Could Niger’s turmoil echo Syria — and give extremists a new foothold?

Click to play video: 'US freezes $100 million in aid for Niger government amid military coup: Miller'
US freezes $100 million in aid for Niger government amid military coup: Miller
U.S. aid programs to Niger’s federal government that have been indefinitely frozen amid the recent junta coup have been valued at more than $100 million, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday – Aug 7, 2023

One week ago, West African leaders threatened to invade Niger if the military junta didn’t step down and reinstate the ousted president Mohamed Bazoum.

But those backing the ouster ignored it. And the tanks and troops never rolled in.

In the days since, thousands of Nigeriens have rallied in support of their camo-clad leaders while the military regimes in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali promised to defend Niger’s new army rulers.

And instead of a democracy-restoring invasion, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is now planning a summit on Thursday — and regional experts say any solution must be diplomatic, not armed.

But they warn something needs to be done soon to stabilize a region already wracked by Islamist insurgency and extreme poverty.

“We all saw what happened in Syria when Syria was under attack and the conflict there and how this led to the formation and expansion of ISIS,” said Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer at the University of Leeds Beckett in the United Kingdom.

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“This same thing could actually happen in the Sahel.”

Click to play video: 'Niger coup: Foreign nationals evacuated as tensions rise'
Niger coup: Foreign nationals evacuated as tensions rise

Niger is one of the largest countries in the region. And after last year’s coup in Mali, Niger has stepped in to become a bulwark against terrorism, hosting an American drone base and French troops.

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But the new military leaders, led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tiani, have cut ties with those countries.

And young Nigeriens attacked the French embassy, the outpost of the country’s former colonizer.

Ajala, who specializes in the politics of the region, said any further co-operation is likely impossible and that Islamist insurgents stand to gain territory, especially in a country that is twice the size of France.

“You can imagine now with limited resources, limited allies, it will be very difficult for the military to continue to police or govern these countries without some of these organizations,” he said.

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That would end years of efforts to fight the insurgency, which has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Click to play video: 'Canada urges against travel to Niger as coup forces evacuations'
Canada urges against travel to Niger as coup forces evacuations

Fidelis Allen, a professor at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, said the coup – one of several in recent years in the Sahel – also poses a threat to democratization.

“Where citizens no longer feel that the institutions of democracy will respond to their needs, then they would begin to prefer coups,” he told Global News.

With the challenges so severe and the situation so precarious, both said the best solution is for the bloc and junta leaders to negotiate.

“ECOWAS should negotiate and listen to what the people are saying, listen to what the junta is also saying and try to strike a balance,” Allen said.

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He added it’s important to recognize the local “spirit of resistance” among young people to push out former colonizers, with whom Bazoum was accused of working closely.

Ajala said ECOWAS should push the junta to a new leader after new elections are held.

“The most likely outcome is to try and persuade the military … to hand over power as soon as possible … (and to) agree on a transition period,” Ajala told Global News, speaking from Glasgow, U.K.

Allen said there is a rush to reach an agreement not just because regional stability is at stake, but also because Niger is extremely poor.

And the sanctions ECOWAS imposed will hurt those who already struggle to find sustenance.

“The sanctions against a country as poor as Niger is like sentencing someone to death,” he said.


with files from Reuters’ Boureima Balima and Abdel-Kader Mazou

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