Does Niger matter? 

There is seldom news coverage from Africa that gets global attention, but the recent coup in Niger is an exception. Niger is a Muslim country in west Africa with about 27 million people with French as official language. It gained independence from France in 1960 but has struggled with political and economic instability since and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Niger’s biggest problem might be the rapid fertility rate of 6.95 children per woman, with is the highest in the world. The population was 3.5 million in 1960, currently 27 million and is projected to reach 60 million in 2050. 

In the weeks since Niger’s democratically elected president Bazoum was ousted, concerns have mounted. The coup has largely been condemned internationally, in particular by the U.S., the EU and France. Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, chaired by Nigeria, has threatened military intervention. France, the old colonial power, has voiced strong opposition towards the coup leaders, but a military invention seems unlikely. France will probably have to withdraw its current 1,500 troops from Niger, dealing another blow to its postcolonial ambitions of having a special role in its former colonies. There has been growing anti-French sentiments in the region, both in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as within Niger. 

As the dust of the coup begins to settle, Niger stands at a crossroad. The junta is yet to consolidate its position and the situation is far from stabilized. The U.S. secretary of state Blinken claims that the Russian Wagner mercenary group is taking advantage of the instability in Niger. The group has been present in Arica since 2017 and is involved in neighboring Mali where they have thousands of fighters. This is also the case in the Central African Republic. Russia’s main goal in Africa is to build up diplomatic support and build geopolitical power for economic and political gains. The opportunity is obvious given strong anti-French sentiment and U.S. lack of engagement in Africa. 

There are several reasons why western countries are unhappy with the current situation in Niger. France still considers old colonies theirs in some sort of neo imperialistic sense. For the U.S., the CIA operates a drone base in Niger, and it is seen as an important partner in the fight against terrorism in West Africa, where both Boko Haram and ISIS are active. Despite Niger’s poverty, it sits on some of the largest uranium deposits in the world, another reason for western interest.

Niger does matter as it illustrates changes in various aspects of global politics such as the growing irrelevance of France in Africa, the lack of interest and engagement by the U.S. in Africa, the growing power of Russia and China in Africa and the increased use of mercenary forces. 

The use of mercenary military units has been a trend since the U.S. started using contractors in the “war on terror” launched in 2001 after 9/11. The most well-known group is likely Blackwater. At the height of the conflict in Iraq in 2008, the U.S. employed 163,400 contractors in Iraq compared to 146,800 U.S. troops. The same picture was later the case in Afghanistan. Moscow built on the U.S. strategy and has been successful in building up an effective mercenary force in Africa. Unless the U.S. and the west get more involved in Africa, both economically and militarily, the Russian power base with continue to grow in the region. 

African leaders are often positive vis-à-vis Russia as they have some interests in common. They are both fiercely anti-colonial (often anti-France), they see the U.S. being primarily focused on economic exploitation of resources, they claim to serve the people and battle poverty, both accept authoritarian solutions, and the ultimate political goal is not western style democratic rule. All these factors contribute to a natural and strong understanding and cooperation between Africa nations and Russia. It is likely that the ties between Africa and Russia will continue to grew stronger.  

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