Brussels fears Russia will extend influence in the Sahel following Niger coup

The destabilization in the African region poses a higher threat of jihadist terrorism and increased flows of migrants to Europe

Supporters of the military coup wave Niger and Russian flags last Sunday in Niamey.ISSIFOU DJIBO (EFE)

The EU is extremely concerned about the military coup staged in Niger, considered the West’s last ally in the Sahel region, which is ravaged by the rise of extremism. The president, Mohamed Bazoum, ousted by a group of high-ranking military officials, is still being held by members of his security guard, according to EU sources. There are growing fears that Niger, a country of 25 million inhabitants, will now join the countries in the region governed by military juntas, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, in an environment of autocrats supported either directly or indirectly by the Kremlin. In addition to the humanitarian crisis and instability facing a nation that has endured years of extremist violence, Brussels fears that Russia will capitalize on the military uprising to extend its tentacles in the region and strengthen its influence in the Sahel, where the Wagner mercenary group is already operating, senior EU sources say.

“What is happening in Niger is of interest to Russia,” explains a diplomat who is well acquainted with the Sahel, where he has been stationed for several years. He does not believe that Moscow is behind the coup but believes there is now a window of opportunity open to Russia and signs of this have begun to show. On Thursday, the military junta revoked military cooperation agreements with France and moved closer to the regimes of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Conakry. It has also moved closer to Russia, whose flag was on display at demonstrations in Niamey. Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting urging the junta to restore constitutional order, with an ultimatum from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) expiring at midnight on Sunday. The organization has already slapped sanctions on Niger and has discussed a possible military intervention should democracy not be restored. The coup forces closed the country’s airspace minutes before the deadline passed.

Since his detention, President Bazoum himself issued warnings in a letter published by The Washington Post: “The entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner group.” Despite being under surveillance, the ousted leader maintains close and ongoing contact with some African and Western leaders, and with the highest levels of the EU institutions, notably with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The head of EU diplomacy, after a meeting on Saturday with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ataf, said that both shared “the concern and the desire to avoid an escalation that would have serious consequences for an already fragile region.”

“The coup leaders’ motivations are primarily personal, in the context of a reform of the presidential guard that Bazoum apparently intended to carry out. The coup leaders, like General [Abdourahamane] Tchiani, primarily want to hold on to power,” says French researcher Lauriane Devoize, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) research institute. However, she then adds to the growing fears: “In my view, Wagner is lying low and there is no doubt that the group will try to take advantage of the coup if it succeeds. The visit of the Nigerian general [Salifou] Mody to Bamako [Mali’s capital] could imply that the coup leaders want to follow in their neighbor’s footsteps.” During that visit, the coup leaders reportedly sought Wagner’s help, the Associated Press reported Saturday, citing an analyst at the Soufan Center, a security and conflict think tank.

Niger is one of the poorest countries on the planet. However, under the ousted leader it pursued a program of modernization, including education for girls and a reduction in the birth rate, the highest in the world with an average of more than seven children per family. Until a few days ago, it had been singled out by Europe as one of the few nations in the region that had successfully resisted a coup attempt, in March 2021, two months before the coup in Mali, which began to shift the geopolitical landscape in the region. In addition, Niger had experienced a transition of power between two democratically elected presidents when the ousted Mohamed Bazoum succeeded Mahammadou Issoufou.

A demonstrator displays an image of the ousted Mohamed Bazoum at a protest against the military coup in Niger, during a demonstration in Paris on August 5.
A demonstrator displays an image of the ousted Mohamed Bazoum at a protest against the military coup in Niger, during a demonstration in Paris on August 5.STEPHANIE LECOCQ (REUTERS)

“Up until now, it has been a stable and reliable partner with which the Europeans have worked well,” says Devoize. There was a strong desire in Brussels to maintain that status quo, as demonstrated by the visit of the high representative just two weeks before the coup. Niger possesses the world’s fourth-largest uranium reserves, it was the world’s seventh-largest producer in 2022 and it is a major supplier to France, where 70% of electricity is of nuclear origin. The country also has phosphate, gold, coal and oil resources. Additionally, the overthrown government collaborated in the containment of migration in the area. This is of vital importance for Europe, which is highly concerned and divided over the migratory flows that reach the Mediterranean through the Sahel. “For the EU, if the coup is successful, it will have disastrous consequences for two key elements of cooperation with Niger: the fight against terrorism and the fight against migrant smuggling,” adds the ECFR researcher.

The Kremlin has been flexing its muscles in Africa for years, where it has increased its arms sales deals and investments in vital raw materials, hydrocarbons, and precious minerals. It has also deployed Wagner mercenaries to protect Russian interests and allied leaders in the region. Russian paramilitaries are present in several African countries, but they are particularly active in the Central African Republic — a country now regarded as their stronghold — Mali, Sudan and Libya.

All this is in addition to the customary disinformation and influence campaigns through social networks, according to several investigations. Western intelligence is now looking into whether Russia launched targeted disinformation and destabilization campaigns in the weeks in the run-up to the coup. No evidence has been found so far, according to an intelligence officer from a European country. They have identified information campaigns coinciding with the coup and especially with the Russia-Africa summit held at the end of July in Saint Petersburg, attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In this case, the data suggests that Moscow is acting more opportunistically, says the intelligence source — a view shared by a number of EU sources. The leader of Wagner’s mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has already offered his services to the perpetrators of the coup in Niger. Indeed, in recent days, one of the coup leaders traveled to Mali, where he met with Malian leaders and people connected to Wagner, according to intelligence sources. “What happened in Niger has been simmering for years,” Prigozhin said on one of the Telegram accounts.

The rebellion of Prigozhin and his henchmen against the Kremlin last June, which exposed the cracks in Putin’s regime, does not seem to have shaken one certainty — Russia needs its mercenaries and the businessman in Africa. Prigozhin was present in Saint Petersburg during the summit with around 15 African leaders — a diminished delegation since the last occasion two years ago — and he can be seen in photographs posted on Facebook together with one of the Central African regime’s security chiefs.

On July 30, thousands of coup supporters took to the streets in Niamey, the nation’s capital, waving Russian flags and chanting pro-Kremlin slogans against France and colonialism. The coup instigators have also spread the false news that the French army is poised to intervene and reinstate President Bazoum, according to a senior EU source.

At present, Western countries have focused on evacuating their people. France has already returned more than a thousand French citizens and some 50 other foreign nationals, and Spain has repatriated around 50 Niger nationals. However, the EU police training and border protection mission and the humanitarian mission, which are considered essential personnel, will remain in the country, EU sources say.

Meanwhile, Ecowas has imposed sanctions on Niger and the EU has suspended direct budgetary aid as well as security cooperation. “A destabilization of Niger would create serious security risks for its neighboring countries and beyond, in the Gulf of Guinea, and the primary beneficiaries will be jihadist groups. From a political point of view, if the coup is successful, there is a risk of a knock-on effect in other countries, hence the firm stand of Ecowas, since the credibility of the organization and the future of the region are at stake, both politically and with regard to security,” says Devoize.

Turbulence on the southern flank, a rather undefined broad geographic, strategic and military construct encompassing North Africa, the Sahel and the Middle East, is also of great concern to NATO. At the Vilnius summit, the final declaration underlined the explosive mix of institutional fragility, climate change and proliferation of terrorist organizations, denouncing Russia’s action to fuel tensions and instability in these regions.

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