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Rumors of War in West Africa
With Neither Side Backing Down, the Troubled Region is Set to Explode
“Complaints, whether of communities or individuals, it is possible to adjust; but war undertaken by a coalition for sectional interests, whose progress there is no means of foreseeing, may not be easily or creditably settled.”
- Archidamus, King of Sparta [Thucydides, 1.82.6]
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West Africa is in its moment of greatest peril. As a result of a standoff between states over the coup in Niger, a war may break out at any time which could engulf this region that is home to 440 million people. On one side are the active members of Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS,] backed by France and the United States. On the other side are suspended members of ECOWAS, aligned with Russia and the Wagner private military company. ECOWAS is activating “standby” troops and they appear to be in the “amassing” phase of preparing for war. Ivory Coast President Alassane Outtara said the force would intervene “as soon as possible.” The suspended members are all under military governments, and were suspended from ECOWAS for being in violation of its rules on democracy and good government. Currently on the sidelines are Guinea- a suspended ECOWAS country where the wave of coups started in 2020- and the neighboring countries of Chad, the Central African Republic, and Algeria, all of whom want to see the situation resolved peacefully but oppose an ECOWAS invasion of Niger to varying degrees. With ongoing internal conflicts in several nearby countries, most notably Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, a geographically enormous portion of the world could turn into a war zone. It is easy to imagine the parties in those conflicts declaring for competing sides if war breaks out in West Africa. This risks being, geographically at least, the largest conflict since the World Wars. While it seems incredible anyone would start a major war over one of the last countries in the Sahel falling under military rule, that is where things stand. Some reports do state that it would take six months for ECOWAS to deploy the envisioned 25,000 man army, giving the juntas plenty of time to prepare but also time for cooler heads to prevail. If this war should break out we will hear for the rest of our lives that the lesson is that they should have acted after the initial coup in 2020- something Senegal President Macky Sall has already expressed. The reality is that they could just choose to not go to war over Niger, though it might involve the US abandoning the largest drone base in the world and France buying uranium from another source at market prices instead of looting Africa. If these coalitions go to war, it will be as Captain Edmund Blackadder once said of World War I on the classic TV show, “The real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.” ‘Twas ever thus?
France’s influence in Francafrique, France’s former African empire, has been on the decline for many years, but the French have still maintained a great deal of economic, political, and military influence over the region. That influence is in the process of catastrophic collapse. As I wrote in February, years of jihadist violence catalyzed by the overthrow of longtime Libya leader Muammer Gadaffi created the conditions for a remarkable series of coups across Francophone Africa starting in 2020. In short, the American and French military presence failed to improve the security situation, undermining confidence in the Western-aligned civil governments backed by those states. This caused the United States and France to become ever more reliant on Niger for their security strategy, something which spectacularly imploded when Niger experienced its own coup:
Many people opposed to the US and French presence in the region celebrated the coup in the assumption that it was following the same trend as Mali and Burkina Faso where a nationalist leader would expel the French. Though it is turning out that way, that was not a predetermined result. That belief ignored the fact that the West accepted Mahamet Deby’s seizure of power in Chad following his father’s death, at France’s request. We still have not been given a clearer picture of why Tchiani led a coup than that he was at risk of being fired as the head of the Presidential Guard and didn’t want to lose his job. However, instead of recognizing the reality of the situation and the clear precedent of working with a coup government due to national security concerns [an explicit exception to the US law prohibiting funding coup regimes] the US and France reacted with a great deal of hostility and made it clear that Tchiani’s only option- besides outright surrender- was aligning with the other coup governments in the region, and by extension Russia and Wagner. The junta has also thus far proven overwhelmingly popular among Nigeriens, which is at least partially a reaction to the hamfisted approach of outside powers and the clear and direct threats to Niger’s sovereignty. People come together when threatened.
