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Some of Niger’s neighbors defend the coup there, even hinting at war. It’s a warning for Africa

A United Nations report last month warned of such resistance as young populations in Africa press for rapid change and new international partners

With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger
With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, July 27 2023.Fatahoulaye Hassane Midou (AP)

Not everyone is hostile to the coups in Niger and other African nations in the past few years that have worried the West. In the “family photo” for last week’s Russia-Africa Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood next to Ibrahim Traore, the young military officer who seized power in Burkina Faso in September.

It was an uncomfortable moment for many leaders elsewhere in Africa. “The normalization and dignifying of military takeovers must trouble our great continent,” Kenya’s principal secretary for foreign affairs wrote while sharing the photo this week.

Now Burkina Faso and another military junta-led country friendly with Russia, Mali, have taken the unusual step of declaring that foreign military intervention in neighboring Niger after last week’s coup would be considered a declaration of war against them, too.

They are defying the West African regional body known as ECOWAS, which said on Sunday it could use force if Niger’s coup leaders don’t reinstate the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, within a week. Another coup-affected nation, Guinea, in a separate statement supported Niger’s junta and urged ECOWAS to “come to its senses.”

Their defense of the events in Niger complicates the world’s response as the resolve of partners is tested. It also reflects what a United Nations study warned last month after surveying thousands of citizens of African countries that recently went through coups or other undemocratic changes of government.

“A possible regional-level scenario might see the military juntas in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso team up” to challenge the region’s traditional response to coups, the report said. It warned they could defy sanctions and stand for elections, with help from “new international alliances.”

The report said that “paradoxically,” popular support for the recent military coups in Africa is “symptomatic of a new wave of democratic aspiration that is expanding across the continent” as overwhelmingly young populations grow frustrated with existing economic and political systems and press for change more rapid than what elections can deliver.

Many just want to feel secure as Islamic extremists expand their range in the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara Desert. “I think that a military power in Niger will better coordinate its military actions with Mali and Burkina Faso to fight terrorism,” Harber Cisse, a Malian citizen living in Guinea, told The Associated Press. He believes Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, had been “turning a blind eye” and allowing extremists to cross into Mali.

Those with memories of past coups in the region are not necessarily shocked by the hastily assembled military announcements and unrest in the streets. The U.N. survey found optimism and excitement along with anxiety for the future, plus an impatience that has led to multiple coups within months in more than one country. The four coups in Africa in 2021 were the most in a single year in two decades.

Many people said they believed the army should take over when a civilian government is incompetent. “These findings highlight the risk of a return to an era of close military involvement in African politics,” the U.N. report said.

Certain international responses to coups can be seen as an insult, especially if some foreign partners were seen as prioritizing security instead of African governments’ accountability for alleged misconduct. “In some scenarios, these geopolitically driven interventions have compounded the very factors that heighten coup risk,” the U.N. report said.

Niger had been seen by the United States and allies as the last major counterterrorism partner in the immediate region after Mali and Burkina Faso kicked out French troops and Mali ordered a 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to leave, claiming it had failed in its mission.

Post-coup economic sanctions and cuts in assistance programs threaten to worsen the living situation for many in some of the world’s poorest countries, while well-off foreigners board evacuation flights to more comfortable places.

To help counter the “epidemic of coups,” international partners shouldn’t downplay people’s grievances against national authorities, and their engagement should extend beyond the security sector and “national elites,” the director of the Amani Africa think tank, Solomon Dersso, wrote Monday.

“There’s a small number of people profiting from the riches of Niger,” one coup supporter, Seydou Moussa, said in the capital, Niamey. “Nigeriens cannot live like that. It’s time that change comes. And change has come.”

Part of the frustration in Niger and its neighbors over government weaknesses in addressing corruption and the threat from Islamic extremism has been aimed at France, the former colonizer of present-day Mali, Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso and others in west and central Africa. The French embassy was attacked in Niger shortly after the coup, and the one in Burkina Faso was attacked last year.

Some in West Africa have been upset by France’s warning shortly after the coup in Niger against those threatening “French interests” in the country, seeing it as an example of the alleged priorities that have long driven outsiders’ involvement, notably natural resources.

Russia has played into such sentiments by framing itself to African nations as a country that never colonized the continent, winning support in Mali and other vulnerable nations for Moscow and the Russian mercenary group Wagner.

The Russian flag has been seen in the streets of Niger’s capital in the days after the coup, even as the Kremlin called for Niger “to restore constitutional order as soon as possible.”

Moscow also has emphasized its role as the top arms supplier to Africa, which Burkina Faso’s military leader embraced during the Russia-Africa Summit.

“Thank God, Russia is a country that refuses nothing,” Traore said in an interview with the Russian media outlet Sputnik, asserting that Moscow imposes no restrictions on weapons purchases and even is ready to deliver some for free to help the fight against extremism. “In fact, everything we want to buy, Russia agrees to sell to us. This is not the case with other countries.”

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