The Domino Effect: How Niger’s Coup Echoes Regional Instability
Kamal Tasiu Abdullahi 27 November 2023

In the arid plains and sprawling deserts of the Sahel, a region marked by its unforgiving landscape and complex history, instability has taken root as a persistent and troubling reality. This instability, which has cast its shadow over the various nations of West Africa for many years, is a multifaceted challenge encompassing political turmoil, simmering ethnic tensions, and daunting economic hardships. It is a story that unfolds like a cascading domino effect, where one crisis begets another, setting off a chain reaction of instability, often with devastating consequences.

The roots of this instability trace back to the region’s colonial history, a history marked by the arbitrary drawing of borders by the European colonial powers. These borders, drawn without regard to the region’s diverse ethnic groups and their existing dynamics, have left a legacy of discord and competition. The result is a recurring pattern of coups, rebellions, and ethnic tensions that continue to shape the trajectory of Sahelian nations. Unsolved grievances and factions vying for control all have their origins in the colonial legacy, which serves as a potent catalyst for instability.

During the colonial era, European powers imposed their territorial claims on West Africa, often driven by economic interests and a desire for strategic dominance. They disregarded the region’s existing social, cultural, and political fabric. These artificial borders, drawn in European capitals, divided ethnic groups, separated communities with shared histories, and created states with heterogeneous populations and competing interests.

These artificially imposed borders have become a crucible for conflict, both within and between nations. Ethnic groups that once lived in relative harmony now find themselves divided by international borders. As a result, these arbitrary lines on the map have been a source of frustration, a breeding ground for grievances, and a point of contention that has fueled tensions for generations.

The consequence of this divisive legacy is an ongoing struggle for control, with political power, economic resources, and access to social services at the center of the struggle. Various factions, representing different ethnic groups and interests vie for influence within these artificially divided states. This has led to a recurring pattern of coups and rebellions as competing groups seek to redress perceived injustices, assert their rights, or gain a foothold in the political landscape.

One of the most troubling aspects of this situation is that colonial-era grievances remain largely unaddressed, perpetuating the cycle of instability. The failure to redress historical injustices and provide mechanisms for ethnic groups to voice their concerns and participate in the governance of these nations has allowed these tensions to simmer and periodically erupt.

In this crucible of historical grievances and competition for power, we see the domino effect of instability playing out across the Sahel. A coup or rebellion in one country can have ripple effects as neighboring countries are drawn into the turmoil. The unrest in Mali, for instance, had repercussions across the region, contributing to a domino effect instability in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger, further reinforcing the interconnected nature of Sahelian conflicts.


Niger and the July 2023 Coup


The recent coup in Niger, which took place on July 26, 2023, is just the latest episode in a series of events that have sent shockwaves through the region and left governments and international actors scrambling to respond.

Niger, a country that experienced a relatively fair democratic transition in 2021 with the election of Mohamed Bazoum as president, has once again descended into chaos. The opposition challenged the election results, and an attempted coup was reportedly foiled just two days before Bazoum was to take office. The July 2023 coup in Niger was triggered by a power struggle within Niger’s security forces, fueled by discontent with the ruling party’s systemic nepotism and corruption. General Abdourahamane Tchiani, appointed by former President Mahamadou Issoufou, declared himself president of the military grouping, the Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie (CNSP). President Bazoum was arrested and the junta announced its intention to charge him with high treason. This coup was not an isolated incident, as it followed similar unconstitutional regime changes in the Sahel and West Africa, including Mali, Chad, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.


The Geopolitics of Niger’s Coup


Niger’s strategic importance in the region cannot be overstated. It serves as a bastion for Western security interests in West Africa, and its significance revolves around three core issues. First, counterterrorism: Niger has played an important role in combating the spread of Islamist insurgency in the Lake Chad region and near its borders with Burkina Faso and Mali. The government has received substantial financial and security assistance to counter these threats. Second, migration control, as the country plays a key role in the European Union’s efforts to curb unauthorized migration from sub-Saharan Africa. Its efforts in this regard have been instrumental in easing the burden on Europe to regulate migration. Third, non-alignment. Unlike some of its neighbors, Niger has not sought security assistance from the Russian Wagner Group, making it an attractive partner for the West. If  instability persists, however, it might create conditions conducive to a significant migration of Russian mercenaries into the adjacent countries of Burkina Faso and Mali.


International Responses and Dilemmas


The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has played a key role in managing these crises. ECOWAS condemned the rebellion in Niger and imposed sanctions, including economic restrictions and border closures. However, the regional response was complicated by the opposition of some member states, including Cabo Verde and those ruled by military administrations (Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea), to military intervention in Niger.

Algeria, which borders Niger, has expressed concern about the coup, believing that the turmoil in Niger could lead to increased unauthorized immigration into Algeria. Another G5 Sahel member, Mauritania, condemned the coup but disagreed with ECOWAS on sanctions or military action. Chad, led by General Mahamat Déby Itno, also came to power through a military takeover but enjoys a more positive international image.

A number of global actors also have significant stakes in Niger, adding to the complexity of the situation. France, the former colonial authority, is facing condemnation and calls for the withdrawal of its troops from the leaders of the coup. In addition, Frances’s economic interests in Niger, particularly uranium mining, are at stake. China, which has significant economic interests in Niger, has offered to mediate negotiations and called for a political solution to the crisis.

Russia, while officially condemning the revolution, has been accused of supporting it through government-affiliated social media platforms. The United States, which maintains a considerable military presence in Niger, has suspended counter-terrorism operations and military assistance, but has not extended its support for a military intervention.

The European Union has formulated a comprehensive strategy for the Sahel that addresses human rights, economic development, security, and governance. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of this approach has been called into question by the recent coup in Niger, leading some experts to argue that the European Union’s methodology in the region has been unsuccessful.

Following the EU’s decision to suspend budget support to Niger, critical development initiatives have been put at risk. Member states’ reactions to the EU’s support for ECOWAS decisions, including the possibility of military intervention, have been mixed. France, the US and other international actors have divergent views on the crisis.


What Lies Ahead?


As the Sahel region is caught in an unending cycle of insecurity, serious questions about the region’s future emerge. Constant international interventions, coups, and insurgencies have made the Sahel’s future more difficult to predict. Inhabitants of the region regularly face significant challenges, while the looming threat of radicalization and further violence demand immediate attention.

A comprehensive and multilateral approach is needed to secure and stabilize the Sahel. This strategy must go beyond simply addressing the root causes of the conflict and comprehensively address the underlying issues that contribute to instability. Addressing these issues will require economic development activities aimed at reducing inequalities, promoting accountable and inclusive governance institutions, and strengthening social services. This will reduce the region’s vulnerability to extremism.

The future of the Sahel depends on the combined efforts of regional and international actors in an unpredictable and troubled region. Breaking the shackles of instability in the region will require a concerted effort to address the complex web of issues that drive the insurgency. Only by implementing a comprehensive strategy that transcends the negative consequences of its violent history will the Sahel achieve a more peaceful and harmonious future.



Cover photo: supporters of Niger’s National Council of Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) – the de facto ruling military junta since July 2023 – protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey on September 16, 2023 to demand the departure of the French army from Niger. (Photo by AFP)

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