The most prominent threat against Niger was made by ECOWAS, which on July 30th gave the military government an ultimatum that it had one week to reinstate deposed President Bazoum. The Chairmanship for ECOWAS is currently held by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who “won” an election in March. At the time, I wrote an article referring to him as “Africa’s Joe Biden,” as he is an elderly, corrupt, stuffed corpse. Many supporters of his opponent were sure that outside powers would not let Tinubu take office due to personal corruption and widespread electoral fraud. While the BBC reported on truly mind-blowing levels of fraud in the counting of election results, the corruption must have made him taking office more, not less appealing to the United States and the United Kingdom. Tinubu studied in the United States in the early ‘90s, at which point he was caught up in a heroin trafficking investigation where he forfeited a large amount of money while not admitting to any personal guilt. Though Tinubu’s past has long been known and was widely discussed by Nigerians [many of whom had trouble understanding the United States’ peculiar asset forfeiture system whereby the property was found guilty but not Tinubu,] it has been put in the spotlight by his leadership of West Africa’s response to this coup. Writing for The Grayzone, Alex Rubinstein and Kit Klarenberg recently published a piece titled “From Chi-Town bagman to ECOWAS chairman: meet the former money launderer leading the push to invade Niger” which focuses on this angle of how his past may be impacting the present.
We can’t know for sure if the United States leaned on Tinubu regarding the heroin trafficking investigation, but we should assume the federal government is holding more information than has been made public. However, it seems more likely that Tinubu’s bigger issue is that he himself must make an ostentatious show of support for “democracy,” having taken power in a manner considered illegitimate by much of his country. He also perhaps feels some kinship with Bazoum, who was said to have cheated in his own election, with opposition candidate Mohamane Ousmane claiming results showed that in the city Agadez- which hosts the infamous US drone base- there was a turnout of 103%, 99% of whom voted for Bazoum. It is not possible for me to verify the accuracy of his claims, though the Constitutional Court upheld the results while invalidating 73 polling stations for unspecified reasons, something which barely changed results. The point, however, is that to much of Niger, Bazoum was not legitimately elected in the first place, so many felt this was only a democratic facade covering a Western puppet.
The rest of Nigeria has been less enthusiastic than Tinubu about invading their northern neighbor, in part because there is already a brutal war between the military and Boko Haram terrorists within Nigeria where the military is seen to have caused a lot of harm to civilians while being unable to defeat the terrorists- the same general circumstance which undermined the governments overthrown by coups. The Nigerian Senate was reported to be overwhelmingly hostile to deploying troops, though such reports were later walked back with a procedural explanation of what happened in the Senate. A group of Muslim clerics from northern Nigeria also expressed opposition. There have been some antiwar demonstrations in the country, opposing attacking their brotherly nation of Niger. As ever, every party pushing for war, including Tinubu, continues to say war should only be a “last resort.” They have the option of simply tolerating a military regime in Niger as the entire world has in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan, thus proving that Niger having a military government does not force their hand, and war does not need to be resorted to under any foreseeable circumstance. Still, ECOWAS under Tinubu has been leading the charge towards intervention, with France claiming its only concern is the safety of its citizens in Niger. Most skeptical observers believe ECOWAS is acting at the behest of the French, as demonstrated by this political cartoon:
The outside world responded to the coup in Niger with a suspension of aid, sanctions, and other punishments. It is well established that sanctions only succeed at causing public suffering while actually making the public stand with the sanctioned regime, but the Western powers never learn this lesson. For all of this, the US has still refused to call it a coup and one continues to see articles referring to it as a “coup attempt” despite that the junta has had entirely uncontested control of the country for two weeks, though one plucky individual claims to have started a resistance movement. Besides ECOWAS closing the borders to most commerce, in roughly chronological order some immediate responses included: the EU suspending financial and security assistance; Germany suspending financial aid; France and Italy evacuating their citizens [many of whom are presumably of Nigerien descent]; and most importantly, Nigeria cutting electricity to the country, which already has one of the most insufficient electric grids in the world. Meanwhile, though Niger initially closed its borders for security purposes, it re-opened them with the countries which remain friendly. However, these are primarily remote desert borders through which little passes, and regional sanctions are cutting off food aid through the country’s major crossings. Blocking food aid to one of the world’s poorest countries because they don’t like its new military government shows the depravity and hypocrisy of the West and their regional partners, being as they are continuing to provide aid to neighboring Chad which is also under military government that they happen to get along with. The masses of the region see directly through this and know that the West’s concern isn’t democracy, and that it also is not fighting terrorism or providing humanitarian aid.
