The Coup in Niger, Islamic Extremism, and Anti-Western Sentiment in the Sahel

by Avi Rao

The Coup in Niger – An Introduction

On July 26, 2023, the Presidential Guard of Niger – a force hand-picked to serve President Mohamed Bazoum turned on him. Storming the Presidential Palace, they placed Bazoum under house arrest and quickly consolidated their control, barring entrances to the palace and quashing unrest around it. The move put Niger at a standstill, with enormous anticipation as to the military’s response. Bazoum, despite being democratically elected, had been very popular among the Army, and there was reason to believe that it would thus support him. But that was not the case—on the evening of the 26th, heads of the other military branches joined the Presidential Guard on a call to announce the dissolution of the constitution and the establishment of a new military Junta to rule the country.

Bazoum’s government was operating smoothly, terrorism was on the decline, and the country had finally achieved ostensible stability, a welcome respite in one of the world’s poorest countries, with the world’s third-lowest HumanDevelopment Index and eighth-lowest GDP per capita. Niger has faced more than just economic turmoil, though, as its position in the Sahel puts it squarely in the world’s new hotbed for both terrorism and Islamic extremism. The Sahel, an arid strip of land that straddles the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert, accounted for 43% of terrorism-related deaths last year, more than South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa combined. With widespread poverty, plenty of uninhabited rural terrain, and some of the highest birthrates in the world, Islamic extremist groups have thrived in the Sahel, taking advantage of poverty and overpopulation to gain a foothold among communities with few other options.

Yet, despite the challenges faced by the myriad of nations in the Sahel, Niger’s outlook in the days leading up to the coup was surprisingly stable.Indeed, in the preceding years, Niger had become a crucial ally to Western powers eager to foster democracy and combat extremism in the Sahel, noted for being the “last bastion of democracy” in a historically fraught region, as well as “the last bulwark against Jihadis.” This had been especially true under new President Bazoum, elected in 2021 and ushered in via a peaceful and democratic transfer of power. While Bazoum was of the same political party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), of the previous president, Mahamadou Issoufou, and some times called he “dauphin” to the Nigerien presidency, the success of democracy in Niger stood out. And Bazoum pledged to be no pushover. According to Bisa Williams, the US ambassador to Niger from 2010 to 2013 and current senior fellow at the Jackson School, “He [Bazoum] came in with a very strong warning that things were going to change…there would be no more cronyism, there would be no more special perks for family members. He wanted a clear-cut, aboveboard government.”

While many newly elected leaders of freshly democratic nations have historically failed to deliver on the promises that got them elected, Bazoum delivered on his promises of stability, pragmatism, and openness. Per Professor Leonardo Alfonso Villalón, a professor of African Studies at the University of Florida and the leader of its Sahel Research Group, “one of the great tragedies of this coup was that [Niger] was, in fact, on a path that seemed quite pragmatic and reasonable…that might lead to diminishing violence and increased stability.” Bazoum was, by all accounts, “the West’s last and best hope for a flailing, decades-long counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel region of Africa,” with a cooperative, democratically elected leader at the helm and willingness to work with both the United States and France, its former colonial power. President Bazoum, was much more willing to acknowledge Niger’s dependence on Western military aid than his predecessors, allowing more Western troops in than ever before to combat the terrorism threat. In response, Bazoum was granted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic aid by France and a $110 million dollar drone base “pet project” funded by the United States.

But, despite this veil of stability, President Bazoum was still ousted in the July 26 coup. With numerous threads of media speculation and the military’s own account, we strive to answer the question: What caused the downfall of President Bazoum?

Did Anti-Western Sentiment Cause the Coup in Niger?

After the coup, ideals of anti-colonialism and national sovereignty swept Niger, leading to numerous media outlets using those sentiments to explain the sudden downfall of one of West Africa’s biggest rising stars. Thousands of people appeared on the streets of Niamey draped in Nigerien and Russian flags and chanting anti-French slogans. An article in the Washington Post expresses this popular Western media narrative clearly: the coup was “buoyed by a wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping France’s former West African colonies…directing much of its vitriol at France.”

Western media, however, is not the only outlet propagating the narrative that it was antiWestern sentiment that caused the coup. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former (and now deceased) leader of the Wagner Group, declared the coup to be a “second independence” for Niger, independence from Western mettling in its domestic security. Indeed, in a message posted on Telegram, Prigozhin declared that “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers…colonizers who are trying to foist their rules of life on [Nigeriens] and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.”

