Niger coup: Where to now for European diplomacy?
The peaceful transfer of power took place just months after the military in neighbouring Mali launched a coup
There was a time when Niger, an important country of transit for people wanting to reach Europe, seemed to be the perfect partner for Germany.
After former German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited in 2016, Mahamadou Issoufou, who was president of Niger until 2021, intensified efforts to seal off one of the main migration routes through the Sahara.
The country's strategic location was also seen as important for tackling the growing threat from extremists in neighboring Mali in particular, and preventing the expansion of the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram.
Continued good relationships seemed to be assured when Issoufou handed power over to his elected successor, Mohamed Bazoum, in 2021.
The peaceful transfer of power took place just months after the military in neighbouring Mali launched a coup. Mali went on to distance itself from its former Western partners. The following year, a coup was also launched in Burkina Faso, to Mali's south. Former colonial power France and other European states, including Germany, started to deploy military units to Niger and set up training missions there.
There was an atmosphere of mutual respect. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Niger in May 2022, he insisted that the country "counts a lot for us."
"Across multiple domains, Niger was actually a very good choice," said Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at the international consultancy Development Reimagined. "It just so happened that disgruntled and ambitious military officers took advantage of the opportunity and weakness of the Nigerien state for their power grab."
The coup in Niger took place on July 26 and President Bazoum was detained. The country's new rulers, under self-proclaimed leader General Abdourahamane Tiani, now also want to distance themselves from France.
A delegation of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, to which Niger belongs, recently left the country without being able to meet Tiani. Observers fear the situation could escalate as the West African bloc has condemned the coup and is not expected to accept the new junta. Many Western countries have already begun to evacuate their citizens.
Resentment towards former colonial power France
The first reaction of the West was also to condemn the coup. Germany, France and the European Union have suspended development aid and budget support to Niger.
But in the country's capital Niamey, demonstrators have expressed their support for those behind the coup and there have been protests in front of the French embassy. Several thousand French troops are stationed in Niger still. France has strong economic interests in Niger, from which it exports uranium.
There were reports in the media that the demonstrations were quelled with tear gas.
"Of course, anti-French resentment is a major problem for the reputation of the entire West in the Sahel," said Matthias Basedau, director of the GIGA Institute for African Studies in Hamburg. He said that the resentment, which was partially justified, was being fueled by Russia, which had expanded its influence in Mali and Burkina Faso.
But Germany did not have the same problem as France, he noted. It "doesn't have these spheres of influence and interests in Africa, and that's why it's always been relatively well regarded," he explained, saying that Germany's formula had been to cooperate intensively on development and to provide money without imposing that many political conditions.
West has an 'image problem'
Those who have launched coups in the Sahel have also benefitted from the fact that international military missions have failed there and that there is growing frustration among the people of the region. Basedau said that this was not enough to explain the coup in Niger but gave the West good reason to reflect on its approach.
"One should avoid any action that could give the impression that geopolitical interests are at play or there is neocolonialist interference," he said, adding that the West really had an "image problem."
"European countries interested in having some form of relationship with Sahelian countries because of their own national interests, need to find a way to not necessarily distance themselves from France, but to really make sure people are aware of the policy differences that they may have," agreed Eguegu.
He said that in this way Germany and others could maintain their influence. "They are not burning EU flags in Bamako or in Niamey or in Ouagadougou. It is specifically the French flag that you see. If they can get the French flag, they [could] of course get the European Union flag or write slogans to explain their dissatisfaction. So there really needs to be the understanding that anti-French sentiment should not be mistaken for anti-European sentiment."
Realpolitik: Germany could maintain relations
For the moment, German Bundeswehr troops are still at their training camp at a military base in Tillia, Niger. If they had to leave, as is the case in Mali where German troops are due to withdraw by 2024, an alternative base would have to be found. Germany would have to rethink the deployment of troops in the region.
The tri-border region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso is a hotspot for extremist attacks. The closest countries would be Mauritania to the west and Chad to the east, neither of which are members of ECOWAS. Nor are they particularly stable democracies. Furthermore, control over the migration route via Niger would be at stake.
Basedau explained that it would be costly to move German troops from country to country, coup for coup as it were, and not particularly helpful in the long term.
Also Read: What are the Niger coup leaders' intentions?
For Eguegu, "the best thing for the Western countries to do is to actually assess themselves and ask: 'Why have we been chased out? Could we stay here and achive our objectives if we adapt to present political realities?'"
Eguegu added that the current dilemma provided an opportunity to find agreement because there were dependencies on both sides and the fact that the security situation had deteriorated, despite Western interventions, did not change this. "The question is why it was getting worse and if things are going to get better without the West," he argued. "And that is debatable."
Eguegu also said that although weapons might become more accessible and there might be more military leeway thanks to partnerships with Russia, this would not improve the situation in Niger.
"The solution to the Sahel is not just military," he said. "There's an economic component to it, there is a governance component to it. State building and investing in peace building, investing in national development will cost a lot of money. But the Russians are not in a position to fund that. And that really is the main risk in their strategy of aligning themselves with, or pivoting towards, Russia."
Eguegu predicted that it would be difficult for the West if Niger followed the example of its neighbors and opted to align more closely with Russia. But if the new self-proclaimed rulers of the country rapidly agreed to a transitional phase toward democratic elections, then the West might find a way of coming to terms with this.
This article was originaly written in German.