West Africa Military Coups: Instability Reigns in Niamey, Niger
The latest military coup in West Africa began on July 26, 2023.
On that day, Niger’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum. Shortly afterwards, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the Commander of the Presidential Guard, announced himself as the leader of a new military government, establishing what he called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.
Niger’s new leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani. (Image courtesy of NBC)
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded immediately, demanding the reinstatement of President Bazoum under threat of sanctions or potentially even use of force.
By the beginning of August, less than a week after the coup began, foreign nationals commenced evacuation of the area as ECOWAS convened emergency meetings.
The situation could soon evolve into an emergency for the 4.3 million people in Niger who rely on foreign aid for access to food, medicine, and basic items. International sanctions could prevent that aid from making its way into the country.
By September 1, it was estimated that some 7,300 tons of aid had already been blocked from entering the country. Due in large part to these sanctions, the military government announced a 40% cut in the national budget—a burden that’s likely to fall disproportionately onto those most in need.
To an outsider, the response by fellow African ECOWAS nations might be extreme. But once you begin to understand the region’s complicated history, it becomes immediately apparent why they’re fanatically opposed to military coups…
Table of Contents
A Long History of West Africa Military Coups
Niger’s Unsteady Alliance Falls Apart
Africa’s New Colonial Overlords
What to Expect from Niger’s Coup
When the Dust Settles
Frequently Asked Questions
A Long History of West Africa Military Coups
Western Africa’s political history is often characterized by its frequently violent coups and ongoing instability. Each nation in the region has its own unique experiences of coups and political upheaval—often stretching all the way back to the Colonial Era.
During the colonial period, Western Africa was subject to the rule of various foreign powers, including the British, French, Portuguese, and others. These colonial powers often installed puppet rulers or used indirect rule through local elites.
And locals frequently rebelled against these foreign-controlled rulers.
From the very beginning of the twentieth century, Western Africa military coups started to become the norm. Even before the region gained its independence, it was already chafing against colonial war in conflicts like the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900.
Later in the century, a wave of decolonization spread across Western Africa, with each country establishing its own independent government in the wake of colonial rule.
But these national borders were (in many cases) drawn up by foreigners with little regard for local culture. Tribal differences, religious differences, and general distrust of government all conspired to make the resulting independent states profoundly unstable.
The first of the French colonies to gain its independence was Guinea. But it wasn’t long before the country’s new leader, Ahmed Sékou Touré, kicked off a coup to oust the French-backed government, and give Guineans independence from foreign rule at last.
Ahmed Sékou Touré with John F. Kennedy. (Image courtesy of JFK Library)
Unfortunately, Togo’s first rebellion wasn’t quite so noble. That country’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio, the first President of Togo, was brutally assassinated in a military coup led by Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 1963. Eyadéma would go on to rule the country for years with an iron fist.
And Nigeria experienced its own series of upheavals starting in 1966. The first coup, known as the "Kaduna Nzeogwu coup," was led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, leading to the deaths of several political leaders. A counter-coup by General Yakubu Gowon soon followed, initiating a period of military rule.
Following years of political instability, many Western African nations fell under military rule during the latter half of the twentieth century, often characterized by frequent changes of leadership through coups and counter-coups. These countries include Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
Nigeria experienced numerous coups and a protracted period of military rule during this period. Notable coups include the overthrow of General Yakubu Gowon by General Murtala Ramat Mohammed in 1975, and the coup that brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power in 1985.
After Kwame Nkrumah's government was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, Ghana saw a series of coups and counter-coups, including the 1981 coup led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings.
Sierra Leone faced a series of coups and political instability, including the 1967 coup led by David Lansana and the 1992 coup that ousted Joseph Saidu Momoh.
But the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003) soon eclipsed many prior conflicts in its sheer scale of devastation and destruction. Liberia’s fifteen-year civil war was marked by various betrayals, insurrections, and rebellions, in addition to extensive foreign involvement and mass atrocities.
Prior to the Civil War, Samuel Doe led a military coup in 1980, overthrowing the government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. Doe's regime was marked by brutality and political repression.
Charles Taylor, a warlord and former ally of Doe, initiated his own rebellion in 1989. This marked the beginning of a prolonged civil war, which included coups and counter-coups as various factions vied for power.
And the list goes on.
From coup attempts in Burkina Faso to repeated upheaval in Guinea and Gambia, political violence and instability are practically the norm for Western Africa. Plagued by poverty, poor education standards, and a complicated colonial history, the region is as prone to instability as anywhere else in the world.
As such, the history of Western Africa is replete with coups, rebellions, and political instability.
The causes and consequences of these coups are diverse, reflecting the complex sociopolitical dynamics that have shaped the history of Western Africa. While some countries have transitioned to more stable democratic governance, others continue to grapple with instability and military rule.
Niger’s Unsteady Alliance Falls Apart
Few countries have seen more West Africa military coups than Niger.
On August 3, 1960, Niger achieved independence from French colonial rule; however, armed rebellions and years of military government have plagued the country since its liberation.
