Things are hotting up in Central Africa. No, I’m not referring to the temperature, although it seems to be getting warmer there year on year. I’m talking about the politics in general, and about the former French colonial state of Niger in particular.
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 being a bulwark to the spread of further jihadist disorder and Russian influence 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 seen as an important partner in the fight against insurgents. Economically, it is rich in uranium – producing 7% of the world’s supplies. 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. According to US sources, though, there is no direct evidence that the group was involved in the coup itself, but there’s little doubt they are a destabilising influence.
The fear in the west, however, 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 fifteen 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.
A few days ago, after an emergency meeting in Nigeria, Ecowas let it be known that it might use force if the coup was not reversed and President Bazoum reinstated. In response a junta spokesman said Niger’s armed forces are ready to defend the country. Niger’s coup leaders have now closed the country’s airspace until further notice, citing this threat of military intervention from their neighbours as the reason.
So to all intents and purposes 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 will not be welcomed.
Except by Russia and its at-arms-length military wing Wagner of course. For Putin anything that distracts the west away from its support for Ukraine can only be a good thing, and Niger is already doing that without war breaking out there, yet.
It’s also a good thing for insurgents in the area from the two major jihadist groupings, Islamic State and Al Quaeda. They positively thrive on political instability.
And for Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries 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 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 Niger’s mineral resources to enrich himself and his protégés.
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.
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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