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Niger coup: What is Russia's role?

August 10, 2023

The coup in Niger has people asking about potential links to Russia. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have turned to the Kremlin after severing ties with France. Is Moscow behind Niger's coup?

Protesters hold an anti-France placard during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey.
Russian flags have been popping up during pro-junta demonstrations, including this one which reads 'Long live Russia, long live Niger and Nigeriens' in FrenchImage: Sam Mednick/AP/picture alliance

At demonstrations in support of Niger's coup, several people were seen waving Russian flags. "Long live Putin," protesters chanted, as well as "Down with France," Niger's former colonial ruler.

These signs of pro-Russian sentiment, and a Ukraine official's widely-reported accusation that Russia was behind Niger's military takeover, have helped fuel speculation that Russia organized the coup on July 26.

But no credible commentator has come out saying Russia is directly responsible for the toppling of Mohamed Bazoum, Niger's democratically elected president.

"I think what happened, and what continues to happen in Niger, was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner," US top envoy Antony Blinken said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday.

Niger coup puts ECOWAS to the test

Russia's Wagner Group has links to Africa

The Wagner Group, the notorious paramilitary group funded by the Russian state, is deeply embedded in several African states, primarily Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Libya. While Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin welcomed Niger's coup, the group also hasn't claimed involvement.

"There really isn't a lot of evidence that Russia was behind the coup," Washington-based Wagner expert Elena Pokalova told DW.

Instead, it appears the trigger for the coup was personal ambition. Bazoum had wanted to replace General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of the elite Presidential Guard. But after deposing his boss, Tchiani has now proclaimed himself the head of the new military junta.

General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger.
General Abdourahmane Tchiani (right) declared himself president after overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum in late JulyImage: REUTERS

Is the Wagner Group operating in Niger?

While there is no concrete proof that Wagner mercenaries are already in the country, Pokalova said she believes Niger is "important enough" for Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin would back sending fighters there.

"I don't think that Prigozhin is going to have trouble assembling around 1,000 to 2,000 people," she said.

"This is exactly the kind of win Mr. Putin needs right now, as he is not achieving his objectives in Ukraine."

Like many other analysts, Pokalova warned that if Niger contracts Wagner, the uranium-rich nation could see more instability, human rights violations, authoritarianism and the suppression of democratic protests.

Did Russian disinformation help trigger the Niger coup?

It's well known that Russia runs sophisticated digital disinformation campaigns in Africa, including in Niger, a key Western ally and home to large US and French bases —  although since the coup, junta leaders have revoked military cooperation agreements with France. Campaigns typically agitate against France and the United States, accusing them of colonialism and advocating for a broader revolution across the Sahel, a belt of semiarid land stretching across Africa just below the Sahara Desert.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US Department of Defense institution, pro-Russia Telegram channels suggested Niger as a future target following the Burkina Faso coup in 2022.

"Disinformation networks connected to the Wagner Group, furthermore, have twice sought to spark rumors of a coup in Niger, including through what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated online scheme coinciding with a trip abroad by President Bazoum in February 2023," said a report in late July. 

But while Western intelligence is examining whether Russia launched targeted campaigns in the run-up to the coup, "no evidence has been found so far," wrote Spain's El Pais newspaper, citing an intelligence officer from a European country.

History of coups in West Africa

Multiple military takeovers have taken place in West Africa since 2020: twice in Burkina Faso and Mali, respectively, one in Chad and another in Guinea. Niger was one of the last pro-Western holdouts in the Sahel region.

"There's a long-running assumption that since Russia's reboot of Russia-Africa relations, we're seeing the coups," said Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at consultancy company Development Reimagined. "But […] while there's evidence for Russia's disinformation campaigns or Russian media stoking anti-colonial sentiment, these anti-colonial sentiments are there already."

Eguegu described relations between Niger and Russia as "very thin," an evaluation echoed by Daniel Eizenga from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, who called them "extremely limited."

Ties between the two nations are mainly related to security. In 2017, they signed a military agreement — one of dozens Russia has with African countries, which includes improving cooperation in fighting terrorism. Niger has faced frequent attacks by insurgency groups in recent years. But that cooperation hasn't developed "in any substantial way," said Eguegu, who specializes in Russia-Africa relations.

How might Russia-Niger ties develop post coup?

However, the coup has opened a window of opportunity for Russia to expand its interests in the Sahel and potentially gain support at the United Nations General Assembly. Most UN member states have repeatedly condemned Moscow for its war on Ukraine.

Russian officers from the Wagner group are seen around Central African president Faustin-Archange Touadera as they are part of the presidential security system.
Wagner Group is deeply entrenched in the Central African Republic, where its operatives guard President Faustin-Archange TouaderaImage: Leger Kokpakpa/REUTERS

Niger supported three UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion, whereas Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso abstained or were absent. Bringing Niger into Russia's sphere of interest could alter this.

Weapons sales to Niger are another way Russia could cement the relationship.

"At the same time, those weapons would allow Niger's junta to double their effort against terrorism and also might help them consolidate their position as the new regime," Eguegu told DW.

Russia could also help with so-called regime security. Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, would pay big money for Wagner services, possibly settling their fees with natural resources like the Central African Republic and Mali.

Niger coup raises concerns over uranium supplies

Vincent Niebede contributed to this article.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.