Diplomacy is not the best resource of the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Fatherland (CNSP), the new governing body of Niger. The rupture of relations with France, the United States, Nigeria and Togo, announced 48 hours ago, implies a risky flight forward for General Abdourrahamane Tchiani, the country’s new strong man, sheltered behind the entity with so much prosopopeia.
This excessive reaction responds to the ultimatum he received from the powers, the African Union and ECOWAS, the organization that brings together the states near the Gulf of Guinea. Their joint position does not admit middle terms. Today is the deadline for him to restore President Mohamed Barzoum to power. Its neighbors threaten a military intervention and, consequently, a new front in the African labyrinth.
The ‘putsch’ seems like the whims of an officer who seizes power so as not to lose it. Stripped of the trust of the head of state, he risks being stripped of his privileges and pleads greater causes to mask his own ambition. It could be one more uprising, certainly vulgar, in the troubled history of the former Gallic colony, but the current geopolitical scenario has complicated it greatly.
The script is clear. Tchiani has replicated the processes followed recently in Mali and Burkina Faso, the allegedly anti-colonialist rhetoric and the rapprochement with Russia. He does not seem to have measured the consequences of his hasty action or his maximalist response, or, perhaps, he is relying on the support of his supporters in the streets. He seems to ignore the fact that Niger is, along with Chad, one of the mainstays on which resistance to jihadist pressure is based in the Sahel.
The diplomatic crisis leads to confrontation. France and the United States have bases in the cities of Niamey and Agadez, respectively, essential for monitoring and responding to the Islamist offensive. The idea of dismantling these centers is detrimental to stability and, furthermore, would anticipate a new offensive by radical groups. Undoubtedly, violence would escalate in the Liptako region, made up of eastern Mali, northeastern Burkina Faso and western Niger.
The economic consequences are also relevant. The foreign involvement shows both the traditional interests of the big ones and the expansion of new planetary agents. Nigerian uranium arouses general appetite because it is much more accessible and close than the mineral from Canada, Kazakhstan or Australia, the other major suppliers. France has exploited it for decades through the all-powerful multinational Areva, today Orano, but there are also concessions to Canadian, Korean and Chinese firms. The struggle between Turkey and the United Emirates and Saudi Arabia has also been transferred to this scenario. While Riyadh is financing the Kandadji dam, a project that aims to substantially expand the cultivated area, Ankara is trying to get the go-ahead to build its own air base in the Sahel.
little room for maneuver
Tchani’s ability to maneuver is limited by this convergence of factors. The pro-Russian demonstrations and the failed assault on the French embassy seem more like a pressure maneuver than a real threat. A change of allies is suicidal. Everyone knows that Wagner cannot be compared to the military muscle of the West, powerful and, even so, insufficient to contain the radical threat. Niamey does not have its own and sufficient means to respond to an offensive by radical groups or to a Tuareg insurrection. After the failed experience against militias in Mozambique or Mali, the Russian commitment can only be explained by the needs of the military elite.
But there is more, much more. The regime has relied on foreign aid to meet its enormous shortcomings and satisfy the voracious corruption of the ruling class. The European Union approved a budget of 503 million euros for the period between 2021 and 2024 aimed at improving governance, education and sustainable growth. The funds have been frozen immediately. In any case, it is not a philanthropic project. The counterparts demand control of the flows of sub-Saharan emigrants and mafias that cross the country.
The mediation of China, involved in the exploitation of its oil fields, and Turkey, eager for international leadership, could facilitate dialogue, perhaps at the cost of democratic restoration. But the positions seem very conflicting and there is even a risk of regionalization of the conflict because Mali and Burkina Faso have assured that they would feel involved if Niger is attacked by multinational forces. However, it would be necessary to gauge their ability to support their neighbor when they suffer serious internal conflicts.
Moscow’s position is one of apparent discretion, like a bride who allows herself to be wooed. She has several tricks in the game. In addition to its military benefits, the Russian government would provide grain to a permanently food insecure population. In a context of a demographic ‘boom’, Niger is suffering from the effects of climate change, mainly prolonged droughts and desertification processes that, just last year, generated a famine that affected 4.4 of its 26 million inhabitants.
Tchiani’s ambition determines the future of his people. It is not just another riot, although Mahamadou Ouhoumoudou, prime minister of the government, refutes it from Paris. “It is not a blow but a whim,” he says. But it should not be underestimated. There are whims that are very expensive.