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All Eyes on Niger

In late July, Niger became the latest in a series of West and Central African countries to have its democratically elected government overthrown in a coup. In the latest Contours episode, host Carolyn Moorman dives into potential ramifications of this power struggle on Sahelian counterterrorism initiatives and regional stability with New Lines Senior Analysts Riley Moeder and Tammy Palacios.

Carolyn Moorman:

Hello and welcome to the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policies Contours podcast. This is your host, Carolyn Moorman, and today we’ll be diving into Niger’s coup that happened in late July, where the democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, adding Niger to the list of other countries in Western and Central Africa that have experienced coups in the past couple of years, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, and most recently, Gabon.

Of course, this is all happening as the Sahel, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali experienced a very dynamic terrorist insurgency that is really adding a layer of instability in the Sahel. Today, we’ll be asking how does this coup affect West African security, US relations in the region, etc. with two wonderful guests.

The first is Riley Moeder. She’s a senior analyst for special initiatives at Newlines, leading the transnational fragility initiative with a focus on Africa. Prior to joining the Institute, Riley worked for the US Institute of Peace in the Middle East and North Africa department. She also previously worked at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project researching non-state actors in the Sahel. She also studied in Strasbourg, France, where she specialized in international human rights law and refugee policy.

Also, joining us is Tammy Palacios. Tammy is a senior analyst for special initiatives at Newlines, leading the priority Sustainable Counter-Terrorism initiative. She previously served as program head for Newlines as non-state actors program specializing in violent and nonviolent non-state actors.

Prior to joining the Institute, Tammy was a project lead for the MENA research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tank and Civil Society Program, also known as TTCSP, where she managed two international teams collecting data on over 500 think tanks in civil society organizations in the MENA region. Tammy also spent time focusing on Salafi jihadist militant groups operating in Syria at the Institute for the Study of War.

This conversation is happening a couple of weeks after Riley and Tammy co-authored a piece for Newlines called Niger: A Long Time Bastion of Stability in West Africa could drive Destabilization, which really lays the groundwork for what we’re going to be discussing today. Before we dive into some questions, some latest updates to help frame our conversation.

The coup leaders in Niger have announced that they will try President Bazoum for high reasons and “undermining state security.” Also, both the African Union, ECOWAS, also known as the Economic Community for West African States, have placed diplomatic and economic pressure on the Nigerian junta to return Bazoum to power. In addition, ECOWAS under the leadership of Nigeria has threatened military intervention. The last update is that the Nigerian, Burkinabe and Malian governments have released a joint statement saying, “Mali and Burkina Faso would intervene in the aid of the coup leaders if ECOWAS acted aggressively.”

With that, I’d like to turn it over to Riley. What indicators did you see before this coup? For those less familiar with the region, it might be easy to say Mali fell to a coup, Burkina Faso fell to a coup. They’re both experiencing the same jihadist insurgency that Niger is facing. Walk me through what your thinking is here.

Riley Moeder:

Thanks for having me, Carolyn. I think this is a really timely discussion as we’re seeing a trend of instability and clues popping up throughout the region, which though is not uncommon, it’s a little unprecedented to see so many pop off all at once. As you pointed out, coups are not uncommon. We saw just today a coup start in Gabon. We are familiar with coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and Niger has actually had quite a few coups as well.

A lot of this stems from a very fragile state system as many states in the Sahel struggle with government accountability, the ability to provide basic civic services and so forth. Despite early success in the President of Niger’s tenure in both security and democratic partnerships, the country really struggled economically with rising costs of living and increasing social pressure, much to do with the COVID-19 crisis.

A key indicator of instability in Niger, however, was the unsuccessful coup that took place in March of 2021. That being said, Niger over the last five decades, 50 years, has seen numerous successful coups, but also a large series of unsuccessful coups that maybe take over a day or two, maybe even sometimes as long as a week. These coups have caused incredible social and political pressure that have created ripples throughout civil society.

