Niger’s Presidential Guard, led by Gen. Abdourahmane “Omar” Tchiani, staged a coup July 26 that replaced President Mohamed Bazoum with a National Preservation Council. That body then named an interim leader: Tchiani.
Although some civilians have been appointed to positions in the new government, it is clear where power resides.
Niger is only the latest domino to fall across the Sahel region of Africa following coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan in the past few years.
Combined with ongoing instability in the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Libya, and South Sudan, this huge region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea is increasingly volatile.
But what are U.S. national security interests there?
First, there is the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria and Chad. Branches of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other groups hostile to the U.S. and designated as foreign terrorist organizations are active in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Other armed groups cause trouble in the northern and eastern parts of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. According to one estimate, the Sahel accounts for 43% of global deaths from terrorism.
These groups wish to destabilize and then control these areas to spread their influence and launch attacks. U.S. citizens and U.S. military personnel have been killed by terrorists in the Sahel in recent years. And as we learned on 9/11, allowing terrorist groups to flourish in relative peace can have devastating consequences for America.
Second, the U.S. wants to prevent Chinese and Russian influence over important natural resources, such as Niger’s uranium ore and petroleum. The Russian mercenary group Wagner already is being paid to protect the presidents of Mali and the Central African Republic. Their African presence is growing from Niger to Libya.
The U.S. has an interest in promoting stability, combatting terrorism, and countering Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not been effective in this goal.
The U.S. has given $500 million to Niger over the past decade to train and equip its military to fight regional terrorism, along with millions in civilian aid. Yet, Niger remains ranked 189th out of 191 countries in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in Africa.
Worse, some of the coup leaders in Niger received U.S. military training and assistance. Indeed, the fact that the Department of Defense was caught flatfooted by the coup is a damning indictment of military-to-military contacts and intelligence.
The State Department also fell short. Historically, the U.S. has been content to let the French do the heavy security lifting in Francophone Africa. But there is growing resentment against the former colonial power.
Like the Defense Department, the State Department and White House seem to have been surprised by the coup. Yet, Niger’s was the sixth coup in the Sahel since 2020. It was hardly unpredictable.
It seems highly likely that a competent U.S. Embassy team would have heard rumors of the coming coup from their contacts and sources.
Francophone Africa, under siege from terrorism and vulnerable to Chinese and Russian interference, needs effective and experienced “Africa hands” in leadership, but Africa always has been a backwater in Foggy Bottom.
Many Foreign Service jobs in State’s Bureau of African Affairs attract few or even zero applicants, and African ambassadorships frequently are used as a reward for career officers who lack area experience.
For instance, a new U.S. ambassador to Niger was confirmed July 27, the day after the coup. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria has no ambassador, and the chargé there never has served before in sub-Saharan Africa. The positions of U.S. ambassador to the African Union and special envoy to the Sahel are both vacant.
The State Department has blamed its inability to properly staff embassies on the Senate, in particular Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for putting a “hold” on State Department nominations. The hold was lifted at the end of July after State agreed to share documents requested by Paul that are related to whether COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese research lab.
However, Paul instituted that hold only in June. State bears at least part of the blame for this faceoff, since it could have shared that information far sooner.
The slow pace of nominations and confirmation long preceded this confrontation, as illustrated by complaints last year by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
Overall, however, blaming the lack of an ambassador for being caught flatfooted doesn’t pass muster. Rather, it seems another example of the Biden administration misreading or overlooking brewing trouble.
Other U.S. officials, including a chargé d’affaires, were present in Niger at the time of the coup. State has a confirmed assistant secretary for Africa as well as the Bureau of Africa Affairs. The U.S. also has Africa Command and military-to-military relationships—including over 1,000 U.S. military personnel, a drone base, and other installations in Niger.
“These personnel and installations are critical in combatting the ever-increasing number of violent extremist groups throughout the region that pose an immediate threat to our partners and allies,” Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a joint statement back in 2020.
Missing the signs is problematic. But the Biden administration’s flaccid reaction to these events has been made things worse.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called Niger “a model of democracy” when he visited last March, told Radio France International on Aug. 7 that the U.S. is “supporting the efforts of ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] in Africa to restore constitutional order in Niger.” Blinken added that “diplomacy is certainly the preferred way of resolving this situation.”
Unsurprisingly, the coup leaders in Niger defied the organization’s demand to reinstate the ousted Bazoum and threatened to put him on trial and perhaps sentence him to death. Worse, the rulers of Mali and Burkina Faso, having taken power after coups, promised to resist efforts to overthrow Niger’s new regime.
The response to those coups from the Economic Community of West African States was underwhelming, so why should anyone expect the response to Niger to be more effective?
Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland last week went to the Niger capital of Niamey “to call for the immediate release of President Mohamed Bazoum” and to threaten “the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security support for the people of Niger.”
Nuland met with Gen. Mossou Barmou, “the self-proclaimed chief of defense,” but Tchiani refused to see her. It is objectionable to be snubbed by China, but it’s humiliating to be snubbed by Niger.
The Biden administration is projecting weakness. It has called for restoration of the “constitutional order” and announced “unflagging support” for Bazoum. Although the U.S. has suspended military cooperation, it has not yet labeled Bazoum’s ouster a coup, which would trigger automatic rather than surgical cuts in U.S assistance.
This combination of demands with minimal enforcement makes the U.S. look indecisive and undermines our credibility in reacting to the next coup.
U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Belarus, Sudan, Ukraine, and now Niger have been evacuated. Once may be bad luck. Two might be coincidence. But five is a pattern.
Leaked reports in April indicate that terrorist groups again are using Afghanistan as a staging ground. Will we see similar terrorist gains in Niger and across the Sahel?
The Biden administration must make a choice: Are U.S. interests sufficiently compelling to require working with Niger regardless of its government, or does supporting democracy trump other interests?
It may not be an easy call, but no one else can make it for us.
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