Niger Cozies Up to Russia and Walks Away From the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 56


Executive Summary

  •  Russia is actively expanding ties with Niger’s military junta to consolidate control over resource-rich assets and to push out Western influence.
  • Moscow has now signed multiple agreements to provide security guarantees to Abdourahamane Tchiani and potentially take over the rights to several Nigerien gold mines. 
  • Kremlin propaganda relies on “anti-colonial” narratives that have played a role in pushing the French and US military presence out of the country.

Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by his presidential guard on July 26, 2023. The country’s army backed the coup a day later, enabling the former leader of the presidential guard, Brigadier General Abdourahamane Tchiani, to proclaim himself Niger’s new head of state. Bazoum was detained, and coup supporters flooded the streets of Niamey, many waving Russian flags. The display raised suspicions of Moscow’s and, by extension, the Wagner Group’s involvement in the coup (see Terrorism Monitor, December 15, 2023). On March 26, Tchiani spoke over the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, thanking him for Moscow’s “support” and discussing the need for “strengthened security cooperation … to face current threats” (The Moscow Times, March 26). The Kremlin’s ongoing dialogue with Tchiani illustrates concerted Russian efforts to consolidate assets and spread influence throughout the Sahel, as Western influence has weakened in the region. 

Bazoum was known for his support of Kyiv at the United Nations and joined a diplomatic initiative to return sovereignty over Crimea to Ukraine. Other factors, including Bazoum’s Arab ethnicity in a Hausa-majority country (Arabs form less than 1 percent of the population in Niger), combined with pro-Russian sentiments in the military served to trigger the coup (AfricaNews, February 19, 2021). A stagnant economy, growing insecurity, and the presence of Western troops also played a role. The initial spark for the coup appears to have been Bazoum’s intention to shake up the ineffective military leadership. Similar to other coup leaders in the region, Tchiani (a Hausa) and his chief of staff, General Moussa Salaou Barmou, have previously received US military training.

Kyiv insisted that Moscow was behind the coup as part of its “scenario for provoking instability to undermine the global security order”​​​​​​​ (Anadolu Agency, August 1, 2023). Perhaps in an effort to divert suspicions that the Kremlin had orchestrated the coup, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially condemned the putsch as “an anti-constitutional undertaking” (Vedomosti, January 17).

Moscow, nonetheless, came to the defense of Tchiani’s junta when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) indicated it might undertake a military intervention to restore Bazoum (BBC, August 11, 2023; see Terrorism Monitor, September 25, 2023). The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that an intervention would lead to a “protracted conflict” and destabilize the wider region. The military dictatorships of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea (all suspended ECOWAS members) also signaled their opposition to any ECOWAS action against Niger and its new rulers, the Conseil Supérieur pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie (CNSP; National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland).

The junta’s first step in consolidating power was to push the French military out of the country with the help of Russian propaganda. On August 3, 2023, Tchiani canceled all five military cooperation agreements with Paris (signed between 1977 and 2020). The 1,500-strong French force remaining in Niger was assisting in the struggle against Islamic State militants and jihadists of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM). It was, however, no longer having the impact it once did, providing fertile ground for the Russian media to spread the slogan “Down With France!” and other propaganda. As ordered by the junta, French troops began evacuating Niger on October 10, 2023, with the last units leaving on December 22 (RIA Novosti, October 10, 2023). Several weeks after their departure, Russian media featured an interview with General Salifou Modi, “vice president” of CNSP’s junta, who said that the evacuations had already provided a “positive impact on our fight against terrorism” (RIA Novosti, January 17).

Some French officials were initially concerned that the coup might interrupt the uranium flow to France’s nuclear reactors, but these concerns appear to have been overstated. Shortly after the coup, the French Ministry of Ecological Transition insisted that “the situation in Niger does not present any risk to France’s security of supply of natural uranium” (TV5Monde/AFP, July 31, 2023). Niger is one of France’s top-three uranium suppliers, supplying 20 percent of the country’s needs (TV5Monde/AFP, July 31, 2023).

In 2023, the Wagner Group sought to capitalize on the diminishing French presence in Niger to secure the country’s allegiance and resource wealth for Moscow. In July, a speaker believed to be now-deceased Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin used a Wagner-associated Telegram channel to make a pitch to Niger’s new rulers to expand engagement with the group and distance themselves from the West. In this message, the speaker employed classic anti-colonial rhetoric now commonplace for Russian propaganda in West Africa. The voice can be heard saying, “What happened in Niger is nothing short of the struggle of the people of Niger with their [Western] colonizers … who are trying to foist their rules of life on them … and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago” (Meduza, July 28, 2023; Al Jazeera, July 31, 2023).

Prigozhin’s death in August 2023 and the subsequent reformation of Wagner opened the door to more formal cooperation between the CNSP and Moscow. On December 4, 2023, Modi joined Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel-General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in signing an agreement that provides for the deployment of Russia’s GRU-directed Africa Corps to Niger (see EDM, March 12; Izvestia, March 13). According to Modi, “A large part of our military budget will be allocated directly to our Russian partner.” One CNSP official added that some gold mines might be ceded to the Russians as well (Agence Nigérienne de Presse, December 4, 2023). In an interview a few days later, Tchiani thanked Russia’s soldiers and mercenaries for their support and noted that “the security guarantees provided by Moscow have a high price and will require significant sacrifices, but [Russia] is a reliable partner” (Agence Nigérienne de Presse, December 10, 2023).

US officials visited Niger in mid-March in an attempt to work out a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The talks, however, ended in disaster. Shortly afterward, the junta canceled its “status of forces” agreement with Washington on March 17 (ActuNiger, March 16; Al Jazeera, March 17). The move forced the closure of a $100 million US drone facility and a separate clandestine installation.

The junta also repealed 2015 legislation outlawing migrant trafficking through Niger, claiming it had been implemented “under the influence of certain foreign powers” (AFP, January 23). Imprisoned traffickers were released, and military escorts were organized for migrant convoys. These moves raise the possibility of Russian manipulation of migrant flows heading to Europe.

Russia alone is unlikely to be able to provide all the economic and technical assistance the CNSP needs. Niger will have to remain open to regional and international partnerships that might be jeopardized by an armed Russian presence following its own agenda. The junta has already missed four debt payments and has now defaulted on  $519 million in debt (Al Jazeera, February 19). With foreign aid accounting for half its budget before the coup, Niger can hardly afford to abandon all other partners in favor of Moscow.