Why the West is thinking about the coup in Niger all wrong

This summer, military forces in the West African country of Niger pushed the country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, out of power.

This was not the first coup in Niger’s history, or in the recent history of the Sahel region of Africa. In the last few years there have been coups in multiple countries in the region, including Burkina Faso and Mali. 

But this one has put the West especially on edge. 


Listening to U.S. officials or much of the reporting on the topic, you’d think this coup has huge ramifications for the fight against Islamist militant groups in West Africa, and for the U.S. and Russia’s race to gain influence across Africa. 

But as Stephanie Savell, an expert on U.S.-Niger relations and a co-director of the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute, explains, those framings of the coup largely miss what’s really going on in the region. And worse still — they might actually make it more difficult to bring peace and stability to this part of the world. 

Read more from Stephanie Savell on the coup in Niger

Learn more about the Costs of War project

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On July 26th, military forces in the West African country of Niger staged a coup, forcing the country's President Mohamed Bazoum out of power. This is not the first coup in Niger's recent history or in the recent history of the Sahel region of Africa more broadly.

In the last few years, there have been coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad. But this one in Niger has the West especially on edge. But according to our guest today, while this coup is of course worth paying attention to, it's not for the reasons you've maybe heard. On this episode, what we in the West get wrong about the politics of Niger and its neighboring countries and how to reframe our thinking about this part of the world in order to actually help create a more stable and peaceful West Africa.


To understand why this summer's coup caught the US off guard and has caused so much concern among Western countries, you have to understand a little bit more of the backstory of the US's recent relationship with Niger. The story of this relationship, as it exists today, really started after 9/11. At that time, Niger was a democratic government. And the US saw it as a potentially valuable ally in the Bush administration's.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: So-called global war on terror.

DAN RICHARDS: That's Stephanie Savell. She is a co-director of the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute and an expert on US military efforts in West Africa. She's going to be our guide through all this. As she put it--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: This has been a partner that the US has had since the early days following 9/11.

DAN RICHARDS: The US and other Western nations, including, among others Germany and France--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Were all helping Niger in various ways with different types of security assistance and kind of saying, well, we're really helping prop up and support this democratic regime.

DAN RICHARDS: In an area gripped by political instability, poverty, and violence, Niger was seen as--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: The last hope for Western governments in claiming some sort of prevention of a broader conflict starting up.

DAN RICHARDS: The US and its allies were providing Niger with military assistance and training. But it was more than that. We were exporting a specific way of looking at the world and at global security.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: At the time, Two Thousand Two, Two Thousand Three, Two Thousand Four, Two Thousand Five, the US was creating security partnerships all across this West Africa region, again, as part of this so-called global war on terror. So the idea at the time, according to Bush era officials, was they were going to go in and kind of stabilize the places where terrorism could potentially emerge to threaten the United States. So it was preemptive war, really. This was the American framework.

DAN RICHARDS: This militarization and preparation for war set Niger and its neighbors up for something more like actual war in Twenty Eleven. This began not in Niger, but in the country's neighbor to the North, Libya.

CORRESPONDENT 1: Revolution exploded there just over a week ago.

CORRESPONDENT 2: Muammar Gaddafi, the leader who ruled Libya for four decades by crushing the opposition, could himself be crushed by a popular uprising.

CORRESPONDENT 3: This noise is the reaction to the official statement now from the National Transitional Council of Libya. The confirmation that Colonel Gaddafi, in fact, has been killed today in his home town of Sirte.

DAN RICHARDS: Gaddafi's death created a power vacuum in Libya, which led to Civil War and, ultimately, chaos in the entire region.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: There were a bunch of kind of mercenary forces and a lot of arms that filtered down through the Sahara desert, which is a really porous. You can picture. I mean, there are country borders. But it really is a desert region. And so there are vehicles going back and forth across borders all the time.

DAN RICHARDS: Weapons and violence spread from Libya to Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali. In other words--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: A snowball effect. There were these separatist movements in Mali that joined forces with some of the former mercenaries. A lot of them were similar ethnic groups. And that led to Mali's destabilization. There was a coup. And the kind of militant terror attacks began spreading from Mali to this tri border region of Niger and Burkina Faso.

DAN RICHARDS: The US saw this upheaval as a dangerous training ground for Islamist militant groups. So they invested even more money in the region, especially in Niger.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Just since Twenty Twelve, the US had given Nigeria $500 million in security assistance, about $150 million in arms sales in just the last five years to Nigeria. And then the US built a base in Agadez, which is in the North part of the country, really, at the southern end of the Sahara desert. And that was $110 million construction project. It's a very sophisticated construction. It's the second only official base in all of Africa.

