The Military Junta in Niger

This is the second of a series of articles that will offer a brief summary and analysis of the coup d’états in Burkina Faso (January 2022, September 2022), Guinea (September 2021), Mali (March 2012, August 2020, May 2021), and Niger (July 2023). We continue with Niger.

The world awoke to surprising news on the 26th July 2023, of a coup d’état in Niamey, the capital city of Niger. Colonel Amadou Abdramane, a Nigerian Air Force officer and spokesperson for the CSNP (The National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland/Conseil National pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie) group of soldiers responsible for the coup, cited “the deteriorating security situation and bad governance” as the reasons behind the unforeseen seizure of power. This was the fifth seizure of power in the country since it declared its independence from France on the 3rd August 1960. In understanding the political background and conditions that led to this coup d’état in 2023, I will briefly gloss over decades of Nigerien history before outlining my thoughts on the recent military intervention.

Niger’s 1st coup d’état was in 1974 and deposed the government of Hamani Diori. Ruling for almost 14 years as the first president of the Republic of Niger, Diori had widely been criticised by trade unions and student movements for his government’s close ties with France. Diori’s time in office has been help up as an example of neocolonialism. His rule was that of an authoritarian one-party state, reliant upon French military advisors and aid. Furthermore, Niger’s economy could still be described as colonial, characterised by an entrenched trade dependency upon the former imperial power, namely through the land, labour, and resource wealth exploitation, by France, of Niger’s vast uranium reserves.

Towards the end of his Paris-backed illiberal rule, Diori’s relations with France would sour following his push for an increase in the price paid for Nigerien uranium. Negotiations took place between France, Niger and Gabon (another former French colony, and uranium producer) and it became clear that France would not accept a higher price for this strategically important resource (even today, France derives about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, requiring access to uranium). The negotiations were called off, and what happened next is best summarised in a concise statement by Guy Martin, writing in Uranium: A Case-Study in Franco-African Relations:

“It is hard to believe that it was a complete coincidence that President Diori was overthrown by a military coup d’état just 72 hours prior to the resumption of these tripartite negotiations”

Paris remained as silent following Diori’s overthrow, as it had been throughout the corrupt abuses of his one-party rule. It is also a very strange coincidence that Diori’s successor and overthrower, General Seyni Kountché, was trained by France and even served in the French colonial army. Kountché would rule, also illiberally, until his death in 1987. Kountché was succeeded by yet another military officer, Ali Saibou. As the 3rd President of Niger, Saibou would deviate away from the path of authoritarianism and instead oversee the end of one-party rule by 1991. Two years later, Saibou would peacefully hand over power to Mahamane Ousmane, winner of the country’s very 1st multi-party elections and now the 4th President of Niger.

Ousmane’s time in office did not go smoothly. Political rivalries, intrigue, and government deadlock were features of his government. A brewing political crisis was exacerbated by the collapse of the governing coalition. Adding to this was a flare-up of secessionist violence, the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions stretching back to the era of independence, all aimed at achieving national self-determination for Tuareg peoples, who had found themselves colonially split by the French between Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. The Tuaregs have long sought to establish the nation-state of Azawad, which they did briefly between 2012 and 2013. Within three years of Ousmane’s 1993 electoral victory, the military was back in power in Niger.

General Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara used the political deadlock as a justification for seizing power, and just six months later he held elections dismissed as fraudulent by the Clinton Administration of the United States. There were clear signs of interference by General Maïnassara, who had even gone as far as placing political opponents under house arrest. This blatant disregard for multi-party constitutional democracy was deeply unpopular, especially in a decade where many African one-party states were transitioning to civilian rule, often as a condition of political and economic neoliberalisation required for IMF/WB loans. Maïnassara’s actions saw international aid to Niger suspended… a move that jeopardised its neocolonial economy. Despite this, Maïnassara retained support from Paris and confirmed himself as the 5th president of the Republic – but the means by which he had seized power would come back to haunt him. Like the previous coup led by general Kountché in 1974, the 1996 seizure of power against the fractured and weak civilian government of Ousmane, was not a bloodless event and casualties were suffered by the Presidential Guards.