There also generally seems to be a disconnect between what citizens want and what the government is able to provide. In this increasing era of technology and social media, citizens in these countries that struggle with capacity are seeing what life is like outside of their country and are becoming more demanding of their government, which can lead to more civil unrest.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. The rationale that these Nigerian generals gave, very similarly to what was said in Mali in 2021 and Burkina Faso in 2022 with the coup, was that these democratically elected governments were not effectively countering this terrorist threat that I’ve mentioned. Tammy, I’m wondering in your experience looking at CT in the Sahel, how do you evaluate the progress in the CT sphere that the Nigerian government made prior to the coup? Also on the same note, how do you evaluate the claims by the Malian and Burkinabe governments that they have made counter-terrorism gains after the because happened in those countries?

Tammy Palacios:

Thanks so much, Carolyn. It’s a pleasure to engage in this podcast after our net assessment went out recently on Niger. I think in order to answer your question, we have to first clarify that the statements by the Mali-Burkina Faso leadership, that they’re succeeding in counter-terrorism are not factual. The United Nations very recently reported that ISIS has doubled its territorial control in the past year. We saw in West Africa about 2,800 terrorist attacks in the first six months of this year, and it led to 4,600 deaths. They are not succeeding in counter-terrorism. They’re succeeding in military hot countering of terrorism with their relationship with the Wagner Group.

But when it comes to the data, the only thing that’s changed is where these groups have moved. The Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are the hot zone of ISIS and Al-Qaeda activity in the region and arguably the hottest zone around the world right now when it comes to Al-Qaeda and ISIS interactions.

The thing that we’ll be watching is the G5 coalition of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger that has security relations with the European Union and the United Nations and other international partners. They had to reposition themselves in this past year after events in Mali.

The headquarters for the G5 was going to be moving to Niamey, and Niger very, very close to this hot zone tri-state. The success of counter-terrorism operations and the mitigating of the expansion of JNIM and Islam State in the Greater Sahara ISGS is going to depend on both the relocation of the G5 headquarters to Niamey. It’ll depend on the status of European Union and United Nations engagement with the G5 in their joint task force, and the terrorist activity will likely move to Burkina Faso’s border with Niger.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. With that, Tammy, you’ve given us a really good outline to what we should be looking out for in regards to CT and the spread of these jihadist groups in the Sahel, and specifically Western Niger moving forward.

I’d like to move now to something that is also very, very important to West Africa and particularly the Sahel, which is the Wagner Group. US Secretary of State Blinken said in an appearance in August on BBC’s Focus on Africa program that Russia and/or the Wagner Group wasn’t directly behind the coup but will take advantage of it. We have seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, Russia really taking advantage of this vacuum that Russian disinformation and armed support has helped cause in West Africa, specifically in the Sahelian countries.

Riley, most of the world is going to be watching to see if the Wagner Group is going to show up and make use of the political instability of the coup and try to expand its influence in the Sahel, even more than it already has. We’ve seen reports of former Wagner leader who was allegedly “killed” on August 22nd. You have Yevgeny Prigozhin being in Niger right before the plane crash that killed him. Of course, Riley and I will be discussing this with non-resident fellow Jeff Hawn in a future episode, so stay tuned to that.

At this point, is it not an if, but a when the Wagner Group is going to be on the ground and what effects will that have beyond, I mean it’s pretty routine for us to see human rights violations synonymous with Wagner involvement, but what other effects will this have?

Riley Moeder:

Yeah, it’s a really good question and obviously I think a lot of the world right now is paying attention to what’s going to happen with Wagner. I do want to take a second just to back up a little bit and talk about how Wagner operates in this area.

Within the Sahel, they are mainly coming in on counter-terrorism missions, as Tammy pointed out. This is an incredibly active zone for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. However though, civilians are not immune to their effect. There have been several massacres in Mali. This is something that has a dramatic effect on stability.

One thing that Wagner has done for itself, it has created a cyclical market of abuse, and within that market, essentially they’re invited in by a government to participate in counter-terrorism missions, or they essentially just show up and offer support as they’ve done in other places. Through that, they gain some operational success through tackling rebel groups and crime and terrorist organizations.

However, then they also gain more autonomy as governments come to trust them and rely on their sources, thus creating a cycle of dependency. Within that dependency, Wagner creates major human rights abuses, massacring civilians, active targeting in lucrative zones where gold mines and diamond mines are located, which then encourages out of self-defense, these civilians to join rebel groups, if not terrorists and criminal organizations.