At the same time ECOWAS was threatening the Niger junta, Tchiani was consolidating power by arresting many members of the former regime. More importantly, the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso said they would consider an attack on Niger a declaration of war against them. Niger’s government ended its military pact with France, though the French thus far appear to be refusing to leave, despite the clear precedent they set by withdrawing from Mali and Burkina Faso [mostly into Niger] when told to do so by military governments. Faced with these threats, Niger has reportedly requested help from the Russian Wagner private military company, whom the West sees as a primary enemy in Africa. On Monday the 8th, Mali and Burkina Faso sent delegations to Niger showing their support for the new government. Then, on Wednesday the 10th, Niger’s junta leaders accused France of violating their airspace- which they closed in anticipation of an attack- and of unilaterally releasing terrorists.
As to other countries in the region, Doumbaya, the military leader of Guinea, released a statement earlier this week saying that Niger is a friendly country and he opposes the ECOWAS sanctions regime. Algeria, which fought a bloody war of independence against France 60 years ago, said they supported a “return to constitutional order” but strongly opposed any use of military force as it could further destabilize the region and also jeopardize economic development including a pipeline meant to traverse the Sahara through these countries. President Mahamet Deby of Chad, the French-aligned military government in the region, has been used as a mediator in efforts to free Bazoum [who is from a minority ethnicity linked to Chad] but seems likely to oppose military actions done “for democracy.” The President of the Central African Republic, Touadera, who invited Wagner into his country to train his soldiers in their fight against rebels in 2018, said on Wednesday that Russian authorities have said he can improve relations with France and he is willing to do so, but that’s from a position of currently being Russia-aligned. Overall, while Niger’s capital Niamey may be close to Nigeria, it is home to a small percentage of the country’s population, and any ECOWAS force would find itself fighting a war in vast hostile territory where it could not easily resupply. Finally, the other super power operating in the region, Russia, which has thus far tepidly condemned the coup, warned against military action against Niger. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We believe that the military way of resolving the crisis in Niger can lead to a protracted confrontation in this African country, as well as to a sharp destabilization of the situation in the Sahara-Sahel region as a whole.” It’s worth noting that this warning from Russia is not a threat but is instead a rational explanation of why attacking Niger is a terrible idea.
The junta regimes of the region are finding fertile ground to win popular support due to the Western approach and resentment towards economic domination by the French. While the putschists in Niger initially dispersed a “pro-democracy” protest with warning shots, and we can be sure it’s safer to demonstrate for a junta than protest against one, no one is denying that the Niger coup is receiving enormous public support. Niger has seen a series of rallies throughout the country, including some which have attacked the French embassy. One even had to be broken up by the military which demonstrators were there to support. Protestors carry signs with anti-French slogans and some have Russian flags, seeing the country as an ally against the Western powers. I had actually wondered where these people were getting Russia flags, but it turns out the market for making them is booming:
On Sunday the 6th, the same day the ECOWAS ultimatum “expired,” Niger’s generals held a massive rally of at least 30,000 people in the main stadium in the capital Niamey. The support has been so overwhelming that no Western mainstream media has been willing to deny it, and all of them have been running stories about large pro-junta rallies, including Reuters releasing a video of junta supporters demonstrating outside the French military base. Of course, the Russian flags are emphasized, but they are there in numbers worthy of reporting.