Although, the US has many more, this is a really significant installation. So drones from the air base are circulating and providing surveillance, and reconnaissance, and intelligence to governments around the region and the United States, around the Sahel band, and the Sahara desert region to the North, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia. And US taxpayers pay about $20 to $30 million per year, just to maintain that base.

DAN RICHARDS: Along with money and resources, praise has also been heaped onto the country by the US. This past March, Antony Blinken became the first sitting secretary of state to visit Niger in the country's history.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Secretary of state Antony Blinken, he had visited Niger in March, and he called the country--

ANTONY BLINKEN: A model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation. It's one that we deeply value and deeply respect.


DAN RICHARDS: Four months later, Niger's president was ousted by military forces in the country. You can see then why Niger's recent instability has caused such a stir in the United States. It's left US officials, observers of international affairs, and security experts with a lot of questions, questions like how did this model of democracy, which has received so much support from the US, fall so easily? And what does its fall mean for international security against Islamist militant groups?

And then zooming out even further, what does this coup mean for the tensions that exist and are growing between the US and Russia, two global powers that are competing to gain influence across Africa today. These are, according to Stephanie, exactly the wrong questions to be asking. And, in fact, looking at politics in the Sahel region through these lenses, might make things worse.

So let's take a look at where these frameworks come from and why they are so counterproductive. And then we'll take a look at what Stephanie thinks might be a better way to think about peace and stability in the Sahel region. The first thing Stephanie thinks we need to set straight is that despite the praise of Secretary Blinken and others, over the last decade--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Niger was not the kind of stronghold of democracy that the US was making it out to be.

DAN RICHARDS: During President Bazoum's time in power, there were a lot of red flags regarding the state of the country's democracy, including the existence of--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: What they called states of emergency, which the government had declared in certain regions along the borders of the country. And in those zones of emergency, the government forces were authorized to essentially treat anyone on a motorcycle, which is the signature vehicle of these Islamist militant groups, to treat them as an enemy and shoot essentially anyone out past curfew.

There were some marketplaces that were being shut down. In one region, fishing was prohibited and growing certain crops. This was kind of a counterinsurgency tactic to get the root of people's economic livelihood sources-- attack those, with the idea that militant groups were coming out of these regions.

DAN RICHARDS: Stephanie saw other signs of anti-democratic tendencies in the country when she visited Niger this past January.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Every journalist, almost, that I spoke with-- every political activist that I spoke with had faced jail time or was being prosecuted at the moment by the government. So the government was really cracking down, even on democratic political dissent. And there was just these kind of really strong ethnic tensions that had been there a long time because there was so much political turmoil and elites who are battling for power. And the military had a very strong role already in political life. So there was all these kinds of instability that was already in the works.

DAN RICHARDS: Which, in many ways, made Niger not so different from its neighboring countries, despite its reputation in the west.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: This is actually Niger's fifth successful coup since independence in the nineteen-sixties. So this country has a long history of coups. And the US pours these hundreds of millions of dollars into the military. The military budget in Niger and Burkina Faso, where I've studied, has just gone up exponentially since early Twenty Twelve, Twenty Thirteen, Twenty Fourteen.

And so this just contributes to this skewing of the balance of power and this over importance of the military in these countries' governments. And I think that also contributes to the pattern of coups. So there was all these kinds of instability that was already in the works that people who were observing closely could have seen this coming.

DAN RICHARDS: And as Stephanie puts it--

STEPHANIE SAVELL: I think the US was really willfully blind to a lot of its more authoritarian tendencies.

DAN RICHARDS: So that was one misunderstanding, that Niger was in fact this shining beacon of democracy. Another misunderstanding is just how important Niger's security is to the West's security, as I put it to Stephanie. So I guess just one question I have is, are there international terrorist organizations in this region of the Sahel that are threats to the United States and the West?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: So there's two parts to your question. Are they an international threat is one question. Are they affiliated with other movements in other parts of the world? So yes is the answer to the second. These groups are increasingly affiliated with the Islamic state in the greater Sahara and al-Qaeda as well. So there's been local groups affiliating with these terror groups that we've seen in the Middle East.