Understanding that cycle, I think we can outline the overall fragility model that Wagner could potentially create in Niger. I will say I have seen reports of them already actively on the ground in Niger. To answer your question of if not when, they are there. It’s not too far of a walk from Mali and Burkina Faso to head over to that area. The impact will be immense on any kind of democratic recovery. Wagner has been actively operating both in Burkina Faso in security operations, but also any potential restructuring of Wagner, business is going to remain as usual. There’s not going to be a major significant shift in operations in Africa.

The cyclical market of abuse that we just described is going to cripple civil society and allow for exploitation by Russia and other malign actors such as China. If this isn’t something that’s addressed with strong presence for both the European Union and the United States, it could further destabilize an already incredibly fragile region.

Carolyn Moorman:

You’ve done a really good job of outlining this cyclical cycle of abuse, and you did mention it yourself, and I want to emphasize that Wagner involvement and Wagner human rights abuses can serve as a recruitment tool for not only rebel organizations, but also jihadist organizations, and it’s a well-known fact in the CT universe. With this analysis, Tammy, I’m wondering how much does the presence of the Wagner Group and the ability for them to use this political instability to further entrench themselves in Niger. How much does that worry you that these jihadist organizations are going to be able to recruit more and then expand?

Tammy Palacios:

Thank you, Carolyn. Riley really set the stage very nicely for me to answer this question, so thank you Riley. The one thing I’ll add is that Wagner is more than just its security forces. Due to some lack of success in Mozambique, Wagner has certainly prioritized a prep strategy. Before they even had boots on the ground in West Africa, they were enacting their information companies to further anti-West and anti-French sentiment.

This has really allowed for their success, not just with their contracts with the state and the state security forces, but has also allowed for public support. The anti-Western, anti-French sentiment, these jihadist groups also have an othering sentiment. Then you have election violence and political violence and these things that already exist in this region and it makes the landscape rife for recruitment, ripe for picking.

You have youth that aren’t necessarily radicalizing but are just without opportunity and these sentiments are rife in their communities and it’s easy to fall into a line of othering and hating, or even just engaging with the terrorist group for purposes of money or resources. Wagner has a huge part to play in this counter-terrorism sphere and landscape.

All to say, yes, Wagner’s engagement in the region with these autocratic governments is only going to exacerbate and has already exacerbated the terrorism threat. It has also caused a huge detriment to the counter-terrorism operations, the withdrawal of MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali, the French forces that were conducting counter-terrorism operations, even US involvement, is hesitant because of all of this information prep and the engagement that Wagner has had with these states.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. Thank you, Tammy. You and Riley have both done a really, really good job with outlining the problems ahead of West Africa, Niger, the Sahel. Before we move on to solutions, I wanted to see if Riley, you had anything you wanted to add to the wonderful answer Tammy gave and see if you have any thoughts on other potential ramifications of Wagner involvement in Niger.

Riley Moeder:

Yeah, absolutely. Tammy did a really good job of outlining just the broader implications of global terrorism and how Wagner can influence that. One thing that I think I just want to tie back to is the fact that Wagner, as Tammy discussed, is not just a security firm, but a multifaceted organization with upwards of 64 different shell companies.

Looking at a specific example where Wagner has actively involved itself in a civil conflict, is the current war going on in Sudan. Wagner’s both been on the ground providing security forces, but also providing large artillery and arms to the Rapid Support Forces, which is the opposition in Sudan. I would hate to see it, but I do think it’s a possibility for them to become more and more engaged if the conflict in Niger were to turn violent.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. Thank you for that added bit of analysis.

Now, we can turn to what the international community can do, how it can support current African institutions that are doing a lot of the legwork on this problem. Riley, I’d like to see how youth are imagining the potential of an ECOWAS armed intervention. Of course, the African Union and ECOWAS has been doing a lot of diplomatic and economic work in applying sanctions and other tools onto Niger to try to get this democratically elected government to come back.

