Understanding the Power Dynamics Behind the Crisis in Niger

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The so-called suspension of security coordination in Niger has raised serious concerns about the increase in terrorist activities. Furthermore, there is an urgent need to find effective strategies to protect the Sahel region from falling under the control of state-sponsored extremist groups. This article explores the complex intricacies of the issues surrounding the putsch in Niger, highlighting the emerging threats that pose a risk to the stability of West Africa.

It is evident that the perceived tensions between France and the United States, and the possibility of their armies withdrawing from Niger, could lead terrorist groups targeting Niger to believe that they can act with impunity in the country. The crucial meeting of the ECOWAS last week follows a recent deadly attack by suspected jihadists in southwestern Niger, resulting in the loss of at least 17 Nigerien soldiers’ lives and injuring 20 others.

France and the United States appear to have differing approaches regarding the restoration of democratic order in Niger amidst the escalating Islamist and “Russian” threats at its borders. France not only demands the release of Mohamed Bazoum, who is currently held captive by General Abdourahamane Tiani’s forces but also emphasizes his reinstatement as president, from which the army ousted him. France openly supports the military option advocated by some African countries, notably Nigeria, the current president of ECOWAS, and Ivory Coast.

Likewise, as France does not recognize the decisions of what they consider an illegitimate junta, there are no plans to withdraw the approximately 1,500 French soldiers stationed in Niger. Some of these soldiers were previously deployed in Mali and Burkina Faso. Interestingly, both Mali and Burkina Faso, neighboring countries led by military officers who no longer accept the presence of the French army on their territories. The Nigerien army has been engaged in the fight against jihadists for years, particularly in the vast Tillabéri region, situated in the so-called “three borders” area between Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, where the attack took place on Tuesday.

France and the United States share a common analysis regarding the imperative of containing the expansion of jihadist groups in the Sahel region. Both countries strongly denounce coups and maintain that juntas lack the capacity to provide any meaningful security guarantees. The United States, in particular, expresses the view that maintaining an active channel of dialogue with the junta, akin to the situation in Mali, is necessary, even if it means a certain degree of divergence from France’s stance. Notably, the White House has placed its confidence in General Moussa Salaou Barmou, who received training in the United States, both at Fort Moore and the National Defense University, was recently appointed Chief of Staff of the Nigerien Armed Forces. Additionally, the United States has recently dispatched Ambassador Kathleen Fitzgibbon to Niamey, putting an end to a nearly two-year vacancy in that position. The arrival of Ambassador Fitzgibbon should be interpreted as a signal of the ongoing commitment to advancing a diplomatic resolution, as clarified by a spokesperson for the State Department.

Concerted efforts are being made to avert any prospect of the US military being compelled to withdraw from Niger, along with the bases it currently occupies (France has a similar objective). Such a development would entail a loss of vital intelligence capabilities for the United States and its allies in the Sahel region, which is already grappling with the ramifications of the preceding coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. Consequently, while military training programs have been suspended, humanitarian assistance continues to be extended. Despite France and its allies, the United States officially maintains that there is no military solution that is considered acceptable. The West African organization has already resorted to retaliatory measures against those responsible for the coup, which have had a significant impact on Niger’s access to crucial food supplies and medical aid, as highlighted by the World Food Programme (WFP) on Wednesday.

Both the United States and France have made considerable investments to maintain a deployment of 1100 and 1500 troops respectively in Niger. These forces from both nations are actively engaged in combating extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram. The cooperation between French and American military forces in the Sahel, particularly in terms of intelligence sharing, is widely regarded as being effective and mutually reinforcing. In this region where radical Islamist groups persistently expand their influence, resulting in the loss of countless innocent lives, the collaborative efforts of both countries play a pivotal role.

However, the oversight in these analyses lies in neglecting the Russian position and the activities of the Wagner Group, which exhibits a growing foothold in the region, resulting in its destabilization. Despite the uncertainties surrounding the future of the Wagner Group and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) recently featured satellite imagery indicating that the private military company (PMC) not only remains operational in Mali but also shows active expansion of its base capacity in Bamako, with potential intentions to transfer valuable military equipment in the near future. With the alignment of Prigozhin’s and Putin’s objectives in sustaining Wagner’s operations in Africa, policymakers should not make the same mistake again and wait for an evolving and unstable situation that may prove in the end more perilous than the Jihadist threat.
The fight against Islamist terrorism officially unifies the forces of France, the United States, and their allies. At present, there is no foolproof solution to address the manifold challenges faced by the Sahel region and its population. Faced with this predicament, each country is tempted to play its distinct role and prioritize its security interests. However, the deployment of Wagner Group forces by Russia poses an additional front that Niger and the Sahel region neither need nor can afford to disregard.

Countries that have been subject to military interventions by the Wagner Group testify to a worsening of security, economic, and social conditions. The Ukrainian conflict brought to light the methods and threats emanating from Russian despotism, showcasing the monstrous crimes committed by those who may harbor doubts about their interlocutors’ character. The absence of a clear and resolute response continues to prolong the Ukrainian conflict, while simultaneously reinforcing Putin’s threats to global security.

France and the United States must acknowledge that adversaries of democratic nations envision a world where only the strongest dominate. These adversaries adhere exclusively to their own set of rules, impervious to concessions, diplomatic efforts, or compromises. Vladimir Putin, a strategic player in this scenario, employs a long-term strategy. His tactics include expanding his army of militias to intimidate others. Additionally, he now seeks to control global food security by halting the export of essential cereals and extending his influence in Africa and elsewhere. His ambitions may ultimately lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Although the prospect is alarming, it is vital that we confront and address this imminent risk. Recent statements related to the future of Crimea further underline this threatening situation.

The Russian sphere of influence through the Wagner group now extends to the Sahel, and this combined threat, along with the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism, must be considered in situation analyses.

The similarities between the insurgents in Niger and the Russians, including the Wagner Group, are striking. Both parties show little interest in diplomatic solutions, instead relying on deterrence and force. The restoration of order, whether democratic or not, will ultimately be determined by the law of the strongest. Once the guns fall silent, diplomacy can resume. We can only hope that the threat of intervention will be strong enough to prevent the eruption of conflict in a region that cannot afford it.

Paris and Washington have different strategic interests. Europeans are concerned about the rise of radical Islamist regimes and the impact on migration to Europe. On the other hand, the US, with priorities that have shifted since the Obama administration, views the Sahel as a lost cause. However, preventing Russia from filling the void, as seen in Mali, is a compelling reason for the US to stay in Niger.
Vladimir Putin actively fuels Nigeriens’ animosity towards France and the West. In a recent message, he accused the “United States and their allies” of destroying the Libyan state through military intervention in 2011. According to Putin, this has directly exposed the Sahel and the Central African Republic to numerous terrorist threats.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has accused the West of maintaining conflict hotspots in Africa to exploit natural resources. He pledges to strengthen military cooperation with African countries to combat neocolonialism and terrorism.

To prevent terrorists from gaining control in the Sahel region, order, and the rule of law must be restored, and strong signals of political, economic, and social change must be delivered. This will encourage sustainable investment. Urgent reforms are needed, including responsible demographic policies and prioritizing universal education for women and girls.

In order to ensure the future and stability of institutions in Niger, it is crucial to recognize the threat posed by jihadist terrorist groups and actors like Wagner or Russia and treat them alike. By identifying the enemy clearly, we can unite and effectively fight against them and prevent the Sahel from falling into the hands of terrorists.

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