And that hasn't been just random. There's been intentional movement on the part of the Islamic state and al-Qaeda to spread in this region. Do they pose an international threat? Can they threaten US interests? I mean, that is not for me to say necessarily. I'm not a security strategist, right? I'm an anthropologist. But it's hard to imagine these groups launching an attack anywhere else in the world.

The kind of bulk of the men who make up these groups in these regions are really just poor farmers and people who are joining these groups for any number of reasons. But one of the really essential things to know is that this instability, it's really rooted in structural causes.

DAN RICHARDS: What exactly do you mean by that, structural causes?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: This is a region that's incredibly impoverished. Niger is the seventh poorest country in the world. And there is so much rage at the legacy of colonialism and the injustice that that has meant in terms of people's lives. People outside the capital have very little access to any kind of infrastructure or government services like schools and health care. There are no jobs to be had.

And then you throw into the mix that this is one of the regions of the world that has seen the impacts of climate change most seriously up until this point, desertification. People's livelihoods are changing. There's been increasing tensions between farmers and herders over land use, as the desert has crept into the more arable land. So there's just a ton of these kinds of factors at play. People are frustrated also with government corruption. And we have to kind of understand this conflict as having really being rooted in these sorts of issues.

DAN RICHARDS: If that's the main story we in the West are getting wrong, that Niger was a beacon of democracy and an essential front line in protecting US interests abroad, there's also a sort of subplot. And the subplot is one that we are also getting wrong. Here's Stephanie.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: A lot of the international and US media attention to Niger's coup has come in the context of what the US calls great power competition with Russia and China. So Secretary Blinken's visit to Niger has to be understood against the backdrop of what the US sees is a struggle with Russia and China over which countries in Africa are going to be US allies and going to align politically with the US and which are going to align politically with Russia or China.

I've seen it all over the place-- New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. They're all saying, oh, if Niger is no longer a US ally, they're going to go over to Russia. It's just a really misleading way of looking at the situation.

DAN RICHARDS: And this sort of neo-cold war or great power framing of Niger's coup, it sort of misses how Niger actually interacts with other countries. And it makes the US the center of a story that it's not really the center of.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It's an overlooking of the fact that people in Niger and other countries in the region are very much their own agents. They're the ones making the decisions about whether they're going to partner with a particular foreign power like the US or Russia or China. And from what I can understand in interviewing high-level government officials and members of the military in Niger and Burkina Faso, they are making decisions based on what's politically expedient at the time.

So they might say that they're going to partner with the US and receive $100 million in security assistance. And they might get some weapons from China. And they might also get some grain deal from Russia, right? So they're going to use all of this security assistance and other assistance to their advantage in the way that they see. And I think the coup really bears this out.

I mean, if it were the case that the US were able to buy political alignment through hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance, the US would have succeeded in doing so. And instead, the coup leaders chose to lead a coup and willingly give up the opportunity to continue securing US assistance. So clearly, there's other things going on.

And I think when the US media and government officials like Blinken portray this as a battle over Africa, these are just really stale ideologies. They lend themselves, again, to this kind of militarized cold war framework.

DAN RICHARDS: Now, this doesn't mean that international affairs and the tensions between the US, Russia, and China have no bearing on what we are seeing in Niger today. And it's worth understanding those dynamics in their more complex and messy reality. Here's Stephanie.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Certainly, there is a geopolitical component. Putin is making moves in Africa. He had a summit several months back where he invited a bunch of African leaders. He is offering some grain deals to gain political alignment through economic concessions. And China has been building infrastructure and securing access to a lot of mines of natural resources, which this region is really rich in, for many years.

DAN RICHARDS: These aren't just inaccurate ways of looking at this conflict. According to Stephanie, they're actually harmful. They are counterproductive. And they will likely lead to more violence, not less in the region.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: There is a way in which you can see this as a geopolitical struggle of importance. But the effect of response on the part of the US is not a militarized one. This coup is really a wake-up call to the United States to reassess its policy, and to not just pay lip service to the fact that development and diplomacy should take primacy as US foreign policy vehicles, but to actually really make it happen in practice.

And I think there is still, unfortunately, a real disconnect between what the US government says it's learned about what is successful in foreign policy objectives in Africa. And the fact that when you look at what's happening on the ground, a lot of times, it's the Pentagon's militarized approach that's taking priority.

