Niger Coup Provokes Blame Game – The American Spectator

Does it matter whether Niger is run by a committee of high-ranking military men or an elected president who took office without incurring the wrath of his predecessor or the fury of the media elites in Niamey?

Niamey is the capital of the Texas-sized, land-locked country in Africa’s Sahel. It is a front-line state in the war against the armed bands, loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic state group, that ravage villages, massacre their residents, and kidnap their children.  

Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the Presidential Guard, announced that he would be head of state under the authority of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland due to the inadequacy of the security policies of the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, who remains confined to his house weeks after the coup. Other rationales were voiced as the putschists rejected entreaties by the U.S. State Department and the regional economic and political organization, the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), to return to their barracks and restore constitutional order.

The Place of Democracy in Dealing With Niger

A top U.S. State Department official, Victoria Nuland, was in Niamey shortly after the coup that overthrew Mohamed Bazoum, who had the distinction of being the first president of Niger (since independence in 1960) to whom power was transferred peacefully following a free-and-fair election. (READ MORE: America, Don’t Forget: ISIS Is Still a Threat)

Moreover, Bazoum is an Arab-African, and his predecessor, Mahammadou Issouf, is a Hausa and a favorite of American policymakers. They were proclaiming just before the putsch that Niger is stable and more than pulling its weight in the fight against the jihadist bandits. Niger’s progress toward inter-tribal democracy and the rule of law is an American priority in the region, particularly since the same combination — security plus democracy — came a cropper in Mali some 10 years ago, despite comparable assessments on our side that all was well.

The official policy of the U.S., France, and ECOWAS is that you cannot achieve security and prosperity without some degree of democracy. Niger’s neighbor to the south, Nigeria, whose just-retired president, Muhammadu Buhari, also served as chairman of ECOWAS, suffered under military rule for many years and is adamant about this notion.  

Nuland’s mission was to restore the status quo, with the soldiers in the barracks and the president back in charge. Her disappointment must have been acute, judging by a Wall Street Journal report by its regional correspondent Michael Phillips:

Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou[‘s presence among the putschists was painful because]…. the U.S. military has courted [him] for almost 30 years. He [attended] Washington, D.C.,’s prestigious National Defense University…. He is a guy in charge of elite forces crucial to stemming the flood of al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters across western Africa.

As Phillips reported, Moussa sat down with Nuland, who pleaded for a quick return to civilian rule — and did not give an inch. 

ECOWAS took a hard line and warned of sanctions and military intervention to restore civilian rule. Sanctions went into effect, but the intervention was postponed. 

Is it possible that Nuland, notwithstanding the United States’ firm support of ECOWAS’s position forbidding coups, suggested a way out that would satisfy the soldiers? French commentators, taking a hint from the foreign ministry, according to the daily Le Figaro, expressed apprehension that bending the no-coup rule might be in the air, implying the Americans are more interested in sustaining Niger’s military than in protecting democratic institutions. At the time of this writing, this is firmly rejected by Nuland’s hierarchical superior, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The issue may be moot, but that it crossed some minds, by no means all of them French, is an indication of the risks in the Sahel. We may eventually find out how much it will cost to save Niger or, rather, help it save itself.  

We have already invested at least $500 million, by most reports, in military aid to Niger, which includes maintaining about 1,100 American soldiers at three military outposts in the country.

Our training of Niger’s military has paid off, at least to the extent that the country is substantially more secure than Burkina Faso or Mali, where the Islamists and the highwaymen (together or separately) must have congratulated themselves when coups in those countries overthrew elected governments and demanded the French forces leave.

Security Threats in Niger

The security threats go by various names — Boko Haram in neighboring northern Nigeria is notorious — and while their raiding parties ride under the black banner of jihad, they are usually gangs grouped in close units with family connections; they have terrorized the Sahel since time immemorial.

Some, but by no means all, of the recruits to the Islamist bands are Tuareg, a fairly loose name for the Berbers who control the caravan routes and the smuggling operations — from cigarettes to people — across the Sahara. Whether honest businessmen and traders or highwaymen, the Tuareg are suspicious of authority; that some among their leadership are expressing support for the overthrown Niger government is significant if it suggests Niger’s politicians had been showing people they can work together across tribal lines to advance public security and make some progress toward economic growth. Niger has a very young population and one of the highest fertility rates in the world.

The Tuareg are Muslim, many in a rather nominal, laid-back manner. However, under the leadership of a wild man named Iyad Ag Ghali 10 years ago, sharia radicals took over half of Mali north of the Niger River. As the Tuareg over-ran Mali’s forces, the nationalists who had launched the revolt and the demand for a separate state were at first allied, then outmaneuvered and finally beaten by Ag Ghali’s Islamist forces, Ansar Dine (“arm of the faith,” rough translation). These are maybe not as savage as Boko Haram, but they burned the legendary libraries of Timbuctu, imposed slavery and sharia — and continued their smuggling operations.

They were unable to take Mali’s capital, Bamako, where they proposed to install a West African caliphate, thanks to the timely intervention of French airborne troops and their Chadian scouts and commandos. The Chadians are widely seen as the best desert fighters in the entire Sahel-Sahara. The Nigeriens, and particularly the U.S. Army’s favorite Nigerien who so disappointed Nuland, would dispute this. However, without Chadian and Nigerien soldiers, we may as well kiss goodbye to the Sahel. (RELATED: Cheers for Chad)

Although some order was restored in Mali, and the large towns like Timbuctu were retaken by French-backed Malian forces, the country remains disorganized and dependent on Russian mercenaries for its security since the French were asked to leave. The Russians are willing — they can plunder Mali’s resources. They are also re-building Soviet-era networks of cooperation, including, importantly, with Algeria, a U.S. partner in maintaining security in the Sahara. As alliances and balances of forces shift, the U.S. and France have been counting on Niger to hold the line against depredation and anarchy and show the way to progress.

The most straightforward explanation for Nuland’s hurried mission would therefore be to preempt any temptation the Niger military might have to stop its peace-making mission, which is to say, its fight against terror, while warning against a “Russian option,” not that the putschists have openly expressed interest in it yet. This means coming to some sort of face-saving compromise with the civilians as well as with France and ECOWAS. 

However, the putschists have shown no willingness to discuss their issues with France, instead joining a somewhat vague chorus that blames the former colonial power for their economic problems.  Bazoum, as “l’homme de la France”, i.e., France’s agent, thus found himself with another reason for being overthrown, additional to not prosecuting the terror war vigorously.

The U.S. was spared blame, compared to France. The military government asked the French contingent to leave — about 1,500 men, with some air power — but said nothing about the roughly same number of U.S. servicemen who, in addition to special forces-led counter-terror missions, maintain an air base. (France rejected the request on the grounds it was made by a putschist junta.) (RELATED: Where Is Niger?)

If the Nigeriens feel more comfortable with American military men than French ones, it may have something to do with the be-nice-to-the-host attitude that our forces in Africa have adopted, but the problem runs deeper than hurt sensitivities, important as these…

Read More: Niger Coup Provokes Blame Game – The American Spectator

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