Russia has a history of portraying itself as an anti-colonialist alternative to the colonizing West, with varying degrees of success, but there is indeed some truth to the idea of Nigerien exasperation with Western powers. While Bazoum was able to justify increased French and US involvement in Niger by citing declining extremism, immigration was a battlefield on which he did not have any beneficial statistics to turn to. Per Amb. Williams, the Nigeriens “didn’t like the way the Europeans were forcing people back,” how they “dumped a bunch of black Africans into Niger… that they couldn’t accommodate.”

Harsher EU immigration policy led to swathes of Africans fleeing violence in subsaharan Africa land in Niger, which did not have the capacity to care for them. The EU refused to offer helpful solutions beyond military aid, which rubbed some Nigeriens the wrong way as it seemed as though France and other European powers were once again using Niger as a “dumping ground” for their unfavorable citizens. Per Amb. Williams, the French “baggage” in Niger was “much more contemporary” than colonial, as France is “not great with their public relations and their interactions with the host governments and local people.” In Mali, where another coup shook Western plans in the region, the French would often fly in and out without informing the Malian government. To quote Amb. Williams, “Who does that in 2023?”

It is thus important to recognize the discontent towards the Western powers that Bazoum’s government had so openly aligned itself with. At the same time, however, it is important to not conflate that discontent, as well as the ex post facto anti-Western sentiment, as the legitimate causes of the coup. As Prof. Villalón said, “Anti-French sentiment and this sort of nationalist [rhetoric]…is very easy for demagogic politicians to manipulate” and that “it’s very clear in the case of Niger…[anti-French sentiment] wasn’t bubbling to the surface and causing the coup, but…it’s a very easy thing to mobilize if you’re trying to legitimate yourself.” Much as immigrants are often blamed for abstract problems in the United States, it is very easy to blame the other for the problems of a nation, especially if that other has actually done something real to harm your country, as in the case of France and Niger. Of course, there has been some re-evaluation of the colonial period and France’s role in present -day Niger, but that deliberation was completely separate from the coup itself. And, in fact, there is still a lot of veneration for the West among ordinary people, elites, and the military in Niger. Despite the seeming grandness of antiWestern sentiment, as evidenced by the photos of protest splashed across major newspapers, thousands of ordinary people “vote with their feet” by immigrating to the West every year, and intellectual and political elites were largely educated at Western universities and remained fixated on the West, even if they believe it is the root of their problems. Prof. Villalón expanded on this in relation to the coup as well, as the “people who led it were trained in the West…and had close ties with Western armies.”

President Bazoum—

Despite her misgivings about French conduct in Niger, Amb. Williams agreed: “It’s [the anti-Western sentiment] definitely a post-facto justification…it’s a total distraction.” She continued, “That’s just propaganda…that’s just psychological warfare. The Russian embassy distributed a bunch of flags, or gave a bunch of money to the tailors in the town to make [them].” She also suggested that the scale of the protests in Niamey, where the vast majority of people are concentrated and thus where most journalists get their information, could be misleading: “In Niger, the capital area is…an opposition party stronghold,” and while the opposition wasn’t necessarily anti-democratic they certainly were not fans of Bazoum or his party, which had beaten them in three successive elections. As such, anti-Western sentiment was not the cause of the coup, as Prigozhin’s statements were overblown and the scale of protest in Niamey was overrepresented. However, that does not mean that Western policy was necessarily always sterling. Indeed, the West could have done a much better job in Niger, both at selling democracy as a tenable political system and treating the Nigeriens as equals, which they sometimes failed to do.

Did Islamic Extremism Cause the Coup in Niger?

If, then, the idea that anti-Western sentiment caused the coup in Niger is propagandistic, then what about what the junta itself said drove it to take over? Those who seized power claimed to be responding to worsening security conditions and the growing threat of Islamic violence in the Sahel at large, what they labeled as “the deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” Islamic violence is a particularly salient issue in Niger, given that it often affects the most vulnerable populations in the country.t. However, President Bazoum’s government had already taken an aggressive and effective stance against terrorism, drastically reducing terrorist activity in Niger with the help of Western allies. Under Bazoum, there hadn’t even been a terrorist attack in over a year and the government had less than a hundred in terrorist attacks, a steep drop from previous administrations. Compared to the first six weeks of the junta, where 200 soldiers were lost in battles against extremists newly emboldened by the instability caused by the coup.

