Wagner mercenaries: A potential link to survival for Niger’s junta


In Niger, an unmistakable surge of Russian flags has emerged, particularly in the capital city, Niamey. These flags often accompany large-scale demonstrations, where fervent pro-Russia sentiments are expressed through chants like “long live Russia” and “down with France, long live Putin”.

The root cause of prevailing instability and turmoil can largely be attributed to the recent coup orchestrated by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who seized power on July 28th, following the arrest of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum just ten days earlier. This coup took the nation by surprise, sending shockwaves not only across Niger but beyond its borders in West Africa.

Niger’s history has seen at least five successful coups over the past five decades, along with numerous unsuccessful attempts. A foiled coup in 2021, occurring just 48 hours before President-elect Bazoum’s planned inauguration, nearly brought an end to Niger’s prolonged period of democratic rule, raising concerns about the potential for further instability.

Escalating incidents of terrorism and extremism

Niger’s geopolitical position assumes a pivotal role, leading to two significant developments amid the growing crisis. Firstly, the situation has the potential to escalate into either a West African-wide conflict or what some term “Africa’s world war.” Secondly, as a Sahel region nation, Niger holds a crucial position not only concerning terrorism and violent extremism in West Africa but also within a continent that has become a global hotspot for terrorist activities and Islamic extremist violence.

Drawing from data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) in 2023, Figure 1 illustrates the escalating trends of terrorist incidents in Niger from 2010 to 2021. Figure 2 provides a comparable depiction of the steady rise in terrorist occurrences observed across sub-Saharan Africa during the same period.

Complex twists and turns

Adding a layer of complexity, the deposed president was seen as a key ally by Western nations in their efforts to combat and curb Islamic extremism in this volatile region. Some states within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have called for the reinstatement of the ousted president or even military intervention to restore his authority. However, this viewpoint isn’t unanimous across all ECOWAS member states.

In another twist, the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso have publicly endorsed General Tchiani’s plans to establish a new government and assume the presidency. Should regional military forces be deployed, both countries have pledged to support the coup and its participants. The military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso have even warned that any external military intervention by ECOWAS, the United Nations, or Western powers in Niger would be considered an act of aggression against their governments, tantamount to a formal declaration of war. The parallels can be drawn between the leadership trajectories of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. All three came into power through coups and share similar political histories and paths. They see Niger’s evolution as a gradual move toward self-determination and liberation from external influences and colonialism.

The third nuance involves Mali and Burkina Faso’s close ties with Russia, further complicating the coup’s regional dimensions and the potential for broader hostilities involving Russia and Western nations. These three countries’ military regimes share a common mistrust of the West, stemming from concerns about Western powers’ infringement on their sovereignty, historical oppressions, national interests, and socioeconomic stability.

Responses from the West and ECOWAS

The evolving dynamics in the region have increased regional and international tensions, prompting Western nations to sever economic ties with Niger and impose sanctions. Furthermore, Nigeria has halted energy supplies to Niger. These actions are driven, at least in part, by concerns that Russia might forge a new alliance in the region. It could be argued that Niger is increasingly becoming embroiled in an emerging proxy conflict between Western powers and Russia, all while grappling with a regional crisis that has the potential to escalate into armed conflict, further compounded by its engagement with the Wagner Group.

In response to ECOWAS’s activation of standby forces in readiness for potential intervention in Niger, the coup leaders have warned that any invasion or military intervention targeting the country will result in the demise of the deposed president. The statement carries a certain irony and complexity, as the initial threat led to foreign African involvement.

Nevertheless, with time passing, the likelihood of Nigeria and Ghana rallying ECOWAS for military intervention seems to diminish.

The United States’ claim to support African solutions for African problems adds another layer of irony. The coup isn’t limited solely to Africa, and US intervention doesn’t offer a comprehensive solution for the continent. The US has expressed its intention to engage diplomatically with the junta through special emissaries, aiming to persuade them to relinquish power, restore democratic governance, and uphold constitutional principles. Meanwhile, the junta has closed Niger’s airspace and stoked a sense of nationalism, urging citizens to defend against potential colonial incursions.

Return of Wagner mercenaries

As anticipated, the Wagner Group has established a presence in Niger, offering guidance on defensive strategies in case of military conflict. Wagner seems keen on exploring opportunities in Africa after its involvement in Ukraine and its strained relations with Russia. Anthony Blinken has accused Wagner of capitalizing on the coup crisis in Niger. Some Western media outlets even suggest that Yevgeny Prigozhin is leveraging the growing anti-France sentiment in the country.

