putin and the Wagner Group are behind the military takeover,
A couple of weeks ago Niger’s democratically elected head of state, President Mohamed Bazoum, was deposed by his own Presidential Guard and its leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, was installed in his place.
This was a bit of a blow to many western nations who looked to Niger as a bulwark to the spread of further jihadist disorder and Russian presence in the region. Politically, it had been seen as a relatively stable democratic influence in recent years, unlike its neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso which had already succumbed to their own military coups.
Niger also hosts French and US military bases and was considered as an important partner in the fight against insurgents. Economically, it is rich in uranium – producing seven percent of the world’s supplies much of which goes to France to fuel the French nuclear power industry. The coup has put all of this into jeopardy.
It came as little surprise that one of the first people to congratulate the new regime in Niger on their usurpation of power was none other than Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Russian private military company the Wagner Group, who has reportedly described it as “a triumph”.
Wagner has been active in central Africa for some years now and funds much of activities from control and exploitation of the mineral resources of the various countries in which it has a presence. African leaders in turn look to Wagner to provide some semblance of stability in their internal affairs.
There is, accordingly, suspicion that Putin and his acolytes in Wagner are behind the Niger coup.
It suits their purposes very well. Not only does it divert western attention away from the war in Ukraine, it also allows Russia to increase its influence in the Sahel, that part of sub-Saharan Africa that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
In strategic military terms, Putin could be looking to open another front in his stand-off with the west. NATO countries are already overstretched and desperately scrambling to expand their militaries and having another theatre of operations to worry about will not be welcome.
And for Prigozhin and the Wagner Group it might compensate to some extent for the embarrassment of his failed mutiny in Ukraine and the subsequent disbandment and exile of his forces there. It presents him personally with a new playground further away from the immediate overwatch of Moscow and where he might have a relatively free hand. Plus he will no doubt look to exploit Niger’s mineral resources to fund Wagner’s activities.
The fear in the west, therefore, is that Niger will now pivot towards Moscow as Mali and Burkina Faso have done previously.
Neighbouring African states have also been spooked by the event, including the 15 that together make up the regional trading bloc of West African countries known as Ecowas and which includes Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Ghana amongst others. Ecowas has let it be known that it might use force if the coup is not reversed.
So to the pessimists it looks as if the stage might be set for armed conflict. Whether this will actually happen and who might become involved remains to be seen, but more disruption and dislocation in an already unstable region is hardly helpful.
All of this must remain speculation for the moment, of course, for there has been no outbreak of hostilities to date. But there is no doubt that both the former colonial power France and the USA are taking matters seriously. Both have bases and troops in Niger as part of their anti-jihadist military operations and will be worried that General Tchiani will seek to close them down and expel their military personnel.
As it stands things are on a bit of a knife-edge. The Ecowas deadline has passed and, despite Italy now calling for the Niger regime to be given more time, the ball is now in their court. The USA and France are unlikely to stand idly by either.
Will it be war-war or jaw-jaw? We can only hope and pray for the latter; the world has enough death and destruction to go around already, we don’t need or want any more.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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