The Nigerien coup leaders who have been in power since the end of July have denounced several military cooperation agreements with France.
This change in direction could reshape the fight against armed groups in Niger, as well as in the entire Sahel region and even in the Gulf of Guinea. Wassim Nasr, a journalist for and specialist in jihadist movements, analyzes the situation.
On July 26, soldiers arrested President Mohamed Bazoum and seized power in Niger. This coup has been widely condemned by the international community, particularly by France and the United States, as well as by ECOWAS, which has threatened to intervene.
The new rulers of Niamey announced on Thursday, August 3, the revocation of various military cooperation agreements with France.
For both Paris and Washington, Niger has strategic value. Both countries have significant military presence in this West African country, with over a thousand soldiers from each country stationed there to help fight against the increasing terrorist attacks in the region.
The Biden administration considers Niger to be its best and last anti-terrorism outpost in this unstable region. Meanwhile, France refuses to sever military ties and affirms that only “legitimate” authorities are authorized to do so.
The void left by France and the United States raises concerns about the rise of jihadist groups, as well as the influence of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who are active in several countries in the region.
Wassim Nasr, a journalist for and specialist in jihadist movements, analyzes the consequences that ending military cooperation between Niger and its Western allies would have.
Niger’s ambassador to Washington, Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, fears that if Niger “collapses,” the jihadists will “control Africa from the coast to the Mediterranean.” Do you share this concern?
Wassim Nasr: This is somewhat exaggerated. However, if Niger enters a phase of chaos, it is obvious that it will benefit the jihadist groups. And it is still necessary to define what we mean by “chaos.” One certainty is that if the junta remains in power, the policies implemented by the previous government under Mohamed Bazoum will come to an end.
Backed by French and American forces on the ground, and with an increased use of drones, President Bazoum was militarily combating the terrorists.
The multidimensional battle he was leading against the jihadist groups followed a triptych approach: “negotiate, develop, wage war.”
Mohamed Bazoum’s regime was able to conduct negotiations with al-Qaeda.
In parallel, he pursued a policy of “jihadist demobilization”: the Nigerien authorities would “recruit” jihadists and then reintegrate them into local security forces, such as in Diffa or Tillabéri. Niamey also pursued a development policy, especially in addressing agrarian issues.
All these elements combined resulted in significantly fewer jihadist attacks and deaths, in comparison to Burkina Faso or Mali. If this multidimensional policy comes to an end, the security situation will undoubtedly deteriorate.
This policy is already a thing of the past: cooperation with France effectively ended as soon as the junta took power, which leaves room for the jihadists. The junta could also follow the path of Burkina Faso or Mali by embarking on a path of “military-only” approach, which often leads to atrocities against civilians. These acts of violence mathematically facilitate jihadist recruitment: grieving populations, seeking revenge against the military.
What about the specter of regional contagion?
Beyond Niger, the next step could be the establishment of a corridor between Lake Chad and the Sahel, benefiting the Islamic State. This would facilitate the transfer of military commanders, fighters, and jihadist ideologues who would reinforce the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel.
Currently, al-Qaeda is preventing IS from achieving this. The two terrorist networks are in conflict, particularly in the three-border region (between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger).
If IS, bolstered by reinforcements, manages to gain the upper hand over al-Qaeda, the doors to the Gulf of Guinea countries would open for them.
What security and tactical changes would a confirmed presence of Wagner in Niger entail?
On the ground, Wagner does not provide any significant security contribution to the junta. In the fight against jihadists, Niamey had no better allies than France and the United States. The Russians are not effective in this regard.
A perfect example is Mali: jihadist attacks have multiplied over the past year and a half, despite an increased presence of Russian forces after the gradual departure of Operation Barkhane. The Islamic State now has a sanctuary in Mali, which enjoys an unprecedented no-fly zone that protects the jihadists.
However, the support of Wagner could be politically advantageous for the coup leaders, as they need allies to maintain power. While Wagner is not Russia itself, it operates in Moscow’s interests and is associated with the Kremlin.
This situation presents a political dilemma for Paris: “Should Wagner be targeted or not?” For the junta, the mercenary group serves as a shield against foreign intervention, consolidating their position against rivals within the country.
This parameter is crucial. It should be noted that no foreign presence can remain in Niger without the junta’s consent. From the perspective of the coup leaders, tolerating American presence would mean accepting a fait accompli. That is why the continuation of this military installation is highly unlikely.
Washington and Paris are fully aware of the importance of this security barrier regionally: if it falls, all others will follow suit.
Although American support is based in Niger, it concerns not only Niger but the entire region. Its influence radiates throughout the Sahel.