By Lisa Vives
Located at the crossroads of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, Niger is the largest country in West Africa and the 6th largest country in Africa. Yet, it is hardly a familiar name like Nigeria, Ghana or Kenya.
That is about to change.
Last week, Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, was unceremoniously removed from office by his presidential guards, soon joined by the Nigerien military. Besides the fact of an attempted coup, here are some additional details about this relatively unknown country.
Niger is the least developed country in the world. Ten million people, 41.8% of the population, live in extreme poverty
A nation with frequent droughts and poverty, with several jihadist insurgencies in the region, it is said to be one of the worst places in the world to live and grow up. Niger was in 189th place out of 189 countries and territories in 2019 in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and the living standards of the country, according to African-volunteer.net
Niger sits on some of the world’s largest uranium deposits, but is one of the “Heavily Indebted Poor Countries” (HIPC). Its economy is based on subsistence agriculture such as crops and livestock, and the export of raw commodities.
While Nigeriens struggle to eke out a living against the odds, the international community, particularly the U.S. and France, has focused on the possible loss of an African ally, a partner in a many years-long war on terrorism in Africa.
It will not be the first such loss. Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have already forced out their western allies to “diversify their partnerships”, inviting in their stead members of the Russian group Wagner.
Until the coup, Niger was one of the few countries in the region that agreed to house U.S.-drone bases and hundreds of American Special Forces and logistics experts who are in involved in counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram and ISIS affiliates. The U.S. has more than 1,000 service personnel in the country. France had 1,500 which were moved from Mali to Niger in 2022 as its relations with Mali declined.
In April, Germany joined France and the U.S., announcing it would take part in a three-year European military mission aimed at improving Niger’s military.
Niger is also a key ally of the European Union in the fight against irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa.
Military aid clearly dominates the record of U.S. grants to this destitute country. In early 2021, the U.S. said it had provided Niger with more than $500 million in military assistance and training programs since 2012, one of the largest such support programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union earlier this year also launched a $30 million military training mission in Niger.
During his visit to Niger in March, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken hailed the West African country as “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.” But that didn’t last long. Following the overthrow of President Bazoum last week, Blinken issued a warning, that U.S. partnership with the country depends on “democratic governance and respect for the rule of law”.
The Nigerien coupsters responded: “We, the Defense and Security Forces, united within the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, have decided to put an end to the regime you know,” Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane said, according to Agence France-Presse. “This follows the continuing deterioration of the security situation, and poor economic and social governance,” he added.
And finally, Bazoum is actually the “second” democratically elected president of Niger after Mahamane Ousmane who was elected but soon removed in a military coup in 1966. Although U.S. law decrees that aid must be suspended if the coup is violent, it is not known what action the U.S. took at the time.
Turning to questions of a Russian role in the overthrow of Bazoum, there are no obvious signs of Moscow’s footprint in the Niger coup, which is mostly driven by internal matters, according to Le Monde. But there was a comment from the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit led by Yevgeny Prigozhin who commented in a voice message posted in a Wagner-branded Telegram channel. “This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists,” the Putin ally said.
After Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, this week’s coup appears to be a symptom of a backward slide in democracy. But this may not be the case, considering the corruption and poor governance that have been denounced for years.
According to analyst Garba Moussa, young people and rural areas are paying the price.
“On the one hand, there are the young people who have no jobs and no hope. On the other, there’s rural Niger, which is forced to go and beg in the sub-region.
“So, all in all, there is simply a kind of elite that has monopolized economic power without any thought of redistributing income.
“So in my opinion, any change at some point will give us hope.