Lieutenant Gabriel Kountché led a failed coup attempt only three years following Niger's independence, thereby underscoring the military's discontent over what they perceived as corruption and inefficiency within the government.
Despite the early hiccup, President Hamani Diori governed Niger with a democratic system during its first fifteen years of independence. This period also exhibited political instability and economic challenges; in essence, it set the stage for the nation's inaugural successful coup.
On April 15, 1974, Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché—brother of Gabriel Kountché—successfully orchestrated a coup, an action that resulted in the ousting of President Diori. The rule under Kountché was marked by military authoritarianism and an emphasis on economic stabilization.
Seyni Kountché (Image courtesy of RFI)
Seyni Kountché’s military regime was marked by a robust centralized government and an emphasis on economic development. He managed to retain power until his death in 1987. During this time, he took actions such as suspending the constitution, dissolving political parties; moreover– initiating a process of nationalization.
Kountché's government set its aim towards diminishing Niger's reliance on foreign aid and improving economic self-sufficiency. To kickstart this process, he launched a series of economic reforms; furthermore, significant investments were made specifically in the sectors of agriculture and mining.
Despite introducing a new era of relative stability, Kountché’s brutality and rampant human rights abuses can’t be ignored. He suppressed political dissent and limited political freedoms, and these abuses have become a hallmark of his legacy.
Colonel Ali Saïbou, the successor of Kountché who died in 1987, initiated a gradual transition to civilian rule.
The 1991 National Conference paved the way for Niger to embrace multi-party democracy: It birthed a new constitution, orchestrating an electoral stage that would define the nation's future.
In 1993, the nation held its first multi-party elections; these resulted in President Mahamane Ousmane's election. Yet instability continued to persist during this period.
Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara seized power in a military coup, toppling President Ousmane in January 1996. Yet again, Niger saw a military government that bore the hallmarks of corruption and repression, with accusations also surfacing about election fraud.
Assassins took Maïnassara's life in April 1999, an action that precipitated a subsequent period of political instability and military coups.
In the late 1990s, Niger transitioned back to democratic rule. Since then, it has undergone a series of elections and changes in government.
In 1999, Mamadou Tandja won the presidential election and fulfilled two terms in office. Yet in 2009, he endeavored to stretch his rule past constitutional boundaries; this action provoked broad protests and drew international condemnation.
In February 2010, Major Salou Djibo orchestrated a military coup that deposed President Tandja; the political crisis and President's persistent power-grabbing attempts fueled this upheaval.
The coup led to the establishment of a transition government, which subsequently organized elections in 2011. In a democratic process, voters elected Mahamadou Issoufou as President, marking a return to civilian rule.
Serving two terms as President, Mahamadou Issoufou secured his reelection in 2016; his tenure prioritized improvements in governance–particularly counterterrorism operations–and infrastructure development.
In the late months of 2020 and early 2021, Mohamed Bazoum emerged as the elected candidate after a series of presidential elections in his country.
Mohamed Bazoum (Image courtesy of CNN)
In February 2021, Mohamed Bazoum–a steadfast ally of President Issoufou in his outgoing tenure–triumphed, marking the culmination of the second round for presidential elections.
A peaceful and democratic transition of power—a significant milestone in Niger's political history—characterized Mohamed Bazoum's election.
At a time distinguished by significant challenges such as security threats from militant groups in the Sahel region, economic difficulties, and issues pertaining to governance and political stability, Bazoum assumed office.
Africa’s New Colonial Overlords
In addition to a steady stream of West African military coups, a new semi-colonial presence is beginning to influence politics in the region.
African countries are increasingly turning to China for loans and investments to support their economic development. Chinese involvement in African politics has grown in parallel with this financial support, leading to debates about the implications of such new business.
Right now, African countries collectively owe billions of dollars to China, with countries from Angola to Kenya and Ethiopia having substantial Chinese debt. As you can see in the chart below, African countries are more indebted to China than almost anywhere else in the world—with a substantial concentration in West Africa.
Africa’s increasing debt to China. (Image courtesy of Forbes & Statista)
In particular, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has facilitated the financing of numerous infrastructure projects, such as roads, railways, ports, and energy facilities, thereby generating considerable debt across the continent.
Certain African nations have borrowed from China, typically backed by their mineral wealth. This arrangement can present difficulties when the prices of goods of some exports begin to falter, making it more difficult for a country to meet its financial obligations.
In recent years, concerns about the sustainability of African nations' levels of indebtedness have intensified, especially considering the conditions that accompany Chinese loans. These loans are typically characterized by extended repayment periods and advantageous interest rates, yet the magnitude of debt often becomes oppressive.
Calls have arisen for more transparency within debt agreements due to undisclosed particulars, stoking anxieties regarding the effects on African economies and autonomy. Yet some African countries lack the capabilities to adequately evaluate the hazards linked with such loans, thereby resulting in a failure to secure the most favorable conditions.
Adhering to the precept of abstention from internal affairs, China's external relations in Africa offer an alluring option for nations with strained ties with Western nations.
