Niger coup: Will the West change its security approach to the Sahel?

Their military presence in the region has hurt the US and France. Don’t be surprised if they look to cut their losses in Niger.

A supporter of Niger's coup leaders holds a sign reading "Knock down France" in Niamey
A supporter of Niger's coup leaders holds a sign reading 'Knock down France' during a rally at a stadium in Niamey, Niger, August 6, 2023 [Mahamadou Hamidou/Reuters]

Until the recent military takeover in July 2023, Niger had played a key role in the security architecture of the West, particularly the United States and France, in the Sahel region.

Niger hosts US and French military bases, while international support in different fields has increased exponentially in recent years. For example, take the 500 million euros ($546m) provided by the European Union in 2021, 120 million euros ($131m) of aid from France in 2022 or $150m of direct aid announced during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Niamey in March 2023.

This is one of the reasons why Niger had a relatively secure environment that did not allow violent armed activities to a large extent. Even though casualties from “terrorist attacks” increased worldwide after 2021, the loss of civilians in Niger decreased by 80 percent in 2022.

However, the military coups in Mali (2020, 2021), Guinea (2021), Burkina Faso (2022) and most recently in Niger (2023) in the last three years have raised questions about the strategy behind the large-scale military engagements of the US and France in the region.

These military interventions have helped solidify anti-Westernism in the region and gave room for Russia and China, perceived by the West as strategic rivals, to expand their influence. On the other hand, non-state armed groups (NSAGs) — whether state-sponsored civil defence units, militia groups or organisations such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) — have spread their reach. They have morphed into de facto sovereign authority or “proto-states” in the regions they control.

All of this may force Western decision-makers to rethink their security policies in the Sahel.

US: Repetition of Libyan policies 

The US has a drone base in Agadez, Niger, affiliated with its Africa Command or AFRICOM. It is responsible for conducting surveillance and intelligence gathering in the Sahel.

The base’s location has been contingent on a stable government and secure environment in the country. As that equation changes, the US might reconsider its policy. Nonetheless, the US might come to depend even more on AFRICOM than on its 1,000-strong force in Niger — as it did in Libya after 2012.

After the death of then-US Ambassador Chris Stevens as a result of the attack in Benghazi, the US changed its security policies in Libya, reduced its military engagements to a minimum, and let AFRICOM oversee its interests in the country. A similar scenario could materialise in Niger.

For US decision-makers, Vietnam and Afghanistan are examples of “protracted wars” that they will not want to repeat in regions that are not a priority for US foreign policy. In this respect, the US might view the costs of positioning itself as a dominant security enforcer against violent extremism in the region as outweighing benefits, at least in the short-to-middle term.

This approach would lay the groundwork for realist policies that move away from the rhetoric that rival states such as Russia or China threaten Western interests and political values by expanding their sphere of influence.

If the US views developments in Niger from this perspective, it would be surprising if it shifts its focus to the more democratic and economically prosperous West African states such as Ghana and Senegal. Limiting its activities in the region to remote intelligence and support in the form of consultations could be a rational and prudent choice for the US.

France: A backfiring policy

France is another conventional security actor in the Sahel region.

After the coup in Mali, France withdrew the soldiers deployed there and shifted a significant part of them to Niger.

Unlike the US, the presence of France in Niger is predicated on more concrete reasons. Safely accessing Niger’s uranium resources for its own energy needs is one of France’s economic interests in the country, while preserving its political hegemony rooted in its former colonial rule remains a factor in the background.

However, the last three years have seen the emergence of a Pan-Africanism wave, centred around anti-Westernism, that has mobilised sections of the military and political elites in the Sahel countries and has highlighted anti-French sentiment as the most legitimate tool to seize power. The inadequacy of France in the fight against armed violent groups despite seemingly having the means at its disposal has been an important argument in the overthrow of leaders who had close relations with France.

After the new military elites excluded France from local politics and the balance of power, the weakness of their militaries led them to seek out alternatives for the security provider role vacated by France. Russia’s Wagner private military company has tried to in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Wagner, as a paramilitary group that is not liable to any legal procedure, approaches conflicts and crises with economic motivations and in compliance with the political agenda of those leaders who have hired it.

At the same time, French efforts against armed groups in the Sahel, have also focused on only the military capacities of these groups, ignoring the equally important local networks, ethnic bases and socioeconomic connections that fuel their success. It is this that allows groups in the Sahel such as JNIM and ISGS to survive and thrive despite military operations that involve regional and international actors.

Due to their rapid decision-making abilities, they adapt quickly to the conditions, become embedded among the local people, and take advantage of opportunities by evaluating security vulnerabilities.

All of this raises questions about a possible ECOWAS intervention in Niger in the coming days. The military administration in Niger has the support of Burkina Faso and Mali, so any international intervention is unlikely to materialise without support from France and the US.

But will France and the US be ready to incur the costs of getting involved in Niger militarily? Or will they look to cut their losses and retreat from their approach to the Sahel?

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.