Vivian Salama and Noemie Bisserbe
A week of missteps and communication breakdowns pushed an important American ally toward the Kremlin.
Niger’s president hid behind a bulletproof door of his official residence and talked over a phone he assumed was monitored. To anxious French and American allies, he repeated assurances that the army would soon rescue him from an unfolding coup.
Outside the ground floor safe room Mohamed Bazoum had recently renovated to protect himself from such an event, mutineers from his presidential guard fanned out across the presidency compound, furious about a proposal to replace their longstanding commander, according to Nigerien, U.S. and European officials. Hunkered over the phone beside his wife and son, Bazoum delicately encouraged advisers to send the army’s regular units.
At around noon, his cellphone rang with a call from a former U.S. ambassador, who was about to board a flight on his vacation. The ambassador was worried one of Washington’s closest allies in Africa could become the latest in a string of regional states to fall into the hands of coup leaders sympathetic to Russia.
Everything is fine, the imprisoned president carefully intoned.
A week later, Bazoum is still imprisoned in his palace, junta leaders are seeking aid from Vladimir Putin’s regional partners and America is on the verge of losing its most important ally in a crucial and unstable part of Africa. An obscure personnel dispute within Niger’s presidential guard has now become what appears to be a geopolitical win for Russia and its Wagner Group paramilitary company in their bid to flip Western allies.
The situation could yet turn into open military conflict. Eleven West African countries, led by Nigeria, have threatened to use force to restore Bazoum to power if the coup isn’t reversed by Sunday. In return, the pro-Russian leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend Niger. Officials in the U.S. and Europe are scrambling for ways to return Bazoum to power but concede the window is closing.
The Kremlin on Friday warned against any intervention.
The coup, if successful, could lead Russia to pick up some of America’s most important drone bases, used to fly missions across the Sahara between Libya and Nigeria. Wagner’s mercenaries have previously taken over former U.S. and French outposts in Syria and Mali.
This outcome wasn’t predestined. A week of missteps and communication breakdowns pushed the vast nation of Niger toward Russia. Nigerien, American, European and other West African security officials, as well as Nigerien soldiers, described a series of unexpected blunders that now threatens to turn West Africa into a theater for regional war.
Washington, caught without key personnel in its Africa posts, failed to anticipate what is now the seventh coup in the region since 2020—not including a failed attempt in Niger two years ago. While Bazoum sat in his safe room calling for help, America and its allies struggled to react as the conflict escalated into threats of war between Russian-backed countries and West Africa’s biggest military, Nigeria.
The U.S. has spent more than $500 million arming and equipping Niger’s military. Yet the country’s special forces, trained for nearly every counterterrorism eventuality, had no answer for Sunday’s coup—West Africa’s most enduring security threat. The forces were left chatting over WhatsApp groups over whether to intervene.
The U.S. and Europe have made Niger the centerpiece of their fight against the spread of Islamic State and al Qaeda in Africa’s Sahel, a 3,000-mile semiarid territory on the southern shore of the Sahara that also includes Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. They are some of the world’s poorest and fastest-growing populations, in failing states. Nearly half of Niger’s budget comes from foreign aid.
“This is your strong ally, your reliable ally, you have invested a lot and then there is a coup without any reason,” said Kiari Liman Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to Washington, who was fired by the junta overnight. “It’s very nice to be friends of the West, but it may not be helpful when hard times come.”
U.S. State and White House officials have said they still think there’s a narrow opportunity for a peaceful resolution that would retain Niger’s democracy.
“While we are giving diplomacy a chance and have ongoing diplomatic engagements at the highest levels, we are continuing to review all options around our cooperation with the Nigerien government,” a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said. “Our focus is to help the people of Niger preserve their hard-earned democracy.”
The coup began with an idea for a personnel change, mulled over months by Bazoum and his aides, to replace the leader of the presidential guard that held watch over the country’s 63-year-old commander-in-chief.
U.S. and French intelligence officers had long known about the president’s plan to reshuffle his security detail and the risks it entailed. The presidential guard felt marginalized after vast sums of military assistance poured into the country’s counterterrorism units, two people familiar with the situation said.
The French intelligence service DGSE warned Paris of the risk, but neither France nor the U.S. took significant action to defend their ally in Niamey, according to French and West African intelligence officials.
Bazoum, elected in 2021 in Niger’s first democratic transfer of power, had been feted in Washington as a reliable partner against the twin threats of jihadist attacks and Russia’s growing influence.
