When he visited Niger in March — becoming the first United States secretary of state to do so — Antony Blinken hailed the West African country as “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation”.
Now analysts say a coup in the country has thrown into question Washington’s relationship with what it has viewed as one of its last viable allies in the volatile Sahel region.
“Up until this coup, Niger was being held up as a model,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior associate for the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The US “was heaping money and attention and praise and encouragement and investment and assistance on Niger, more so than any other country in the region”, Hudson explained. “This is a major setback for Washington.”
The coup comes just four months after Blinken’s high-profile visit. Members of Niger’s presidential guard surrounded President Mohamed Bazoum on Wednesday, taking him into custody.
By Friday, General Omar Tchiani, commander of the presidential guard, had named himself head of a transitional government although Bazoum has not yet resigned as president.
The situation remains fluid, several analysts told Al Jazeera, and US officials are likely waiting to see what the final outcome will yield.
On Wednesday, Blinken called Bazoum and “underscored that the strong US economic and security partnership with Niger depends on the continuation of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law and human rights”, according to the Department of State.
The following day, department spokesman Vedant Patel said top US officials were in regular contact with their Nigerien counterparts, telling reporters, “The US continues to remain deeply engaged on this.”
The military’s seizure of power, at very least, represents an uncomfortable complication for the US and other Western countries that have turned to Niger to address spiraling security crises in the region, analysts told Al Jazeera.
In the wake of the takeover, Washington could also find itself hamstrung by US statutes.
Under the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs act, “all military and development assistance” must generally be suspended when a democratically elected leader is overthrown by armed forces.
That could have “an immediate and a real effect in the counterterrorism fight”, Hudson said. US officials have so far been circumspect about labelling the events in Niger a coup, likely to avoid those ramifications.
The US has long viewed the Sahel as another front in its multipronged and multidecade “war on terror”, arguing that unchecked instability could prove a security risk to the West.
The withdrawal of French and European Union troops from Mali in 2022 — and the expulsion of a United Nations peacekeeping mission from Mali this year — have further stoked those concerns.
French troops have since rebased in Niger, which shares a border area with Mali and Burkina Faso where armed groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have jockeyed for influence, leading to an explosion of violence in recent years.
Niger also faces Nigeria to the south, a region where Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISIS-WA) have remained active.
About 1,100 US troops are currently stationed in Niger, which is the largest recipient of US military assistance in West Africa and the second highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
The US is estimated to have provided about $500m in assistance to the country since 2012.
President Bazoum’s removal from power, meanwhile, could also mean the loss of a key ally for Washington.
Bazoum’s election in 2021 represented the first peaceful transfer of power since Niger’s independence from France in 1960. In the left-leaning leader, Washington found both a standard bearer of a nascent democracy and a “willing security partner”, according to Alex Thurston, an assistant professor focusing on northwest Africa at the University of Cincinnati.
Bazoum and his predecessor, former President Mahamadou Issoufou, “encouraged that perception and put themselves forward as this willing partner for the United States and France”, Thurston added.
At the same time, Thurston explained, the West’s emphasis on Niger grew as neighbouring countries became less suitable as allies.
Mali, for instance, experienced a military-led coup in August 2020, followed by a second nine months later. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, has had two military-led takeovers since last year.
“But I think there was a lot of fragility there,” Thurston said. “And I think that perception of Niger as the more reliable country … led Paris and Washington to overlook some real signs of trouble.”
While the future of the US-Niger relationship remains to be seen, several analysts told Al Jazeera that the recent government takeover did not appear to hinge on the same anti-Western sentiment as the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Several analysts and the US Department of State have said there is no evidence so far of participation by foreign actors like the Wagner Group, a Russian-based mercenary organisation.
Still, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin has already characterised the takeover as “a fight of [Niger’s] people against the colonisers”, repeating an anti-Western message common in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, co-director of the Africa Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, believes Wagner will likely look to “exploit” the ongoing uncertainty in Niger.
That means US and other Western interlocutors will need to tread carefully to avoid alienating those behind the coup, she said.
“The US and France will face the choice: Will they simply try to cooperate with the putsch, or will they impose some sort of sanctions?” she said.
Felbab-Brown expects the US and its Western allies to try to negotiate a transition to democracy after the coup but warned that path could be fraught.
“The problem is that there is not vast success in negotiating these transitions very easily,” she said. “And if it is violated … how punitive do you start to become?”
Source: Al Jazeera