Russian flags on the streets of the capital Niamey have become one of the symbols of the military coup in Niger. Media footage has also caught sight of slogans on posters saying “Down with France, long live Putin!”.
Since 2020, there have been five military coups (and another failed one) in the Sahel region. Mercenaries belonging to the Russian PMC “Wagner” appeared in Mali in 2019-2020. At this point, Western soldiers – in particular, French who were fighting jihadists there – left the country.
But Western experts believe it is still too early to talk about Russian intervention in Niger. So far, observers – including UN humanitarian workers – have seen no evidence of Russian mercenaries in Niger.
Alex Vines, an expert at the British think tank Chatham House, says exaggerating the situation in the country should be avoided.
“It’s not difficult to hand out a few Russian flags,” he explains. “And the display of Russian flags is more an expression of anti-Western, in particular anti-French, sentiment than support for Russia as such.”
Meanwhile, Lauriane Devoize, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says it’s too early to say whether Russia has interfered in Niger
“Russia has to some extent even condemned the coup and both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Putin during the [‘Russia-Africa’] summit called on the putschists to leave and return power to the president,” she says. “Niger co-operates with both Europe and Russia. It buys weapons from Russia. So I don’t think the coup is favourable to Russia.”
Nevertheless, the Kremlin may benefit, at least indirectly, by weakening the EU’s political position in Africa.
Niger’s deposed President Mohamed Bazoum was considered the first freely, democratically elected head of state in his country’s history. He was among those African leaders who did not go to St Petersburg for the Russia-Africa summit which took place just as Niger’s presidential guard was carrying out the coup.
“Clearly the Russians will jump at the opportunity, especially if they see that it weakens the West given the conflict in Ukraine,” says Vines. “This is worrying, especially because the Bazoum administration was pro-Western and we may see a different attitude from the putschists.”
The EU has refused to recognise the putschists as the legitimate leaders of Niger. Niamey announced it was halting uranium and gold shipments to France. Niger is the world’s seventh-largest supplier of uranium. And, according to French media, the country provides 15-17% of the fuel for France’s nuclear power plants.
But Western experts argue that trade is not the main issue that defines Europe’s (and the West’s) ties with the country. The Sahel is a region of unstable natural conditions and low fertility. It is a source of constant change which has seen the rise of radical Islamism and jihadism. All this has in turn encouraged illegal migration.
“Niger is a key ally for all European states involved in the fight against extremists in the Sahel. We are talking about Germany, Belgium, Italy,” says Devoize. “And with its actions in Niger, the EU has just demonstrated how it wants to cooperate with Africans in tackling these problems.”
Ousted President Bazoum claimed that stability and peace were his policy priorities, and has actively co-operated with the EU to fight jihadism and reduce illegal migration.
However, the coup leaders effectively labelled Bazoum’s anti-terrorism policy a failure, accusing the head of state of “trying to hide the harsh reality”. Coup leader General Tchiani claimed Bazoum’s mistakes, which he claims threatened the country’s national security and brought economic distress and corruption, as the reasons behind the coup.
And these statements could play into the Kremlin’s propaganda narrative.
“The Russian Federation, through its foreign minister, Mr Lavrov, has condemned the coup in Niger and demanded the restoration of constitutional order. It also supported the UN Security Council statement on the issue,” says Vines. “However, the founder of PMC Wagner, Mr Prigozhin, welcomed the coup d’état in Niger, calling it a step in the struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism and offering his support to the putschists in Niamey.”
In an attempt to resolve the situation, the West African regional blocECOWAS demanded the junta return the legitimate president to power under the threat of sanctions and military intervention. The EU said it would support ECOWAS’ decisions.
In response, the juntas of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso said they would side with General Tchiani in the event of an external intervention.
An ECOWAS delegation visited Niger on 4 August but failed to meet with Tchiani. Later the same day, West African representatives said they were renouncing the use of force – but would step up sanctions.
The consequences could be even more dire, as the experience of neighbouring states has confirmed. Niger is becoming vulnerable to jihadists.
Devoize says the security of the entire region is at stake: “An unstable political situation only helps the jihadists to advance. And Niger is kind of a centre point for jihadist groups, with access from Mali, from Burkina Faso, even from Libya.”