How the Niger coup can shake up the balance of power in and around Africa
On July 26, 2023, the presidential guard of the Republic of Niger detained President Mohamed Bazoum. The army did not take the insurgents’ side at first, taking a guarded position instead at the strategically important facilities in Niamey, Niger’s capital city, with cautious calls to avoid violence.
On the night of July 26, Niger’s Air Force Colonel Amadu Abdraman spoke on television. In a statement on behalf of the putschists he announced the deposition of President Bazoum and establishment of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (Conseil National pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie). He cited the “deteriorating security situation” and “poor governance” as the main reasons for the coup.
On July 27, a statement was posted on Twitter (rebranded as ‘X’) by the unofficial account of the Nigerien armed forces (Forces Armées Nigériennes), that mostly publishes news reports on military operations. The statement, signed by the army chief of staff, Gen. Abdou Sidikou Issa, declared support for the “Defense and Security Forces,” as the putschists called themselves in the televised address. On the morning of July 28, it transpired that Abdourahamane Tchiani, commander of the presidential guard, had been made head of Niger’s National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.
Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali voiced support for the new government. However, the coup d’etat was condemned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the UN (including the security council), France, the USA and Russia. China chose not to make any declarations. ECOWAS, however, used very harsh rhetoric. At an extraordinary summit it held on July 30, ECOWAS demanded that the deposed President Bazoum be reinstated. If this failed to happen within a week, the organization threatened to “take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger.”
ECOWAS also closed the borders between its member states and Niger. Given that the ECOWAS memberships of Mali and Burkina Faso have already been suspended, the decision effectively closes Niger’s borders with two countries – Benin and Nigeria. This limitation may be strongly felt, since Niger has been using the Niamey-Cotonou (Benin) transport corridor to export uranium concentrates and import foodstuffs and energy. However, a large part of interstate trade is traditionally made up of contraband, and not all the contraband trading routes, by far, cross the borders at official checkpoints. This will probably mitigate the real effect of sanctions upon Niger.
ECOWAS also instituted a no-fly zone for all commercial flights to and from Niger, suspended all transactions between ECOWAS nations and Niger and froze all of the country’s assets in ECOWAS banks.
Niger is an important but not a key player in the global uranium market. In 2022, it produced 2,000 tons of uranium (representing 4% of global production and placing it 7th in the world, just below Russia with its 2,500 tons). In recent years, uranium production in Niger has declined as the Akuta mine (operated by the French company Orano) depleted its reserves and finally closed in 2021. The major uranium assets in Niger are divided among four joint ventures. Orano is the largest shareholder in three of them, while Chinese companies (the state-owned CNUC and the private investment group ZXJOY Invest) control the fourth. There are also joint ventures with Spanish (ENUSA) and South Korean (KEPCO) companies. The Nigerien government is represented in the joint ventures through the state-owned company SOPAMIN.
For Niger, the sale of uranium is the main source of export revenue and hard currency. Uranium exports account for about $200 million annually (up to 30% of Niger’s total export value). Most of this (up to 100% in some years) is shipped to France, with some shipments also going to Canada, Spain and Japan.
Along with Russia, Kazakhstan and Canada, Niger is a key supplier of uranium concentrate to France, providing about 25% of its annual consumption (France consumes approximately 8,000 tons per year). On July 31, the media reported that Niger had suspended uranium and gold exports to France. The rebels’ decision, if it was indeed taken, was a political gesture: with closed borders, exports are technically impossible, as Niger has no access to the sea: if the border with Benin is closed by ECOWAS decision, the export reorientation needs time, effort, and international negotiations.
On the one hand, the prospect of France losing up to a quarter of its uranium supply threatens to intensify its ongoing energy predicament, a situation already complicated by the persistent two-year energy crisis sweeping across Europe. On the other hand, the rebels will struggle to find an alternative market for the 2,000 tons of uranium. In theory, Russian or Chinese companies could agree to buy these quantities of uranium concentrate (Russia consumes about 6,000 tons per year). However, this would require substantial investments in logistics, mine security, and above all, the neighboring countries would have to permit the transport of these cargoes through their territory.
If the rebels manage to stay in power and reach an agreement with Paris, France could use its influence in ECOWAS to negotiate sanctions relief. For example, uranium exports and shipments of mining equipment could be exempted. This is a fairly common practice – the embargo on Mali was modified to allow for food and energy.
When Niger declared its independence, the country’s population was under 3.5 million. In the 60 years that followed it reached 25 million. Today, Niger is not only an important uranium supplier, but also a large market. It imports 3.5 billion worth of goods annually, primarily grain (0.5bn). It has outdone its neighbor Mali in terms of population, a country of the same size and geographic location between the Sahara Desert and the Sahel region. Whereas Mali’s population merely quadrupled in the years since independence, Niger’s population grew almost eight times. It is also telling that Niger is the world’s leader in female fertility, leaving behind Somalia and Chad. In Niger, one woman gives birth to seven children on average. This has to do with the fact that Niger’s population remains largely rural (83%) and lives in extreme poverty. Under these circumstances, a high birth rate is the way of ensuring existence for a community or extended family.