But ECOWAS has said they could do an armed intervention, and then as I added in the update, the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso released a statement that said if ECOWAS did intervene militarily, they would intervene. How do you weigh this calculus and are you worried about some kind of armed intervention breaking out in Niger?

Riley Moeder:

I mean, it’s an incredibly fragile region. Any kind of armed intervention is going to have major ramifications. Just to rewind a little bit though, ECOWAS is under new leadership. It is under the President of Nigeria, and he has made it very clear from the very beginning that he’s not going to tolerate this kind of consistent coups and military insurrections that are popping up throughout West Africa, but it’s not just West Africa. This is happening in other parts of Africa as well.

There’s been a ton of media coverage on this topic of will ECOWAS or won’t ECOWAS intervene militarily? Right now, I think ECOWAS is struggling with legitimacy issues and how to properly intervene without causing region instability. I think they’re caught between this crux of we know that we have the authority under our charter to military intervene to prevent this coup. However, with countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso threatening to basically cause a regional war, they’re really grappling with it. I think the next couple of weeks and maybe months we might see more negotiations, more talks, but I do think a military intervention is possible.

This also isn’t totally unusual for ECOWAS to threaten a military intervention. In similar circumstances in 2016, ECOWAS threatened the use of force when the Gambian president refused to relinquish his seat after he had lost an election. They did not intervene at that time. However, it was used as a negotiation tool.

Again, going back to the main point of your question, a military intervention would’ve major consequences for this region. It is a terrorist hot zone. It is incredibly unstable and one of the biggest cruxes is the fact that both Wagner and China are already looking to expand their influence. This would cause a power vacuum that malign actors would be able to exploit. Of course.

Carolyn Moorman:

I’d like to bring the focus back for a minute before we end on to this jihadist insurgency, which is again a very hot topic, but an incredibly important piece of the puzzle here. Tammy, you’ve done a lot of work on CT specifically, I’m thinking about an NA that you published a couple of months ago titled Integrating US Military Assistance with Conflict Prevention and Stabilization in the Sahel. In this piece, you discussed how the US should combine its current strategies of counter-terrorism with a bigger role of conflict prevention. I’m wondering if you could talk me through how you see this strategy being played out and the increased role that you see it having now that Niger has turned down this path.

Tammy Palacios:

Absolutely. Thank you for the question. In the terrorism research space, and in discussions of what is the best way to counter-terrorism and there’s a discussion of prevention, where does military action come in? Where does development end and security start? These are taboo topics that have been discussed in the academic and policy spaces for the past 20, 30 years.

We don’t have the opportunity or the option, it’s not a strategy that the US is going to pursue to put thousands of boots on the ground for geographic reasons. There’s too much land for boots. It doesn’t fit with our relationships. We work through African partners and there’s been an increase in African-led peace operations that the international community is operating through.

But there needs to be a very real conversation to how the development efforts that work to prevent conflict, things that focus on the stability and growth of a community, the inclusion of youth and women, the programs that focus on things like access to water and infrastructure, so roads and connectivity and energy and internet. That conversation needs to be had with military assistance strategy officials. That conversation needs to be had with those that are the security officials.

That used to just be liable for terrorist recruitment. If you’re only countering terrorism with the hard hand, then there is absolutely going to be a backlash in recruitment because you’re only creating more of a hatred against whatever party is doing the counter-terrorism. The US saw this in the Middle East, so we’re applying lessons learned.

But another lesson learned that we’re seeing with this continuation of coups in this part of Africa is that if we’re only operating with the military, and those conversations are being had with other parts of government. There are ministries that are working with our USAID partners and our UN partners. There is liable also for fracturing or insurrection or coups because we’re separating our partner efforts.

Carolyn Moorman:

You’ve done a really good job outlining how the US needs to really utilize a combination of hard counter-terrorism power, but also conflict prevention when it approaches problems like we’re currently seeing in the Sahel in West Africa.

We’ve seen on the continent of Africa, particularly in West Africa, this anti-Western, anti-French sentiments really starting to grow among populations that are exhibiting a lot of the times pro-Russian sentiments even, as representing this anti-imperialist force in Africa. Because the French, as we know, have this long history of very ugly colonization in Africa. So I’m wondering, do you see the strategy as helping to play a role in making the US more active and have a better appearance in a continent where it’s historically not been as involved such as other partners like China and Russia have been?