DAN RICHARDS: And the problem is not just the funding and the resources that the US provides to Niger. Like Stephanie talked about at the beginning of the episode, it's the mindset we are exporting as well, and it's how the US communicates its values to the world and, of course, to the people of Niger, as Stephanie described it when she visited the country this past January.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It was very clear that everyone I spoke with in Niger knew that the American drones were offering surveillance to the government in the fight against these terror groups. And no one talked about the fact that the US actually spends more money on humanitarian assistance to Niger or has. So there's a really fundamental problem with the communications and the narrative around what it is that the US is doing in relation to these governments.

DAN RICHARDS: Is that the case that the US actually spends more money on non-military based humanitarian investment?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah, it does. It's hard to get an exact figure, but it seems that there's been over $200 million per year that the US has spent in humanitarian and development aid. So again, that's $200 million per year compared with what I was talking about as $500 million since Twenty Twelve on security assistance. So it is quite a bit more money spent on humanitarian aid. But again, that's just not something that anyone knows about.

DAN RICHARDS: I want to talk more about that. But first, I want to go back to where we started, to the coup that occurred this summer. So we've now looked at a bunch of different ways that it's been discussed and analyzed and fretted over in the US, most of which are perhaps inaccurate and even harmful. But I guess I wonder, what's your sense of what this coup actually means for the people who are most affected by it, the people living in Niger?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: What we've seen in Burkina Faso and Mali is that the violence is just getting worse. The military-led governments in those countries are continuing this very repressive war on the Islamist militant groups. They are in turn committing more terror attacks. And the cycle of violence is just intensifying. It wouldn't be surprising if that's what happened in Niger as well.

The military junta is saying that they are going to transition to democracy in three years. And that's happened before in Niger. There's been a military-led government that transitioned to democratic-led government. So that's not off the table. If Bazoum isn't reinstated, which it looks very unlikely now that he would be, that really calls into question whether the US will continue its security assistance and other forms of assistance to Niger.

Officially, the US has not so far called it an official coup, just an attempted coup. And if the US calls it an official coup, then law prohibits the US from continuing any type of assistance to the government. That would be a significant, I think, blow again at the level of humanitarian assistance. And I think that that's a really important thing to remember is that it's the regular citizens of the country who are suffering right now.

They are the ones who are being displaced from their homes. Food insecurity is rising. These are people who are already facing hardship in terms of getting enough to eat and getting basic levels of health care. And so that is sure to continue to get worse. And it really just breaks my heart to think about the human cost of all of this.


DAN RICHARDS: What do you think are the ways the US could most effectively actually help bring more stability, prosperity, security to Niger or to that part of the world generally? Is it a matter of like a dollar figure of international aid? Is it different ways of thinking and messaging about your intervention? What could a country as rich and powerful as the US do?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It goes back to the need to ask the big questions to reframe the narrative of what's going on from a war on terror approach to a different model. Costs of War research has shown that historically in over 200 cases that the authors looked at, only 7% of cases of the terror attacks were resolved by a country's government using military force against those groups that were committing terror attacks.

So far more effective have been things like incorporating these groups as actors into the legitimate political sphere and addressing the root causes of their grievances. And we've seen that historically be a way that governments have stopped the problem, essentially, of terror attacks. There's also a criminal justice model, which in the United States, we're very aware that the criminal justice model has its own set of flaws.

But treating someone who's committing terror attacks as a criminal rather than an enemy of the state brings with it a much different way of thinking about the problem and the solutions. And again, people are joining these groups because of structural issues. And so a long-term solution is humanitarian aid and development aid and human rights based approaches that are going to answer those problems.

DAN RICHARDS: And despite what we all hear about the turmoil and violence that is gripping this region, people in these countries are also solving these problems every day.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: There are a remarkable number of local people and groups working on promoting peace in their country. And some of the negotiations that we've seen in Burkina Faso between local governments and the Islamist militant groups that we've seen really work in terms of bringing about ceasefires and stopping local level violence.

There are a multitude of government policies that can be carried out to address this problem that get completely obscured and overlooked when the dominant narrative is of a war on terror approach. So that is really, I think, what needs to change. And what the US needs to do is signal very explicitly that this is not the way to solve the problem and that there are these other models and provide the funding and the diplomatic support to back up those alternatives.

DAN RICHARDS: So it's not just a dollar figure. It's a reframing of what it means to support.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It is, yeah. Exactly.


DAN RICHARDS: Stephanie Savell, thank you so much for coming on and talking with us on Trending Globally.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zachary Hirsch. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like Trending Globally, make sure you subscribe to us wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you already are subscribed, please leave a rating and review. It really helps others find us.

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