The coup’s impact within Africa
Over 3 million square kilometers of territory and 82 million people living in the ECOWAS countries are under ECOWAS sanctions now. Most of the ECOWAS territories (its total area amounting to 5.2mn sq km) are no longer a full-fledged part of the organization, which is now split into two areas coinciding with the two historical regions that Africa experts traditionally outline in West Africa – namely, Guinea, including the coastal West African territories from Senegal to Cameroon, and West Sudan, part of the Sahara/Sahel region. In fact, ECOWAS is split into two camps. One camp is represented by the four countries that have gone through coups d’etat (Mali in 2020 and 2021; Guinea in 2021; Burkina Faso in 2022), while the opposing camp includes Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and others.
ECOWAS has always been a rather heterogeneous, diverse organization, with its population divided by both religious (Christianity vs Islam) and language (English vs French) affiliations. And also, there are two monetary arrangements within ECOWAS – the WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union) that unites former French colonies in Africa and is also known as the CFA franc zone, and the WAMZ (West African Monetary Zone) that plans to introduce a single currency in ECOWAS – the Eco.
Moreover, there is no unity among the ‘legitimate’ member states of ECOWAS. Nigeria is the economic leader of all Africa and an apparent regional hegemon, which was once the mastermind behind the ECOWAS concept. Its potential and capabilities intimidate other regional actors, which is deftly used by external players. Until recently, France has used its ties to the countries of the region to exert pressure on Nigeria, including at the ECOWAS level. The country’s economic protectionism annoyed the EU and was a major obstacle for a trade agreement between West Africa and the Europeans. That’s what pushed Brussels, willing to leave Nigeria out, to sign separate deals with Ghana and Ivory Coast and use them as entry points to access the regional market of ECOWAS.
Coincidentally, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu was elected the next Chairman of ECOWAS on July 10, 2023. Now the crisis in Niger – Nigeria’s northern neighbor facing the same kind of issues (radicalism, desertification, climate change) – provides an opportunity for Nigeria to bolster its influence in the region and become a vital player in resolving regional problems, capitalizing on the decline of France’s clout. And it’s far from certain that Nigeria will choose to play this game on the same side as France. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that Nigeria’s new president, Bola Tinubu, although born in the country’s south, is Muslim and enjoys solid support in the north.
The world’s reaction to the Niger crisis
Russia has officially condemned the coup, a natural, consistent stance not related to Moscow’s sympathies towards the Bazoum regime, as his administration chose not to attend the Russia-Africa Summit, taking cues from the US and France above all. Thus, Russia not only keeps in mind the 2014 coup in Ukraine, but also supports the African Union in its zero-tolerance policy towards coups.
Statements by Wagner PMC chief Evgeny Prigozhin in support of the coup should not be taken too seriously. Without support from the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s resources in Africa are scant, and he already has a history of trying to look more powerful than he really is, resorting, among other things, to controlled leaks through opposition and European media. Therefore, any rumors of his involvement in the political process in Niger should be treated with caution. At any rate, Moscow’s trust and support just aren’t there for him anymore, and without those, he hardly carries much weight in Africa.
How events will develop in Niger is hard to forecast. Possible scenarios include countercoups and attempts by the West to come to an agreement with Niger’s military, with the goal of making them refrain from doing anything that goes against the economic interests of France and the US. An armed intervention by ECOWAS is less likely, considering the unpreparedness of its regional rapid response forces and lack of resources.
Military involvement by France or the US is just as unlikely, as Western countries have far higher priorities in other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, the Indian Ocean, or the South China Sea. A coup in Niger is not something that can make the West give up its consistent policy of reducing its involvement in regional conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
At the same time, we cannot rule out that France and the US may act independently of each other. The series of anti-French coups in Africa effectively plays into the hands of the US, whereas China – which often graciously accepts hidden courtesies extended by France in Africa as Paris seeks Beijing’s support – may lose. The US may use the situation for its interests and put Niger’s new military regime in a dependent position, strangling it with non-lethal sanctions, following a similar model as in Sudan.
Russia’s long-term interest is in increasing weight and influence of the local centers of power, which includes not only Nigeria, but also Algeria, a strategic partner of Russia that keeps a close eye on the developments along its southern borders. It is in the interests of Algeria and Nigeria to prevent the crisis from internationalizing and settle it on their own, without the involvement of the US, France, and other players. Russia’s role in this crisis could be a stabilizing one if it uses its friendly relations with the leaders of Burkina Faso and Mali, whose support will probably be sought by their peers in Niger.