Tammy Palacios:

Absolutely. Thank you for that question. That’s a great follow up, Carolyn. A hundred percent. I think the sentiment that we’re seeing, the issues that we’re seeing in anti-French and anti-Western sentiment in the tri-state right now in Mali especially, but also in Burkina Faso, in Niger, the recent coup, is proof that self-power is powerful. The United States is far behind Chinese and Russian engagement on the African continent.

China’s done a really good job with their economic and infrastructure deals. Russia has done work in the information space with even radio stations and then with their security operations, for example, through Wagner, as Riley mentioned earlier. Information is half the battle, especially when you’re looking at prevention. You’re already behind if you’re at the countering stage. That’s also a counter narrative.

If the United States wants to be successful in their trade relations and their partnerships with African regional institutions, with the African Union and ECOWAS in counter-terrorism operations, which is one of our policy priorities against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we have to start before we get to counter, and that is including counter narratives.

We need to re-strategize our counter-terrorism strategy to prevention, and that’s in the integration of our conflict prevention and our development work with our security assistance and security strategy work, but also in the information space.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. I really appreciated how you mentioned in your response the importance of doing the work beforehand, so we don’t have to move to the counter stage because that means that something didn’t work correctly, the problem’s gotten out of control.

I’d like to end on the note of looking at all of these very, very important African-led initiatives that are playing a key role in the situation in Niger. Riley, I want to know if you have any policy recommendations for how the US and its Western allies can better support the AU, ECOWAS, and other regional and continent-wide initiatives and organizations that are playing a very important role in addressing the underlying reasons for state fragility that all these states are facing.

Riley Moeder:

Thanks, Carolyn. I’m going to break this question apart and answer it in two separate ways because I think it’s a really good question. It’s got a lot of layers to it.

The first question is, how can US and Western allies support African-led initiatives? A lot of this comes down to partnerships, training, and communication. One thing I would really like to see more of both on the US policy side and the EU policy side as they’re a key partner in the region, is positive messaging. As Tammy pointed out, when we are battling against malign actors such as Russia and China who have entire firms dedicated to disinformation, we as a country and as a policy do not necessarily have a strategy for combating that. We are behind the game. We are losing that battle. That’s step one.

Step two is positive engagement, supporting ECOWAS’s initiatives, supporting the African Union, partnering AFRICOM with the African Union to support the proper training and integration of good governance policies.

The second part of this is the underlying issues that exist within state fragility. This obviously has to do a lot with capacity building and good governance. One key aspect here I think that we haven’t touched on in this podcast is both youth and education and DDR. DDR stands for demobilization, de-radicalization and reintegration.

As we’re seeing what some are calling a post-ISIS world, though I think we’ve outlined very clearly that that doesn’t exist in the Sahel. Some people are starting to return from places like Syria and Iraq and Iran who were a part of that ISIS coalition that was really prevalent a couple of years ago, returning back to their African countries.

There has to be a strategy in place to one, demobilize, de-radicalize and reintegrate these people into society that both benefits society and progresses their democratic governance. The US should partner with both their local capacity building partners, their local civil society partners, local governments, tribal leaders, to ensure that these people who are coming back have an opportunity and a way forward that doesn’t involve joining a rebel group.

But again, there’s so many levels to state fragility. We have issues of unemployment, we have issues of education, we have food shortages, droughts, lack of infrastructure that all create this metastasizing effect that spills over into civil war and conflict. The US’s step forward, I think, is first formalizing a strategy to combat Russian disinformation, and also looking toward outward support from political leaders.

Carolyn Moorman:

I want to thank both of you for coming on the podcast today and giving the listeners a clear image of what Niger is facing, and also the possibilities and opportunities for the US and its Western allies to really support African-led initiatives to not only rebuild state fragility, but build state resilience. It’s been wonderful having you both on the podcast.

To our listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of Contours. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on major streaming platforms, including iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify so you don’t miss any of our new episodes. You can check out further analysis in the geopolitics and US foreign policy at www.newlinesinstitute.org. All the best.

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