Three years later, the Presidential Guard would ambush and assassinate Maïnassara. Immediately after the incident, communication lines, radio stations and borders were closed down. The military assumed power under a government of national unity and appointed the Presidential Guard’s commander, Major Daouda Mallam Wanké, as the 6th President of the Republic of Niger. It has been reported that Major Wanké had given the order to kill Maïnassara, indicating that the assassination and transfer of power was in fact the nation’s third coup d’état. While the means of his accension to power may have suggested the country would remain on the path of military dominance in politics, Wanké stuck to his promise to “withdraw from political life” after a brief transition period.

His successor was Mamadou Tandja, 7th President of the Republic of Niger, who had unsuccessfully run for president against Ousmane in 1993, and again unsuccessfully against Maïnassara in the fraudulent elections of 1996. Mamadou Tandja was a military officer who had taken part in the 1974 coup, Niger’s 1st coup, that brought Seyni Kountché to power. Tandja ran in the 1999 elections to succeed Wanké, against Mahamane Ousmane – who sought a return to power. Ousmane was eliminated after the first round and instead threw his support behind Tandja – who won with almost 60% of the votes against Mahamadou Issoufou.

Despite this promising democratic start, Tandja would deviate away from the path of constitutional rule. By 2009, opposition coalitions, led by Mahamadou Issoufou, asserted that “President Tandja has proclaimed himself a dictator”. Tandja had scrapped the constitution and “installed a civilian dictatorship in all but name”. He was overthrown in 2010 by yet another military junta, the country’s 4th coup. This was led by a group of soldiers under the banner of the CSRD (Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy/Conseil suprême pour la Restauration de la Démocratie) with Major Salou Djibo at its helm as the 8th President of the Republic of Niger. The CSRD called on Nigerien citizens to:

“Remain calm and stay united around the ideals postulated by the CSRD… [to] make Niger an example of democracy and good governance … we call on national and international opinions to support us in our patriotic action to save Niger and its population from poverty, deception and corruption” – BBC

Like Ali Saibou before him, Major Djibo had no aspiration for political power and so he oversaw free and fair elections in 2011, won by Mahamadou Issoufou as the 9th President of the Republic of Niger, under the banner of the left-wing Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism. This is the same party led by Mohamed Bazoum, the 10th and most recent Nigerien president overthrown in the 2023 coup, which we shall visit shortly. Assuming power in 2011, it is worth repeating that Issoufou was a principal leader of the opposition coalitions throughout Tandja’s illiberal presidency. He had been raised and matured throughout decades of either military rule or political instability in his country; accordingly, he was firmly committed to constitutional rule and therefore respected the two-term presidential limit. He was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation prize in March 2021 for Achievement in African Leadership. It was hoped that Issoufou would set an example in upholding the peaceful and democratic transition of power to Mohamed Bazoum, the victorious candidate from his party who had defeated the former 4th President, Mahamane Ousmane (at the time, a 71 year old still active in Nigerien politics), in the 2020-21 Presidential and National Assembly elections.

Clearly, there are many familiar names that have made an (re)appearance in Nigerien politics from the 1990s to the 2020s. Even Bazoum is no newcomer – he has held various senior roles in government, such as Foreign Minister in the 1990s and again under Issoufou. Now, we approach the 2023 junta, which took place just two years into Bazoum’s democratic assumption of power. It has been necessary to thus far briefly summarise the series of coup d’états that have shaped Nigerien politics since independence. At the time of the 2023 coup, Niger had gone 13 years without military intervention in the nation’s politics – but that’s not to say that the country had been ruled peacefully. Tuareg rebellions, as mentioned before, have always been in the background, and occasionally in the foreground, alongside the Boko Haram insurgency. Niger shares a vast southern border with Nigeria.

