By Daniel Chodorow
In late July, the Presidential Guard of Niger ousted the democratically elected President Mohammad Bazoum, holding him hostage in the country’s capital Niamey. Bazoum enjoyed the support of both the United States and the European Union, both of which provide 9 percent of Niger’s total public spending through international aid. However, now that the Presidential Guard is in power, the U.S. has partially suspended aid while the EU, including individual member states such as France and Germany, have paused their financial support to and security cooperation with Niger.
A coup d’état is not an uncommon event in Africa’s Sahel region, which has long been prone to terrorism from armed Islamic groups, many of which have links to Daesh [the Islamic State] and Al-Qaeda. Military juntas have also appeared after the overthrow of the governments of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, for which some citizens have taken to the streets cheering and raising Russian flags. Some have even bashed their former colonial power, France.
Meanwhile, members of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group have been seen in Mali and according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Burkina Faso could see them next; leaked U.S. intelligence shows that they have also been involved in a plan to overthrow the government of Chad.
Niger’s circumstances are reflective of what happened to its neighbors. A military junta took control of its government and its supporters have raised Russian flags, chanted anti-French rhetoric, and attacked the country’s embassy in Niamey. After a threat of military action by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) if democratic order is not be restored, the Malian and Burkinabe governments came to the defense of Niger’s military leaders. A mention of Wagner was nowhere to be seen until an analyst concluded that the junta had reached out after the ECOWAS’ threat.
President Mohammad Bazoum was deposed by his Presidential Guard in July 2023
It appears that Russia is seeking to establish itself in the Sahel region as a reliable partner to its people.
Assessing a potential Russian role
It appears that Russia is seeking to establish itself in the Sahel as a reliable partner to the peoples of the region. One more step toward achieving this goal could be taking advantage of anti-French sentiments in Niger whether it is directly by staging, planning, or financing the coup against a pro-Western leader, an action whose proof is yet to be determined, or using its aftermath to garner support.
This could undoubtedly put Niger’s future on a similar track to that of its neighbors: forced removal of French troops fighting the terror groups of the Sahel, as has occurred in Mali and Burkina Faso, and an invitation to the Russians to take their place. However, the more than 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in Niger could obstruct Russia’s true potential for expanding its influence.
The Niger coup also forces Europe to confront another issue. The EU has been experiencing extreme waves of migration from Sub-Saharans seeking better lives in Europe.
For several years, the city of Agadez has served as both a stopping point for migrants on their way to Libya and as a base for the smugglers who transport them. Taking advantage of desperate migrants, Agadez’s smugglers once profited immensely, according to various estimates.
In 2015, Niger, with the promise of European financial support, adopted Law 2015-036, outlawing the smuggling of migrants. Enforcement began soon thereafter, which adversely impacted Agadez’s economy which had largely relied on human trafficking,
The German government allocated up to €17 million to “fight against migration and trafficking” in the Agadez region after the passing of the law. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that by reducing migration and trafficking, it was necessary to provide those contributing to these efforts with an income. Although smugglers expected funds in exchange for ceasing their operations, many have received none at all, or significantly less than what their previous businesses involving human trafficking provided.
Presently, with the suspension of all EU funding for the government of Niger because of the coup d’état, it appears likely that human trafficking will resume once again in Agadez.
Increased incentives for the smugglers to restart their businesses mean more choices and availability of smugglers, or, in other words, less of a risk for the migrants on their way to Libya through Agadez.
Although migration decreased following the adoption of Law 2015-036, the German Institute for Global and Area Studies noted that smugglers in Niger began utilizing less-trafficked, more dangerous routes that involved higher chances of human rights violations.
But Libya is no paradise for migrants either. The EU has for years been involved in funding Libyan militias and militia-linked entities such as the EU-trained Libyan Coast Guard, with the goal of preventing migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to reach the European continent.
The Libyan Coast Guard has engaged in what some have described as crimes against thousands of migrants, including “sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations,” imprisonment, and “extortion.”
This is not surprising knowing that a former Libyan Justice Minister said that this system was “carefully considered and planned for many years” by the EU and meant to “create a hellhole in Libya, with the idea of deterring people from heading to Europe.”
Now that Niger and its enforcement of Law 2015-036 may no longer serve as a deterrent for migrants seeking a better future in Europe, the EU is expected to continue to utilize its current system for migration control. But a key challenge for Europe is that the Libyan Coast Guard has become of diminishing value to Europe’s attempt at deterring migrants as smugglers are known to bribe its members who are deliberately allowing some of them to cross.
Should Europe choose this option, there are those who are pessimistic. One of them is Ulf Laessing, President of the Sahel Program at Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, who said that without cooperation from the ruling military junta in Niger, Europe’s strategy for stemming migration would collapse. While the suspension of aid is part of Europe’s demand for the unconditional release of Bazoum and the restoration of the democratic order, it could arguably dissuade the junta in Niamey from continuing Niger’s engagement with Europe and induce it to reverse course from its adopting and enforcing policies to control irregular migration.