Foreign Currents: Crisis in Niger

In his column debut, Cole Warren ’24 informs readers about the recent coup in Niger and urges Amherst students to critically examine mainstream narratives about international affairs.

Foreign Currents: Crisis in Niger
Niger's coup is the latest tragedy in the last few years global political instability. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Most readers will agree that over the past few years global politics have become significantly more unstable. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increasing competition between the U.S. and China, and catastrophic devastation from climate change are, in the U.S.’ public consciousness, the exemplars of a deteriorating world order.

But, even among Amherst students, there remains a significant lack of engagement with international crises that do not receive the media spotlight — or fit neatly into the vision of a world senselessly spiraling.

My goal with this column is to discuss the pressing news in the realm of international affairs and geopolitics that is less likely to be addressed both at Amherst and nationally.

This week, I discuss one of the most important events in contemporary international affairs: the recent coup in Niger and the possibility of a military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The current situation is not only emblematic of the growing instability of the world order but also reminds us of the necessity of critically engaging with mainstream media narratives and educating ourselves on the nuances of current events.

On July 26, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted by his own presidential security force and was replaced as acting head of government by the leader of his guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani. This has been the fourth country in the Sahel, an African ecoregion south of the Sahara and north of the Sudanian savanna, to experience a seizure of power in recent memory, with Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali being the other nations currently run by a military junta.

Response from neighboring ECOWAS countries was swift: They suspended Niger from membership in the organization, placed sanctions decimating Niger’s energy production, cut it off from trade, and closed its borders. This has contributed to an already growing food crisis across Western Africa. Likewise, a desire to reinstate Bazoum has led ECOWAS to suggest the possibility of intervention, with the likely assistance of France which has thousands of troops still in the country and has been involved in security operations in the Sahel for the last decade (although it appears they are in the process of removing these soldiers in the wake of the coup). This has raised concerns over international military involvement in the region, especially since the new regime in Mali has relied extensively on the Russian private military contractor Wagner, and both Burkina Faso and Niger both appear to be willing to discuss security arrangements with the Russian state.

Yet this picture of liberal democracies against military authoritarianism is a much too simplistic depiction of the situation occurring in the Sahel. The cavalier attitudes of many US-based opinion commentators regarding intervention downplays the serious likelihood of devastation, radicalism, proxy wars, and democratic backsliding that would plague the entire region. Rather than armed intervention, mediation between the junta, the U.S., and important actors in the region — namely Algeria and the African Union — would be the best way to maintain security in the Sahel and hopefully pave the way to a more stable form of civilian governance.

While the actions of the junta are anti-democratic, it would be remiss not to mention how the failings of the previous Nigerien regime and the neocolonial relationship between Niger and France have contributed to widespread wealth inequality, violence, and a justified anti-French sentiment throughout the nation. Although it is undeniable that Bazoum’s administration did make the most headway in dealing with the regional insurgency, by eschewing the strategies of the French military that partnered with militia groups to take a hard-line approach against rebels in favor of negotiation, it is clear that Bazoum’s government suffered from systemic corruption, cracked-down on civil liberties, and removed political opposition.

All of these characteristics of democratic backsliding, in addition to his increasingly close ties with the French state, alienated his government from the citizens of Niger. At the same time, the French government’s neocolonial relationship with Niger has resulted in repeated exploitation and growing instability in the nation. Since Niger’s independence, France has retained an outsized role in Nigerien affairs, relying on the country for its deposits of uranium, maintaining monetary sovereignty through the currency of the CFA franc, and a decade of French-led security interventions in the region has only resulted in more chaos in the region with little tangible benefit for most Nigerien citizens. Similarly, despite saber-rattling from ECOWAS and France about the necessity of intervention to restore Bazoum’s government, there has been significantly less dedication to democracy among these actors. There have been numerous examples across ECOWAS countries of creeping authoritarianism being permitted as long as pro-France posturing is maintained, such as the democratic backsliding of Côte d’Ivoire under the Presidency of Alassane Ouattara. France has indicated they will redeploy French soldiers in Niger to neighboring Chad, which also experienced a military coup in recent history, albeit with a regime much more amicable with the French government. Rather than hold to a strong standard in defense of liberal democracy, it is clear that France and ECOWAS have favored intervention to preserve the pre-existing political and economic relationship with the old Nigerien regime.

As such, the most likely way to ensure stability in the region, which has both the ability to prevent radical insurgencies and ensure an eventual return to civilian governance, is to embrace mediation and negotiation during this crisis. There have already been indications that both the U.S. and neighboring countries such as Algeria are willing to embrace this line of thinking. As of the time of this writing, the U.S. has resisted legally declaring that the military junta has taken power in a coup, which would result in millions of dollars of military aid being revoked from Niger. Algeria, which is the most powerful negotiator in the Sahel, has proposed a six-month transition period for the junta to relinquish control of the state to civilians. Unfortunately, while this proposal is unlikely to come to fruition within this proposed timeline, it does indicate that influential nations in the area are willing to resort to diplomatic means to resolve this crisis peacefully. As aptly stated by a top African diplomat, “Now, you have a bad government [in Niger]. But if you bomb them, you get no government.”

An embrace of negotiation and compromise is never easy, especially when it requires the legitimization of those who challenge preexisting political orders. Yet a refusal to understand the legitimate grievances of many Nigerien people and the systemic inequality in the political, economic, and military relationships with France and the U.S. will only result in policy decisions that jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. A military solution could very well open a door to the proliferation of radicalism, authoritarianism, and intervention from other foreign powers such as Russia at the expense of the self-determination of people in the Global South.

Even at a school like Amherst College, which can feel incredibly isolated from the outside world, it is imperative that students here critically evaluate their perspective toward other countries, and have an increased awareness of how the U.S. affects the development of other nations. If we are to truly embody the values of a liberal arts education, then all students should take an interest in world events and embrace the values of diplomacy and respect when viewing global politics. As we attend a college where alumni and faculty have a truly influential effect on how the U.S. approaches the international community, we as an institution must make sure to think critically about the state of the world — not limiting ourselves to a simplistic worldview that refuses to even acknowledge the structural inequality faced by millions of people across the planet.