Prof. Villalón puts this point even more strongly: “Jihadi groups and others are not the cause of the instability, they’re parasitic on the instability…they’re taking advantage of the fact that the situation was destabilized and they’ve managed to contribute to the instability through violence.” That is, although the Sahel has become a hotbed for Islamic extremism in recent years, that was despite the efforts of Bazoum’s government, which had actually taken a quite strong stance on terrorism for a democratic state. It seems, then, that the coup was not responding to any pressing need to combat Islamic extremism and, in fact, worsened an issue that had otherwise been under control. The quick movements of terrorist groups to leech off of the instability caused by the coup were amplified by the aftereffects of the junta’s decision, as 1,500 French troops left the country, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars in American and French aid, aid that was crucial to the fight against terrorism that Bazoum had, until the coup, handled. Prof Villalón ended his comment with an even stronger declaration: “I don’t think religion had anything to do with the coup…it was irrelevant.” Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Junta’s provided justification seems to falter—Islamic extremism and security concerns had no role to play in the coup and, to the contrary, the instability caused by the sudden transfer of helped terrorist groups and the military has been significantly less competent than Bazoum in combating them.

Interpersonal Relationships and the Failing of PatternMaking: The True Root of Niger’s Instability

Having examined the viewpoint most prominent in Western media in addition to that of the Junta itself, let us try to uncover the true reasons behind the coup to unpack another question: is what has happened in Niger, and the Sahel at large, a pattern? Many outlets were quick to compare the coup in Niger to military takeovers in other countries in the Sahel, specifically Mali and Burkina Faso, but how similar are the cases, and is it legitimate to call the string of Sahelian coups a pattern?

In Bazoum’s quest to be a good leader for the people of Niger, he alienated the political and military elites that had helped him to office. He had come into power as the successor to Mahamadou Issoufou, a member of the ruling establishment as a leader of the PNDS, and his efforts to curb cronyism and corruption thus worked against members of his own party, including Issoufou, the former president. It is important to recognize that Issoufou has publicly denounced the coup and distanced himself from it, but his actions leading up to it tell a different story.

Per Amb. Williams, “The destabilizing factor in this coup…was that Bazoum was about to make a big break with [Issoufou], in that he was going to take away the cash cow…for corrupt elements of the former government,” including the former President. Specifically, Bazoum planned to create a new state entity to control Niger’s petroleum sector, a growing industry in the country and a major moneymaker. In creating this new enterprise, Bazoum would be changing the entire governing structure of the oil industry, removing party loyalists, including Issoufou’s son, from positions of power. The announcement of this new petroleum body, patriotically branded “PetroNiger,” was meant to go into effect the day after the coup happened. What’s more, after the coup, it emerged that Issoufou’s wife had been receiving monthly deposits from the former state-held petroleum entity. Issoufou was a luminary as president, receiving numerous awards for his commitment to democracy and stable governance, and thus maintained significant influence in Niger even after he stepped down. As Amb. Williams explained, “the notion is that Issoufou was looking to create a crisis where he would be asked to resolve it…it was the head of his former presidential guard” who led the coup.

But what about his military support? After all, the coup was committed by the military, not any political apparatus, and Bazoum was quite popular among the soldiery. Indeed, it was a surprise to even experts on Niger like Williams: “the big surprise for the former President was that he wasn’t needed to negotiate…everybody assumed that the army would never go along with a coup.” The leader of the presidential guard was Issoufou’s right-hand man, but why would the army, which had sterling relations with Bazoum and the Western partners, go along with it? Once again, the answer seems to lie in personal ambition. One of the leaders of the coup, Abdourahamane Tchiani had been fired just two days before the coup, replaced in Bazoum’s anti-corruption campaign. With support from leaders across the country, the military gained enormous self-confidence, inspired by the actions taken by Mali and Burkina Faso. The opportunity came for them to rule, and they took it upon themselves to replace Bazoum, bypassing Issoufou entirely, who is now marginalized completely, with no friends in the West, in Africa, or in Niger.

Was Niger’s coup truly part of a pattern? With myriad coups in the same region, one might begin to think that they are connected. According to Prof. Villalón, “they are interrelated in the sense that the region [the Sahel] and those three countries in particular have experienced a wave of violence or extremism over the last decade…and that has created very troubling conditions for governments to rule and lots of frustration.” That is, the coups are interrelated in that they all happened in the Sahel, which is an unstable region. That instability will manifest itself, and it has done so in the form of coups. However, the separate coups were each caused by different factors unique to their specific countries, such as the ethnic tension that sparked the Malian coup or the personal greed present in Niger. Amb. Williams echoed this point: “I don’t think you can call it a pattern, because they are happening for different kinds of reasons… but there does seem to be a wave” in that the countries involved had previously displayed weak governance and weak government institutions.

With ineffectual military juntas floundering without military aid, the US is put in a hard position, stuck between backing its ideals and the ousted president or prioritizing its practical needs and supplying the army with weapons. This moral tension was on display with Niger: only on October 10, three months after the coup, did the US officially label it as one. It will be important, then, to look at US policy in the region going forward as a case study in how it will reconcile the defense of democracy with the containment of terrorism in both the Sahel and the world at large.

Avi Rao is a first year in Pauli Murray College and can be reached at