As Russia’s War With the West Spreads to West Africa

Canadian interests may be put at risk

Russia’s confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western military alliance, has spread to West Africa. 

The latest theatre (of violence) has opened up in the desert country of Niger after a group of military officers ousted their president, Mohammed Bazoum, last week. Head of the presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tiani, who was apparently behind the July 26 rebellion, declared himself the new head of state and moved quickly to ally with Russia. 

For the West, it was the latest in a pattern of coups in West Africa in recent years that threw up pro-Russian regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso. It was promptly condemned by the U.S. and France, as well as the regional economic grouping Ecowas, of which Niger is a member. But it was ominously praised by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, as an act of liberation from France, the former colonial ruler of the country.

Now there’s a risk of military intervention in Niger under the auspices of Ecowas and with the backing of the West in order to restore Bazoum’s civilian rule. Nigeria, the regional powerhouse and Niger’s southern neighbour, which spearheaded similar interventions in the past in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia, is sounding belligerent, closing its borders with Niger and cutting electricity supplies to its northern neighbour.

Nigeria’s Tinubu doubled as president of Ecowas.

On the side of the new government in Mali stand the governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Algeria, and all of Wagner’s mercenaries in the region estimated at more than 12,000. The idea of making France a scapegoat for the economic woes of Francophone West Africa has proved a very popular rallying point for the populist putschists with demonstrators marching daily in the capital, Niamey, in their support.

This means that any intervention in Niger is likely to be different from the previous ones and may yield unexpected results. It ties in with Russia’s efforts to unsettle the Western alliance by attacking perceived pillars of its power, including relations with former colonies and sources of critical raw materials.

For instance, Niger is one of the world’s top producers of uranium and the source from which France obtained the supplies to build its nuclear reactors and weapons. Niger also provides a substantial amount of the uranium to power nuclear reactors in Europe, an energy source that became even more important with the uncertainty of gas supplies from Russia.

One of the first steps the regime took was to suspend uranium exports to France. Demonstrators in the capital, Niamey, attacked the French embassy with bricks and stones and mobbed the motorcade of the new leader with joy, indicating widespread discontent with the ousted leader and his alleged dalliance with France. French President Emmanuel Macron was angry enough to threaten reprisals if any French lives were lost.

Bazoum, who was elected in 2021, succeeded Mammado Issifou, who was closely allied to France. Like his predecessor, he maintained good relations with France and French companies dominated Niger’s uranium production.

Tchiani rose through the military ranks to become head of the presidential guard and was in charge of the elite forces under Bazoum’s predecessor, Issofou. Militarily sources say he was upset by Bazoum’s recent purge of old hands as part of the process of asserting himself. Tchiani felt he was a likely target and decided to strike first.

Canada has suspended development assistance to show its disapproval of the forced change of government. While only about three Canadian companies currently operate in Niger, the majority of Canadian companies in the region operate in Mali and Burkina Faso, two countries allied to Niger that are also under military rulers.

Official Canadian government figures show that the value of Canadian companies’ investments in Africa rose from $36.34 billion in 2020 to $37.2 billion in 2021, spread among 100 companies.  Out of this amount, the biggest slice of $15.672 billion was located in West Africa. They’re concentrated in countries such as Mali ($7.6 billion), Mauritania ($3.2 billion), Burkina Faso ($1.9 billion), Ivory Coast ($1.3 billion) and Ghana ($1.1 billion), most of them in the mining industry.

The Canadian companies were three in Niger in 2021 compared to 15 in Burkina Faso, 13 in Mali, 10 in Ghana and nine in Ivory Coast. Despite the limited exposure to Niger, the junta there are heartily backed by the rulers of Mali and Burkina Faso, raising the political risk exposure for those companies.

Niger coup leader Tiani

For Tinubu, the temptation to intervene is great. First, it will seal his reputation as a strongman who wouldn’t shirk from tough decisions, having already ended fuel subsidies and floated the naira, two measures considered unthinkable for decades by successive governments, and appears to be getting away with it.

At a time when there are questions about the legitimacy of his administration and the courts are still hearing petitions challenging the process that brought him to power, a war with another country might be a welcome distraction that might even prevent the nullification of his election. Besides, helping halt the spread of Russian influence in West Africa will likely endear him to the West.

That is probably where the benefits of a war with Niger ends. Beyond or beside these, Nigeria risks opening a separate, internal can of worms that can lead to more intractable problems.

Niger is almost 98 percent made up of Hausa speakers, the same demography that obtains across much of Muslim northern Nigeria. Any violent onslaught on Niger territory led by a president from southern Nigeria can easily be misconstrued as an attack by southern Nigeria on the Muslim north.

This hint was dropped by a group of senators from Nigeria’s north that issued a joint statement this week admonishing Tinubu’s government against any hasty deployment of troops to Niger. “The emphasis should be on the political and diplomatic means to restore democratic government in Niger Republic,” the senators said. “We also take exception to use of the of military force until other avenues as mentioned above are exhausted.”

Opposition parties have also condemned moves by Tinubu and the regional body Ecowas to intervene militarily, fearing it would be a political distraction with economic consequences the country could ill afford.

There are fears that lacking the economic backbone to foot a war bill, Nigeria might unravel on its own, under pressure from the events in Niger. Various disparate voices are already up in arms over their dissatisfaction with the state of the country. They range from Islamist jihadists through oil-region militants to Biafra separatists, all armed and seeking dismemberment of the country. An overburdened and thereby weakened military will provide them a boost.

Even the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), seen now as a key advocate of intervention may be severely damaged by such an adventure. Three member states, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, have thrown their weight behind the leaders in Niger, raising the risks of a regional war that may then draw the international community behind rival sides, such as the current situation in war-distressed Sudan.

An alliance with Russia will be a blow to both the U.S. and France. The U.S. has operated a military base out of Niger from where it works in cooperation with France, which also has soldiers there, in the war against jihadists camped out in the desert. The counter-terrorism effort is bound to suffer a setback. The retreat of the West from Niger may also be an opportunity for China to step into the region.

A prolonged war will serve Russia’s purpose of disrupting the alternative sources of gas supply being sought by Europe. One of them is for a gas pipeline from Nigeria, through Niger and Algeria, and past the Mediterranean, en route to Europe. The viability of such a project would be called into question due to heightened political risk in the event of military intervention in Niger.

Ecowas troops, if deployed to Niger, won’t just be confronting the old presidential guard but a military force backed by a strong contingent of Wagner mercenaries and the armed forces of more than three countries. There is concern in Nigeria that such a regional conflict would be too close for comfort. In the words of opposition member of parliament, Obi Aguocha: “No one can tell how this war will approach our borders.”

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