Niger has and continues to face a devastating Islamist insurgency from Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar ul Islam, and smaller extremist groups operating in the Sahel. These groups have in recent decades allied themselves with the Tuaregs – who have faced expulsion from Niger following diplomatic spats with Libya. Together, they have undermined the national governments of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. In part, these groups have been successful because they have taken advantage of the political instability marked by a series of coup d’états, military and civilian dictatorships, and the economic impoverishment upheld by neocolonialism. Extremism is a germ – just as bacteria thrives under warm and wet conditions, extremism thrives under conditions of political instability and extreme poverty. The Sahel, destabilised by both of the above, saw these conditions exacerbated by the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Niger, under Issoufou, “had opposed the 2011 NATO intervention to dislodge Khadafi, predicting it would destroy Libya and set off a security and migration crisis in the region”. These predictions were correct. The NATO intervention saw the region flooded with arms as the West sought to finally rid itself of the geopolitical threat posed by the Libyan leader. A UK Foreign Affairs Committee report, issued by the House of Commons to investigate the UK’s role in the subsequent collapse of the Libyan state, scrutinises the “lack of reliable intelligence” underpinning the intervention. In the same report, Lord Hague himself recognised that though “there was a lot of planning” there was a “lack of ability to implement it because of the condition of Libya and the lack of stable institutions and capabilities there afterwards”. It is important to spend reflecting on the significance of this intervention in Libya, because the total security mess created there had terrorism-related consequences worldwide, including the Manchester Arena bombing. The perpetrators of this awful crime, the Abedi brothers, had travelled to post-intervention Libya where they came into contact with AQIM and even Islamic State (IS) militants.

Again, it is out of the same 2011 mess in Libya that we witness a flood of arms and extremism out of Libya and into Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This is not a matter of attributing blame, but rather merely so that we may accurately understand the conditions that exacerbated conflict in the Sahel, creating political instability that culminated in events like the 2023 coup against Mohamed Bazoum. The presidential guard, led by its commander, Brigadier General Abdourahamane ‘Omar’ Tchiani of the CNSP (The National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland/Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie), detained Bazoum at the end of July 2023. As mentioned already, they cited “the deteriorating security situation and bad governance” as the reason behind the coup. Unacceptable losses had been made in the military’s fight against the Islamic insurgency in the north of the country, and it can be said that there was general dissatisfaction among the civilian population with the neocolonial economic conditions that have persisted in the country since independence.

The twin pillars of poverty and war, upheld what prima facie seems to be broad support for the coup against Bazoum. There is evidence to support these claims; citing findings from the Global Terrorism Index concerning Islamist extremist violence, the Washington Post reported that Niger now accounts for “43 percent of 6,701 deaths in 2022, up from 1 percent in 2007”. Such reasoning has led some to celebrate the coup d’état as a progressive move against French neocolonial imperialism. There were even academics at American institutions who enthusiastically jumped on this bandwagon. One response to the coup, paraphrasing for anonymity, included “I am glad to have witnessed and to be living through such promising times”. However, for many in Niger – including former presidents Issoufou, and Ousmane – this seizure of power signalled a worrying return to the country’s series of military intervention in national politics.

In my view, while I can sympathise with the passionate desire to witness the liberation of Nigeriens from neocolonial poverty, and this translates for some into supporting a coup convincingly framed against governing elites in the country, Tchiani’s reasoning must be approached with extreme caution. It should be noted that Bazoum was undertaking an anti-corruption campaign and, accordingly, he sidelined a number of senior people in both the military and public administration. According to Nigerien researcher Dr Rahmane Idrissa, the plan to overthrow Mohamed Bazoum had existed for a while following his intentions to reform the military; this upholds a range of articles that argue that Tchiani knew he was the next to go in Bazoum’s anti-corruption drive.

Secondly, Tchiani is no outsider. He has long been a member of the armed forces, since 1984, and was commander of the Presidential Guard since 2011. Tchiani is part of the military elite. Had there been popular uprisings in Niger, against the neocolonial status quo, while this is mere speculation it is entirely plausible that Tchiani, as a military officer who has been trained at military academics in France and the US, would have been involved violently putting them down. Again, mere speculation, but his credentials wholly point towards his membership of the military elite. If our concerns rest with opposing neocolonialism and scrutinising the state and military apparatus that has upheld this economic state of affairs, then logically we must scrutinise Tchiani – an entrenched member, a commander, of this very same apparatus.

Nothing can guarantee the undermining of the neocolonial state of affairs built upon the exploitation of the people and the extraction of their resource wealth. Nothing besides the broad empowerment and political enfranchisement of the peasant and working masses, that is. To be clear, a military coup by national bourgeois forces does not constitute the above; in fact, national bourgeois military elites (e.g. Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso) have historically been responsible for upholding the neocolonial exploitation and degradation of the lands and peoples of the African continent. Without a clear progressive and anti-imperialist ideological character – which does not entail switching allegiance from one hegemonic imperialist power to a counter-hegemonic imperialist power – all coup d’états should be approached with extreme caution.