A scenario unfolds where the Niger junta might seek a stronger partnership with Wagner mercenaries to provide substantial and lasting assistance, particularly in the context of potential military intervention and the use of force. This scenario gains relevance as ECOWAS’s August 6th deadline for Bazoum’s reinstatement has passed without compliance. The presence of Wagner mercenaries and their willingness to assist shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.

Prigozhin personally congratulated General Tchiani for orchestrating the successful coup. Considering an aborted coup attempt in Russia, the Wagner Group could indeed play a role in securing the junta’s triumph in Niger.

In the wake of the coup, the junta’s lack of a comprehensive vision for the next steps, coupled with mounting international condemnation and the looming potential for military intervention, suggests that the junta relies on Wagner to fortify its tenuous grip on power. Should Wagner align with the junta, it’s conceivable that such a situation could create an environment conducive to the proliferation of terrorism and extremism in the region.

Wagner has gained prominence in the Sahel region, positioning itself as a significant player in Russian involvement in Africa. On Twitter, Wagner presents itself as a protector, claiming a role in safeguarding Niger against terrorism and extremist elements. The group stated that “a thousand Wagner fighters were able to restore order and destroy terrorists, preventing harm to civilians.”

Power consolidation or escalating instability?

At this pivotal phase, the junta’s ability to maintain power and establish legitimacy remains uncertain, given substantial domestic and foreign opposition that’s subject to unpredictable shifts. Instability characterizes the current situation, and the junta is yet to firmly consolidate its control. One possible outcome, regardless of the junta’s longevity, is the potential for insurgencies and armed factions like Al Qaeda, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), ISWAP, Boko Haram (BH), and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS) to exploit the existing instability and discord. These outcomes could exacerbate violence, potentially spilling over into neighboring areas of Niger.

Wagner’s involvement seems pivotal in consolidating and prolonging the junta’s hold on power. The group portrays itself as a quasi-liberator and champion of self-determination, asserting that “we are always on the side of good, on the side of justice, and on the side of those who fight for their sovereignty and for the rights of their people”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statements reveal conflicting narratives. He noted that “every single place that this Wagner Group has gone, death, destruction, and exploitation have followed”. The assertion carries a distinct irony, particularly when considering its source from the US.

Insecurity reloaded

Niger’s population, approximately 25 million people, has endured prolonged economic hardships and various forms of instability for decades. They’ve endured a history of colonization, French rule, and now military junta governance. The Wagner Group could potentially exert significant influence over the nation’s trajectory, whether directly or indirectly. Much like previous imperial powers and Western nations that claim or have claimed to advance Niger’s socioeconomic welfare, the Wagner Group has spotted an opportunity to redefine its role.

These unfolding events are transpiring amid the anguish of Niger’s population and uncertainty about potential regional conflicts. Even if a full-blown conflict doesn’t emerge, the prospect of persistent insecurity looms for years to come. The post-coup instability and subsequent events have brought detrimental consequences to the Sahel region. These effects include the exacerbation of existing security challenges, heightened tensions among ECOWAS members, and the emergence of new domestic and regional threats.

In this coup’s context, with intersecting elements of potential regional warfare, nascent proxy conflicts, and neocolonial agendas of foreign powers, several consequences can be anticipated.

Firstly, a decline in democratic governance in the region could occur, driven by divisions among ECOWAS members and skepticism toward the political and economic union of West African states. This sentiment is particularly pronounced in Niamey, where Nigeriens express concerns about ECOWAS involvement.

Secondly, other governments in the central Sahel region might succumb to the influence of military juntas or face state collapse.

Thirdly, sanctions’ socioeconomic fallout, akin to the Western approach toward Russia after Putin’s Ukraine invasion, could significantly degrade the quality of life for Niger’s inhabitants.

Fourthly, the present circumstances might accentuate the divide between those who seek change among Nigeriens and those who favor maintaining the current military junta. This schism could manifest through military intervention and the involvement of external actors like Wagner mercenaries and other foreign forces.

Fifthly, under the governance of a fragile military junta, Niger could potentially become a breeding ground for extremist activities. This could happen due to Western powers’ involvement driven by neocolonial motives or, conversely, in the absence of Western troops, creating an opening for establishing operational bases within the nation.


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