Unrest in the Sahel: Understanding the Drivers Behind Niger's Latest Coup

A military coup rocked the West African nation of Niger in February 2021, overthrowing the country's democratically elected president and dissolving its institutions. The coup highlights the converging pressures of insecurity, economic stagnation, regional instability, and foreign interference that are pushing Niger and its neighbors toward crisis.

Niger, a former French colony and one of the poorest countries in the world, has long struggled with political volatility and military interference. The country has experienced four coups since gaining independence in 1960. The latest coup ousted President Mahamadou Issoufou shortly before he was set to step down after two terms in office.

Rising Insecurity Plagues the Sahel

The coup leaders cited escalating insecurity as a prime motivation for seizing power. Niger faces severe instability and violence within its borders as well as spillover from regional conflicts.

The Sahel region, the arid transitional zone between the Sahara desert to the north and the savannas to the south, has become an epicenter of extremist activity and bloodshed. Groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited poverty, corruption, and weak governance to gain followers and launch attacks across borders. The resulting violence has killed thousands and displaced over two million people in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

Niger in particular has faced frequent deadly attacks against military targets and civilians. In 2017, Islamic militants killed four American special forces soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo. Just weeks before the 2021 coup, suspected extremists massacred over 100 villagers in western Niger.

The coup leaders accused the Issoufou government of failing to address the dire security challenges. “If we did this, it's for the people, it's for the country, it's for peace in Niger,” said one coup participant. With security deteriorating, factions of the military decided to take matters into their own hands.

Persistent Poverty and Lack of Growth

In tandem with rising insecurity, persistent poverty and lack of economic development motivated the coup architects. Niger ranks dead last on the UN's Human Development Index, with over 40% of the population living in extreme poverty. The country's economy relies heavily on subsistence agriculture and exports of uranium and oil.

Successive governments have struggled to diversify the economy and improve living standards. Issoufou came to power in 2011 promising economic reforms and action against corruption, but progress stagnated. Niger scored just 32 out of 100 on Transparency International's 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Coup leaders accused the Issoufou administration of squandering opportunities for growth. “Instead of bringing economic prosperity, social cohesion, and well-being, [Issoufou's government] sunk into corruption, bad governance, and carelessness,” a spokesman said. With the economy limping along, pockets of the military saw an opening to press for radical change.

Political Instability Across West Africa

The coup did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it followed on the heels of military takeovers in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, suggesting a regional trend of instability.

In 2020, Malian soldiers ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita amid protests over corruption, the government's handling of extremist violence, and disputed elections. One year later in Burkina Faso, mutinous soldiers seized power, voicing similar grievances about the civilian government's failure to stop jihadist attacks.

The successful coups in countries bordering Niger likely emboldened factions who were already primed to act against the Issoufou government. The Malian and Burkinabe coups demonstrated that the military could step in without facing regional or international intervention. Niger's coup plotters may have calculated they could follow suit and get away with it.

Foreign Interests in the Sahel

Less openly discussed, outside influences and interests may have also factored into Niger's coup. Russia has expanded its presence in the Sahel in recent years through military cooperation, arms sales, and private military contractors.

Many in Niger's military appreciate Russia's robust counterterrorism support. “Unlike Western allies, [the Russians] are not afraid to die in the war against jihadists,” a Nigerien special forces commander told French media. Russia also has major uranium mining interests in Niger that stand to benefit from a change in government.

While no evidence has emerged of direct Russian involvement in the coup, Russia seems unlikely to oppose the overthrow of Issoufou, a partner of Western powers. The Kremlin swiftly recognized the new military regime.

France, the former colonial power, also has extensive interests in the region. It has thousands of counterterrorism troops across the Sahel through Operation Barkhane. However, France has grown frustrated with the Sahelian governments and scaled back operations in Mali and Niger following coups.

Unlike Russia, France condemned the coup against Issoufou. But its military presence has provoked a backlash, with protests accusing France of neo-colonial interference. France's reputation in the region is declining.

The United States provides significant security assistance to Niger and other Sahelian countries. But its light footprint makes it less of a target for anti-Western sentiment. Still, America's reliance on partnerships with flawed governments leaves it with little leverage.

In contrast to Russia, neither France nor the United States seems poised to embrace Niger's coup. But their relationships in the region are increasingly strained. Russia appears ready to step into any vacuums left by Western disengagement.

With Issoufou gone, foreign powers will look to develop ties with the new regime. Competition for influence in the unstable region will likely heat up. Niger's coup could mark a turning point in the geopolitical dynamics of the Sahel.

What's Next for Niger and the Region?

The coup may be over, but Niger's crisis is far from resolved. The junta has promised to oversee new elections and restore democratic order. But their vague timeline and consolidation of power has inspired little confidence.

Regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have condemned the coup. But they have few good options for pressuring the junta, especially since sanctions would primarily hurt ordinary Nigeriens.

Niger's coup is the latest indication that the Sahel is moving toward dangerous instability. Climate change, demographic pressures, poverty, corruption, and extremist violence are all worsening. Each coup makes the next one more likely.

With governance deteriorating and needs intensifying, Niger and its neighbors require urgent assistance. The AU, ECOWAS, UN, and other partners must rally behind a cooperative strategy to build peace, security, and development in the region.

Creative policies and patient, sustained engagement will be key. There are no quick fixes for the Sahel’s deep challenges. But with comprehensive action, the region can change course toward a more just and prosperous future.

Conclusion: Converging Pressures Boil Over

The coup in Niger resulted from the convergence of multiple forces: mounting insecurity, floundering economic development, the toppling of neighboring governments, and meddling by foreign powers with their own agendas.

While the coup plotters cited noble aims like restoring security and prosperity, seizures of power by unaccountable militaries rarely lead to good governance. More often, coups beget further instability and repression.

Nevertheless, the deteriorating conditions that motivated Niger's coup are real. Without urgent efforts to alleviate poverty, counter extremist violence, and bolster democracy across the region, more countries may fall prey to military takeovers.

Niger's new junta will face pressure from the African Union and other international bodies to restore civilian rule. But the coup is a warning that the Sahel urgently needs economic and political reforms to prevent further democratic backsliding.

Addressing the complex challenges will not be quick or easy. With climate change exacerbating poverty and conflict over dwindling resources, the conditions for instability may get worse before they get better.

The nations of the Sahel need sustained engagement and investment from the international community. If rising unrest is not met with thoughtful, cooperative policies, the reverberations of conflict will continue spilling across borders.