Thomas Sankara, is often quoted as saying: “a soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal”. This warning must not be scorned. No peoples have ever been truly liberated by a dictatorship. Attempts at improving material conditions – which have thus far failed, though there are many factors to be considered here – and anti-neo-colonial rhetoric against the former imperial power are promising to see from Tchiani, but as people who believe in the value of political and economic freedom for all, we should not compromise for anything short of the unconditional political and economic enfranchisement of the masses. Again, no peoples have ever been truly liberated by a dictatorship. Freedom and dictatorship should forever be understood as antonymous terms.

Several months on, we are able to make a fair appraisal of the direction taken by the Nigerien junta. The US continues to maintain its military presence in the country, including the Agadez drone base the most expansive base-building endeavour ever undertaken by the US Air Force on the African continent. The US senate recently rejected a bill on the removal of US troops from the country. It has been reported that Islamist militants in Niger have significantly stepped up their attacks. A severe programme of sanctions imposed by ECOWAS – who are struggling to counter the suspension of constitutional rule across West Africa – have achieved nothing but hurt and hardship for the impoverished people of the country. The threat of an ECOWAS military intervention has also failed to reach any constructive result. As a result, Niger has also missed interest payments on its foreign debts, which I would argue to be a neocolonial source of its economic hardships.

There are voices celebrating the deterioration of relations with France, claiming this to be a sign of success. On the one hand, Operation Barkhane remains as deeply unpopular among civil society organisations in Niger as it has been in Mali and Burkina Faso. An example would be Niger’s Pan-African and anti-imperialist M62 movement, a civil society coalition who opposed Operation Barkhane. Following Tchiani’s anti-France positions, M62 organised protests supporting the coup – assaulting the French embassy while waving Russian flags and vocalising their support for the Wagner Group as a counter-hegemonic alternative to France. Opinions aside, I’m not so sure if this means the coup is successful. For me, success is defined by the material empowerment and political enfranchisement of the people of Niger. I take a non-aligned approach where I concern myself less with geopolitical positioning such as breaking from Paris, retaining Washington’s security assets, or realignment with Russia… instead, my concerns rest exclusively with the broad empowerment of the Nigerien people. If power to the people of Niger is not our shared goal, then what is? As Kwame Nkrumah wisely once said: “We face neither East nor West; We face forward”.

Several important questions arise concerning the situation in Niger: does M62 represent the desires of the majority of the peoples of Niger? Do Nigeriens want Russia, and Wagner? Do Nigeriens want to retain an American military base in their country? Is the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS – formed as a mutual defence pact in the event of an ECOWAS military intervention) a better alternative to ECOWAS? In my view, the answers to these questions must be ascertained through democratic, mass-consultative means. A protest cannot be taken for empirical evidence of mass support; otherwise, what does that mean for protests that stand opposed to the views and beliefs that we personally hold? Hypothetically, must we therefore accept a demonstration in favour of French business interests, as representing ‘the will of the people’?

Even such questions, posed from an outsider’s perspective, are problematic – I’ve visited Niamey once before, but that does not qualify my opinions nor should any claimed sense of ontological ‘Africanness’ or ‘Africanity’ be accepted as qualifying anyone’s argument. The only people who should be asking such national destiny-defining questions and, more importantly, answering them, are Nigeriens themselves! Those who are on the ground, living, breathing, and struggling through these events that we write and argue about on social media, on news channels, in journals and more… they are the voices who matter the most. They are the people we should be seeking to platform, empower and uplift in enacting their agency and deciding over their own destinies.

But so long as they live under such military rule, with limited political enfranchisement and no recourse to expressing their desires through formal channels of political action, there is no reasonable way for anyone to ascertain the views and desires of the peasant and working masses of Niger. This is the first and foremost problem with which we should concern ourselves.

Malick Doucouré is a researcher on Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. He is currently investigating the role of cocoa farmers in Gold Coast anticolonial nationalism, through a MPhil/PhD European & International Studies at King’s College, London.