In sonorous French, the former interior and foreign minister would hit some of Washington’s favorite notes. He rattled off gender-inequality statistics at events hosted by the State Department and the Gates Foundation, and regaled audiences with his efforts to educate girls in a country whose birthrate is the world’s highest, at seven children for every woman.
After coup leaders in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso shifted toward Russia, Bazoum made clear he stood with America.
Niger registered just 114 attacks from jihadist groups last year, while Burkina Faso and Mali combined registered some 2,000, according to data collected by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and analyzed by the Pentagon-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“More bases? We don’t need them,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal shortly after he was elected.
Some of Niger’s military leaders saw him as an interloper with an Arab background. Niger’s majority Hausa ethnic group predominates the military.
In April, Bazoum replaced the army chief of staff and the head of the national gendarmerie, hoping to place more trusted officers in their ranks, according to European and West African security officials. That stirred suspicion within his presidential guard. On July 24, Bazoum directed an aide to draft a decree to dismiss the guard’s leader.
Gen. Omar Tchiani had protected Niger’s leaders for 12 years, with a unit of some 700 elite soldiers backed by armored cars. Tchiani’s unit had stopped a coup attempt against Bazoum days ahead of his inauguration. As Bazoum built up the country’s counterterrorism forces, Tchiani’s guard lost out on resources and stature. The president had been weighing for months whether to fire the 57-year-old general, according to people familiar with the matter.
At 3 a.m. on July 26, the general’s men drove up to the presidential palace, a white stucco arabesque estate overlooking the Niger River. Inside, gazelles and goats slept in the manicured gardens, animals Bazoum and his wife brought with them when he took office.
Tchiani’s men, carrying heavy weaponry, disarmed security officers equipped only with handguns and walked past the presidential garden to Bazoum’s residence.
Bazoum fled into the safe room across the hall from his office and phoned aides to say he was confident that U.S.-trained elements of his army would rally to his rescue.
In a twist, some of the best U.S.-trained special forces among Niger’s regular army units were on counterterrorism missions in the distant desert regions of a country twice the size of Texas, with few roads.
The lightly armed units in the capital weren’t in a position to assault the palace and the chain of command broke down. Rank-and-file soldiers said they debated over WhatsApp groups what to do. They received no formal instructions from their commanders, who appeared to be waiting to see which faction had the momentum. Bazoum, who still had full control of his communications in the safe room, phoned international allies and ambassadors in Niger’s embassies in the West. He stressed over phone and video calls that the coup had no basis—it was a personnel dispute and could easily be reversed. His U.S. envoy rushed to let the State Department know what was happening.
Though the U.S. had spent hundreds of millions of dollars transforming Niger into its top military outpost in the Sahara, it didn’t have an ambassador in the country.
The Biden administration didn’t formally nominate one until eight months after the previous ambassador left, only to face opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who has put holds on State Department appointees until the White House releases intelligence he believes could show Covid-19 leaked from a Chinese lab.
Washington also has no ambassador at the African Union or in neighboring Nigeria—or anybody in a special envoy post that it had created to deal with the region’s deterioration. The relevant Africa desk at the National Security Council was in flux, held by a short-term temporary post that was due to hand off to another temporary caretaker within days.
“This is extremely frustrating. This was not a widely supported coup—it was one unit that had its grievance for years and we should have done more to act,” said J. Peter Pham, former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel under President Trump. In the early hours, he added, “his exfiltration could have been organized relatively easily…. The golden hour has passed.”
Bazoum contacted allies in France, which had about 1,500 troops in the country. A decision would have to come from President Emmanuel Macron, who was traveling in the South Pacific, 12 time zones ahead. France’s government declined to comment.
Junta leaders headed to a state TV station and stood around a table where a stone-faced spokesman said the military could no longer “witness the gradual and inevitable demise of our country.”
If Bazoum was going to be freed, it would have to come from outside.
Guns of August
Macron had just landed in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia when he spoke to his top defense and diplomatic officials, who laid out options to free Bazoum.
For years, the French president had been briefed on a growing protest movement against France in the cities of its former West African colonies.
Young men jam-packed into those cities had come to see France’s military presence as an unwelcome imposition after years of al Qaeda attacks. Viral social-media posts and videos accused the French army of pursuing ulterior aims on Africa’s natural resources.
In Mali, then Burkina Faso, coup leaders seized power and justified their takeovers as an act of liberation from France, before turning to Russia as their protector and benefactor.