Polling by The Economist produced some incredible data. It showed that almost 80% of respondents support the junta, though the majority of those want it to hold elections. Over 60% said that Russia is the foreign actor they trust the most, with the United States coming in second at just over 10% and France at around 5%. Of course, as an establishment British publication, The Economist calls such support for Russia “troubling.” The poll was conducted quickly in person in the capital, and says it has a sampling biased towards well educated, urban men. The urban and educated probably prefer civil government, America, and France more than the peasantry, so this poll could easily under-represent the junta’s support. This all presents an interesting contrast to Tinubu having allegedly won the Nigerian Presidency with 36% of the votes. What is more democratic, winning by a plurality and never having popular support, or the overwhelming support of this military regime which took power by force? The new regime’s support makes it difficult for the Western powers to negotiate regarding Bazoum, given that their best play they could sell would be an agreement for early elections which would surely be won by the junta’s candidate.
Now the ECOWAS deadline has come and gone, anti-French sentiment is rampant throughout the region, and Wagner is believed to have entered yet another country. The Western powers, left with few options, sent America’s regime change queen, current Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland into the country to negotiate. The wife of arch-neocon Robert Kagan, this particular woman does not like when there are coups that she did not plan. She describes the situation as them all having “rolled up their sleeves” and gotten to work. The reality is that Niger’s new government didn’t care to listen to her. Humorously, she met with one of at least 5 Niger putchists who were trained by the United States, though the US government insists there is no correlation between such training and doing coups. Nuland wasn’t allowed to meet with Tchiani or Bazoum. The only foreign envoy Tchiani has met with so far is a prominent Nigerian banker who is also a former Emir. This demonstrates just how little play the US currently has in the home country of its largest drone base, with the Deputy Secretary of State shown up by a Nigerian former Emir who holds no official position.
After her failed trip to Niger, Nuland spread the message that the putschists said they would kill Bazoum in the event of an invasion, which I find to be a dubious claim. At the same time, it is also quite literally what hostages are for, and these people are not playing around, so it is possible. We are being fed sob stories about how he is being kept without electricity, something the majority of Nigeriens didn’t have even before Nigeria shut off the power it was supplying to the country. Strangely, they haven’t cut his communication with the outside world, even letting Bazoum write an op-ed in the Washington Post about the importance of restoring his regime, and you can see it wasn’t smuggled out on toilet paper. I don’t have a conspiracy theory about why Bazoum is allowed such contact aimed directly at opposing the junta, but it is certainly strange. President Outtara of the Ivory Coast stated that he considers holding Bazoum hostage to make them no different from terrorists, which is somewhat amusing being as holding hostages important to foreign powers has been a recognized tool of governments for all of recorded history. Regardless, the “Nuland Option” having amounted to nothing, all there is to be done is start a disastrous war in one of the world’s poorest and most volatile regions or accept a rejection of Western sponsored Liberal Democracy™.
As of publishing time, there are reports on Twitter that a diplomatic team from ECOWAS traveled to Niamey on Saturday, the 12th, but that all negotiations again failed. A major war in West Africa seems too stupid to happen, which, human affairs being what they are, perhaps makes it all the more likely. This is to be yet another situation where the policy of a Western government is two separate things, and thus it can accomplish neither. In this instance, it is a combination of real interests and purported values. The reality is that, already having given a waiver to Chad, it would have been easy enough to just say that there are vital national security interests in Niger that require working with a coup government, something allowable under US law. The other option is to just abandon the region, recognizing that having rejected the US and France, security and poverty are now for them to deal with on their own. However, instead, the US has decided on remaining while being hostile towards a new government that it turns out they are in no position to displace due to its overwhelming popularity and it being surrounded by friendly regimes on three sides. There is little chance that an ECOWAS force, or even that plus the direct involvement of the current French and American troops, can easily defeat Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Even if they were to defeat their main military force, it would take hundreds of thousands of men to occupy an area of that size. When you factor in the Islamist terrorists that they all could not defeat working together, it is insane to even embark on such a project. It is horrible to imagine what will happen if these lunatics choose to invade Niger, given the difficult situation residents already live with and the likelihood of it spreading outward and engulfing most of the continent or even the world. Perhaps Edmund Blackadder was right, and sometimes wars happen only because everyone decides that not going to war is simply too much effort.
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