China's engagement in conflict resolution and peacekeeping activities in African countries, such as South Sudan and Mali, has incontrovertibly established it as a regional mediator.
Utilizing the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a medium, China has cultivated diplomatic relationships with African governments, enabling collaboration on matters of economic development and climate change.
China's financial underwriting of infrastructure initiatives has not simply transactionalized economic relations, but additionally granted them political clout in African nations. This type of strategy has historically been called “debt-trap diplomacy,” where a party is unwittingly trapped under mountains of debt which the lender can use as political leverage.
That’s why critics contend that China's monetary contributions may be accompanied by expectations of political compliance, leading African nations to fall into a pattern of indebtedness which might erode their autonomy.
Additionally, criticisms have been lobbed against China's resource appropriation endeavors for their deleterious impact on host country ecosystems and social unrest.
In this way, African nations confront a quandary, striving for financial growth and infrastructure investment while simultaneously facing the menace of incurring debt and concessions of political autonomy to China.
What to Expect from Niger’s Coup
As you can see, the situation in West Africa is complicated to say the least. And the encroachment of Chinese interests doesn’t make things any simpler.
But nevertheless, this current coup in Niger marks an important turning point that we can’t ignore.
That’s because the perpetrators of the coup are broadly anti-Western in their sentiment. They’re rejecting diplomacy, free market economics, and a number of other key principles that define our way of life. Meanwhile, the Chinese have remained indifferent. So their influence (and their power) remain steady while the United States steadily loses more and more influence.
Niger’s new regime isn’t exactly bad for Chinese business, after all. And much like the United States allied itself with authoritarian dictators throughout South America during the Cold War, so too could the Chinese happily ally with a highly militaristic junta that’s currently holding Niger’s elected president hostage.
Now, all of that is dependent on the situation remaining stable. The country’s economy has to stay in operation, and the new government has to hold onto power, or else this is going to be bad news all around.
And unfortunately, we’re dealing with one of the most unstable regions on the planet.
(Image courtesy of NBC News)
As you’ve seen so far today, some military governments in West Africa can last for years. Others could be gone in months. It’s simply not possible to know at this point whether the situation might spiral out of control.
Really, the only “good news” here is the fact that this is an extremely low-grade conflict. Both parties are broadly limited to small arms, and it’s extremely, extremely unlikely that major CBRN threats could be unleashed.
Obviously, if you’re in the area, it never hurts to prepare.
Even for those as far away as South Africa, we always recommend stocking up on PPE and protective gear—starting with MIRA Tactical Level 4 Armor Plates.
Our Level 4 armor plates can stop multiple rounds from the venerable AK-47, along with larger-caliber rounds like 30-06. Thanks to its composite construction, it can absorb multiple rounds without spalling or puncturing. These standard plates will fit in your existing armor carrier or even an armored backpack.
Additionally, we recommend grabbing a Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (or TAPR) for every member of your family.
The TAPR is an ultra-lightweight, half-face respirator that can easily be packed into a purse or backpack and carried virtually anywhere. Additionally, it comes with an included P-CAN gas mask filter that’s optimized for protection from riot agents. In the event of civil unrest, lachrymatory agents like tear gas will likely be dispersed for crowd control purposes. With a P-CAN filter, you’ll be better able to navigate the chaos and make your way to safety.
When the Dust Settles
Niger’s military coup wasn’t West Africa’s first, and it certainly won’t be the last.
(Image courtesy of CNN)
And while China’s increased presence in the region may help contribute to greater stability in West Africa, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest of the world. Though it’s promising to see local authorities like ECOWAS step up, the resulting sanctions could be devastating for millions in Niger.
At the moment, it’s impossible to know whether the new military junta will last for years or just a few days.
The situation is steadily evolving from week to week, and we’ll be the first to update you if there’s increasing concern.
Frequently Asked Questions
West Africa's history of military coups and political turmoil can be traced back to the colonial era. The region's borders, often drawn with zero regard for local culture or tribal differences, have fueled intense instability. Economic challenges and disputes over valuable resources have also played a role, making the region more susceptible to military coups and political upheavals.
China's increasing presence in West Africa, especially through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has led to substantial debt for many African nations. This debt, often characterized by extended repayment periods and hidden terms, has raised concerns about these countries' economic and political autonomy. There are also worries that China's involvement in African politics–sometimes termed "debt-trap diplomacy”–could result in political influence over these indebted nations.
In response to the recent coup in the region, ECOWAS–that’s the Economic Community of West African States–swiftly demanded the reinstatement of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey, threatening sanctions or the use of force. Alongside this, ECOWAS convened emergency meetings to discuss how best to address the emergence of this regional instability. This robust response demonstrates the organization's commitment to maintaining democracy and political stability in West Africa, with Niamey at the forefront of their concerns.
The Burkina Faso coup occurred in September of 2015, when members of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) staged a rebellion, leading to the temporary overthrow of the transitional government. Like other nations in the West African “Coup Belt,” Burkina Faso has experienced several coup attempts and political instability throughout its history.