The French president ruled out sending a unilateral force to usher a democratically elected president to power—as France did in 2011 in Ivory Coast. Instead, he wanted to assist Nigerien armed forces that remained loyal to Bazoum, an option that vanished as the country’s military command acquiesced to the coup.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the South Pacific as well, warning the people of the island country of Tonga that China was practicing economic coercion. By the time he and Bazoum connected, the coup was complete.
Russia was in an excellent position to step into the vacuum.
Vladimir Putin was already receiving African leaders invited to a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg due to start the following day.
Bazoum had refused the invitation, but the Kremlin-backed leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso, Assimi Goita and Ibrahim Traore, gathered for meetings in the halls of the Constantine Palace. As news of the coup trickled in, their intelligence chiefs met under Russian auspices to agree on a coordinated response.
Officials in Mali and Burkina Faso didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In another room, Traore, the world’s youngest head of government, at 34 years old, told Putin that the people of his country supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The question that my generation poses to itself, if I can summarize it, is how can Africa, with so many resources under our soil, with such a natural abundance of sun and water, still today remain the poorest continent?” he told a St. Petersburg panel. “We haven’t had any answer until today. But now, we have an opportunity to form new relations.”
The junta, which included recipients of U.S. training and largess, hadn’t shown particular interest in pivoting toward Russia. The military itself let U.S. counterparts know they wanted to keep the American aid flowing, military officers said. But the Kremlin eyed an opportunity.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner mercenaries are protecting the leaders of Mali and the Central African Republic, offered to help the putschists in Niger, hailing their overthrow of a pro-American government.
“What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers,” he said in a voice-mail message posted in a Telegram account.
Protests, organized by an opposition movement, thronged France’s embassy in Niger. Several in the crowd waved Russian flags. France sent military planes to evacuate its citizens. The U.S. moved its 1,100 troops, sent there to fight Islamist insurgents, inside American-built drone and special-forces bases. The State Department held off on calling the upheaval a coup, a designation that could, under U.S. law, sharply restrict America’s ability to keep funding, training and equipping Niger’s military.
The stakes were becoming more serious for the African giant to Niger’s south. Nigeria was once the world’s 33rd richest country per capita, until decades of military coups and misrule left it among the poorest. Its leaders feared a domino of coups would topple more civilian governments.
On Sunday, July 30, Nigeria’s new president, Bola Tinubu, gathered with presidents and foreign ministers from 11 West African states, along with a representative from Bazoum’s government, in a glass-paneled building in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Tinubu, who had risen to prominence campaigning against military rule in Nigeria, said that after coups in Mali and Burkina Faso—both supported by Russia—as well as in Guinea and Chad, the one in Niger was the last straw. If they accepted this coup, more would come.
After their meeting ended, the West African leaders issued an ultimatum: Tchiani had one week to return power to the democratically elected president or face the possible use of military force.
The State Department wasn’t sure it backed the idea, senior U.S. officials said. But Washington also wanted to show support for the West African governments. Blinken issued statements of general support for the Nigerian-led idea. A Nigerian government spokesperson declined to comment.
On Wednesday, Tchiani sent one of his junta leaders on a secret flight to Mali to meet the country’s pro-Russian leader.
Defense chiefs from the West African states that oppose the coup met in Nigeria. Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer flew to Abuja to meet Tinubu, Nigeria’s president, who said the coup should not stand.
The Biden administration favored diplomacy but worried the junta intended to force Nigeria to make good on its threat of military force, concerns that came up in the meeting. Few in Washington felt confident Nigeria’s military had the capacity to pull off an intervention. But at this point, the U.S. conceded, there were few options left.
On Thursday the junta announced on state TV it had terminated military cooperation agreements with France.
From his palace, Bazoum phoned his ambassador to the U.S. to dictate an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post calling for international intervention.
“My country is under attack and I’ve been taken hostage,” he said. “In our hour of need, I call on the U.S. government and the entire international community to help us restore our constitutional order.”
By the time it published, parts of the country were in the dark. Nigeria, which provides some 75% of Niger’s electricity, had cut off one of its main transmission lines, plunging villages and towns into blackouts. The presidential residence lost power as well.
Bazoum’s phone remains charged, his aides said Friday. If it goes out, the U.S. could lose its ability to reach the president. “I hope he has a lot of lithium batteries,” one former official said.
Culled from Wall Street Journal