Did Europe really not have intelligence-gathering capacity in the uranium-rich west African country? And what about America's big listening ear?
Video of Russian flag in #Niger hours after coup. French reportedly sending plane to evacuate pro-West Prez. Bazoum. Add to list of at least 4 coups in Africa in last 2 years: pic.twitter.com/LlTfXlQI59
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) July 27, 2023
For all that the second ever Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg on July 27 and 28 has been dissed by western commentators (too few heads of state and government from Africa; Putin on the back foot etc), I give you one clear image: Russian flags being waved on the streets of Niger, in west Africa, a country that has just experienced a coup.
What does that mean? Russia is newly popular, at least among a section of people in Niger.
Until last week’s coup, Niger was one of the few democracies left in the Sahel belt and Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants. Niger hosts key Western military bases – its former colonial power France and the US – and it is rich in uranium, so who’s in charge of Niamey really does matter.
Odd then to think that the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Niger just over three weeks ago and praised it as “a haven of stability”. Twenty-three days later, Mr Bazoum was detained by his own presidential guard (July 26) in a coup for which the army later came out in support.
Odd too to think of the tunnel vision governing US anti-jihadist strategy. Until now, its plan for fighting Islamist militants across western Africa was to lean heavily on Niger, where it despatched American commandos to train elite local forces. The coup means the US would probably now be restricted by its own laws, which prohibit it from providing most security aid to military regimes.
Clearly the coup means big problems for Europe and the wider geopolitical West.
But it’s a good moment to raise several pertinent questions: Did the EU really not have its ear to the ground in Niamey? Was it so lacking in intelligence-gathering capacity? Or did it not care? Worse, did it not think Niger would ever go its own way? And what about the US and its big listening ear?
In February, the EU launched a “military partnership mission” to support the training of Niger troops; in March agreed to provide it with €40mn. When he met the now deposed president of Niger, Mr Borrell said: “Niger is a solid, reliable partner, both politically and in terms of security. And we support President Bazoum enormously, with all our might.”
That wasn’t enough and the coup has larger ramifications. The EU and US have long wanted to ensure Niger didn’t go the way of its neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso. Both suffered military coups in 2021 and 2022 respectively and subsequently fell in with the idea it is better to have Russia, than Europe, as an ally.
As of now, roughly a thousand heavily armed mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group are reported to be in Mali, where the security situation for citizens is said to be even worse than before they arrived.
On the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was reportedly sighted shaking hands with various delegates. He offered support for the coup in Niger and offered to provide his mercenaries to restore order.
An order that would bear a Made in Russia label.