On July 26, a coup in Niger removed the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. The junta insisted it acted because of the government’s inadequate response to Islamic extremism, but the man who has emerged as the coup leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, led the presidential guard for twelve years and reportedly moved against Bazoum because he feared that Bazoum was about to fire him. In the weeks since, the junta has said it will prosecute the former president for treason, a crime punishable by death. Tchiani has promised to return the government to civilian control within three years.
Niger is the sixth country in the Sahel region of Africa to experience a coup since 2020. Most of these coups have received little coverage in Western media, but the one in Niger has grabbed the world’s attention. “Western countries saw Mr. Bazoum as a friendly figure in a rough neighborhood,” writes Declan Walsh at the New York Times. The country was a partner for the United States and France, Niger’s former colonizer, in their regional counterterrorism strategy. Since 2012, the United States has spent more than $500 million in Niger on counterterrorism efforts; there are currently 1,100 U.S. troops and 1,500 French troops stationed there, along with several U.S. drone bases. Under the alliance between the West and Bazoum, fatalities from Islamist violence decreased, but the Western presence may have contributed to tensions that resulted in the coup.
The coup also has the potential to spark larger conflicts. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened an invasion to reinstate Bazoum. Burkina Faso and Mali, which recently experienced coups of their own, support the junta and have threatened to invade if ECOWAS intervenes. Niger could also become a battleground between Western powers and Russia or China as they seek to expand their influence in Africa. Russia’s Wagner group has conducted counterterrorism operations in Mali and other parts of Africa, and could be welcomed by the junta as an alternative to Western allies.
The coup in Niger brings another aspect of U.S. counterterrorism strategy under scrutiny: the Pentagon’s practice of training military officers in its partner countries. Nick Turse reports at the Intercept that at least fifteen officers who received training in the United States have been involved in twelve coups in West Africa and the Sahel. The Nigerien junta includes at least five U.S.-trained officers. One of these, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, received training at Ft. Moore in Georgia and visited a drone base with a senior U.S. general just six weeks before the coup.
The Pentagon insists that “there is no correlation between the training that [the officers] received and their activities,” but a study of the U.S.-trained Liberian military by Renanah Joyce found that those with U.S. training were less likely to prioritize human rights and more likely to support one-party rule. “Good tactical training that occurs in the context of weak, corrupt, or illiberal institutions—political and military—is likely to do no good and may do harm,” she explains.
Stephanie Savell of the Costs of War Project at Brown University agrees. “The major issues fueling conflict…are not military in nature. [They] stem from people’s frustration with poverty, the legacy of colonialism, elite corruption, and political and ethnic tensions and injustices.” Training militaries without addressing the underlying causes of poverty and conflict is “ineffective and counterproductive.” This is a lesson the U.S. government has repeatedly failed to learn in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Will we finally learn it in Africa?