Australian Outlook

In this section

Niger’s Crisis: Navigating the Shifting Sands of Sahel Security

22 Aug 2023
By Dr Muhammad Dan Suleiman
March 30, 2023 - NIGER. World Bank Group President David Malpass meets with Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou of Niger and select cabinet members during a briefing on the security challenges faced by Niger. Source: World Bank / Torie Smith /

Niger’s recent coup unsettles the delicate balance required to address humanitarian challenges and extremist militancy, ensure global security, and limit the disruptive pursuit of global spheres of influence. Understanding its multiple layers of complexity will help restore some equilibrium.

The coup in the West African state of Niger follows closely on the heels of several successful coups in West Africa—in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. As of 2023, the perimeter of West Africa is lined with countries led by juntas, creating a vast theatre of military rule.

In this puzzle, Niger’s coup brings multiple layers of complexity at the national, regional, and international levels. Acknowledging these complexities will help navigate the evolving crisis which will shape the region’s security, with implications far beyond its borders.

Nigeria’s diplomatic gambit

The first complexity is Niger’s big brother neighbour Nigeria, with which it shares a border as well as linguistic and cultural connections, and security interests. Nigeria’s influence in West Africa cannot be understated. Abuja’s decision to lead the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) stance on Niger’s coup highlights a strategic attempt to curtail the spread of military-led governments in its vicinity. By orchestrating ECOWAS’s immediate sanctions on Niger and advocating for potential military intervention, Nigeria underscores its commitment to democratic governance in the region.

However, while Nigeria intends to uphold democracy, reinstating the ousted president Mohamed Bazoum is fraught with obstacles, especially if the coup leaders cement their rule. Should they do so, with the overt backing of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, Nigeria’s relations with these Sahel nations may be critically strained. A coup-led government in Niger could perceive Nigeria’s pro-intervention stance as an insult. This will undermine existing agreements between the two neighbours and breed mistrust.

Managing the Niger crisis requires Nigeria to tread cautiously. And international actors who back the ECOWAS decision must note that Niger is notably different from the Gambia (2017) and Guinea-Bissau (2022) interventions, where ECOWAS restored democracy after attempts to curtail it.

The Sahel is a region on the edge

Niger’s size and location are particularly crucial to consider. With a land area of almost 1,270,000 km2, Niger is the largest country in West Africa, sharing a border with seven other nations. So far, two of its Sahel neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso, have supported Niger’s coup leaders. At the same time, ECOWAS has no jurisdiction over Niger’s powerful North African neighbours Algeria and Libya.

Attempts at positioning ECOWAS or Nigeria against these influential Sahel states has the potential to precipitate a wider regional conflict.

Jihadist groups are certainly poised to exploit any power vacuums. The ensuing chaos worsens the “security traffic jam”—where the presence of several actors but with little coordination has choked counter-extremism progress—in the region. This threatens not just the stability of individual nations but the collective security fabric of the Sahel.

Niger’s geopolitical significance in the global game

Niger is not only important in the fight against militancy in the Sahel. With Mali and Burkina Faso already out of line with former colonial states such as France and its allies, Niger assumed an outsized significance as the last bastion of democracy. Home to several Western military personnel and military bases prior to the coup, Niger had been situated as the West’s only friend in the Central Sahel. That’s why beyond regional concerns, global superpowers are closely monitoring the Sahel’s evolving landscape. Niger’s strategic importance, especially its uranium reserves, makes it a vital chess piece in global politics. It’s a game Western countries cannot afford to lose because of who will win: Russia. The evident pro-Russia sentiment in parts of the Sahel, compounded by the private military corporation Wagner Group’s clandestine and opportunistic overtures in the vicinity, points to another East vs West showdown.

Australia’s role

Australia has a role to play as the international community finds solutions to the challenges that Niger and the Sahel presents. Australian mining companies have been at the forefront of investment in West Africa, with several holding operations in Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Mali. The direct relationship between peacefulness and economic growth underscores the alarming negative impacts of instability on business and investment.

While Australia joins global partners in addressing the Sahel’s impasse, it would be in Canberra’s interests to make deliberate efforts to be on the side of the people while not entertaining disruptive politics. Australia should not support any future military intervention but continue its soft activities in areas such as development cooperation and providing security training and expertise against militancy.

Staying on the side of the people means not allying with unpopular leaders who may serve Canberra’s interests. Popular sentiments will continue to rise against pro-Western allied leaders for some time, as insecurity, economic hardship, and colonial legacies converge to push citizens towards all but the West.

Navigating the sands

In navigating Niger’s crisis, the international community must note that it is the people who stand to lose the most. A continued state of unrest would decimate developmental gains, strain educational and health infrastructure, and perpetuate cycles of poverty.

The Niger crisis shows that the intricate web of challenges engulfing the Sahel is not just a regional or continental concern; it’s a global one. In this complex mosaic of challenges, the Niger crisis also presents a chance to foster regional unity, facilitate diplomatic dialogues, and invest in the Sahel’s sustainable future. There is an urgent need for an international response that isn’t just reactive and intensely strategic, but humane.

Dr Muhammad Dan Suleiman is an African politics analyst and West Africa security researcher. He is a research associate and IR lecturer at Curtin University, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.