Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Niger’s Coup and Arab Interests

Arab nations became entwined in Niger’s coup, mostly from an ethnic standpoint, driven by their interest in the wellbeing of Niger's Arab minority.

Niger’s Coup
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Niamey on August 26, 2023 in support for the military leaders behind last month’s coup. AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Almost every Arab country has its own unique considerations and interests regarding the Niger coup and the ensuing developments. These positions include economic, security, ethnic and political dimensions, influencing the stances and actions of nations such as Algeria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon‘s interest is primarily driven by the well-being of its expatriate citizens residing in Niger, leading Lebanese authorities to prioritize the security and safety of their nationals. Meanwhile, in Libya and Sudan, the events in Niger are rippling through preexisting local divisions and ongoing military conflicts.

The nature of international and regional polarization

Since the coup took place on July 26, 2023, it has sparked international polarization. Influential Western powers, including the United States and France, have refused to legitimize the coup, while Russia has maintained a vague stance that raises suspicions of support for the new regime.

Numerous analyses have suggested Moscow’s potential indirect involvement in backing the coup, drawing parallels with its actions in other African nations. These concerns were amplified when Moscow rejected foreign military intervention to restore the legitimate president Mohammad Bazoum, to power.

Polarization is particularly pronounced in West Africa. The Economic Community of West African States, adhering closely to the Western stance, has adamantly refused to recognize the coup leaders. ECOWAS has even imposed harsh economic sanctions and hinted at potential military intervention. Nigeria has played a prominent role within the group, advocating for stringent measures against the coup in Niger.

Conversely, Burkina Faso and Mali have unequivocally expressed support for the coup leaders. Notably, these countries are governed by military authorities with Russian backing, aligning the African regional polarization with international alignments. This division among West African nations mirrors the broader international split between superpowers intervening in African affairs.

Despite this, it’s important to note that some African countries oppose the coup in principle, fearing a potential spillover into their own regimes. Military rulers in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea Conakry seem eager to embrace the Nigerien coup leaders as new regional allies, joining the ranks of military and coup-led regimes in West Africa. Nevertheless, the primary influence on West African positions remains the international division between Western nations and Russia.

Conversely, Arab countries have taken pragmatic positions based on their priorities, specifics and relationships with Niger and its former government, although these positions aren’t necessarily rooted in pre-existing bias toward either international camp.

Arabs and ethnic factors in the conflict

Ethnic and racial considerations are integral to understanding the Arab perspective on the events unfolding in Niger. While Muslims constitute around 90% of Niger’s population, the nation is comprised of diverse ethnic groups with a history marked by conflicts and power struggles. Among these groups, the Hausa stand out as the largest, encompassing over half of the population, with the Songhai, Tuareg, Fulani and Kanuri making up the rest.

Bazoum, who was deposed in the recent coup, holds significance as Niger’s first Arab president since its inception. This marked a pivotal moment for the Arab minority in Niger, which had historically maintained a peripheral role in the country’s politics despite active engagement in sectors like industry, trade and livestock husbandry. The nomadic lifestyle of many Arabs led to their detachment from political affairs, although tensions with authorities, as seen during the 2006 attempt to expel Arabs to Chad, were not uncommon.

Bazoum’s presidency raised hopes among Niger’s Arabs for improved relations with the state, fostering greater participation in political activities. Bazoum, in turn, sought to integrate Arab communities into the administrative and military apparatus, aiming to diminish their historical isolation and alleviate past animosities with those in power. Notably, Arabs constitute a mere 1.5% of Niger’s total population.

However, following the coup and Bazoum’s removal, concerns among Arab tribes resurfaced regarding potential setbacks to the progress achieved under his rule. The Arab community in Niger is apprehensive about the possibility of renewed governmental pressure aimed at encouraging migration to Chad and Sudan, a pattern observed in previous periods. The migratory tendencies of Niger’s Arab nomadic tribes, whose familial and social connections span borders, lead to heightened migration during times of political turmoil, setting them apart from other local tribes.

Numerous Arab nations became entwined in this conflict, predominantly from an ethnic and national standpoint, driven by their vested interest in the wellbeing of Niger’s Arab minority.

This was evident in the stance of Saudi Arabia, known for taking a leading role within the Arab world during such crises. While Saudi Arabia’s involvement lacked direct security or military motives, the nation swiftly denounced the “attempt to undermine President Muhammad Bazoum’s legitimacy” and called for the restoration of his constitutional authority.

It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia has played a role in promoting Arabic language education in Niger, funding the establishment of schools and university campuses. These initiatives aimed to empower Arab communities by improving their educational and economic prospects within Niger, thereby reducing the need for emigration. The Kingdom’s prior commitment to the Arab tribes and societies in Niger underscores its strong opposition to the coup against Bazoum prior to recent events.

Security and economic accounts

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s concerns are rooted in security calculations, particularly due to the risks of instability along its eastern border with Libya and its southern border with Mali.

Algeria is particularly troubled by the growing presence of transnational armed jihadist groups, currently active across significant swaths of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, in addition to fears regarding the potential consequences of border breaches on illegal immigration. In the initial four months of 2023, over 11,000 illegal immigrants were repatriated to Niger based on a security agreement between the two nations.

As a result, following the recent Niger coup, the Algerian government grew concerned about the potential for Niger to descend into chaos as this would pose a threat to Algeria, exposing it to additional security risks and tensions. To address this, Algeria promptly denounced the coup and emphasized the Bazoum’s legitimacy. Simultaneously, Algeria firmly opposed any external military intervention in Niger’s internal affairs.

Thus, Algeria struck a delicate balance between its refusal to accept the overthrow of democratically elected governments and its apprehension that the West African region could plunge into a full-scale conflict if other African nations contemplated military measures against the coup leaders. Algeria’s apprehensions can be traced back to statements made by coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso who deemed any military intervention against the Nigerien coup as tantamount to a declaration of war against them. Such a declaration could potentially ignite a brutal regional conflict.

For Qatar, Africa has always been a vital space for investment expansion. Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar has forged various economic partnerships with countries such as Rwanda, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and the Republic of Ghana.

In light of these conflicting relationships, Qatar has adopted a neutral stance in the Niger conflict to safeguard its investments and economic interests. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement urged all parties to exercise restraint, prioritize dialogue and prevent escalation, without explicitly condemning the coup or expressing a stance on potential external military intervention.

In Lebanon, the primary focus has been on ensuring the safety of Lebanese expatriates in Niger. The Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs compiled lists of these expatriates, preparing for possible evacuations amid deteriorating security conditions. Despite preparations, the High Commission for Relief in Lebanon, along with other foreign communities, has indicated a reluctance to evacuate expatriates at this time, pending further developments in the security situation.

Conversely, conflicting dynamics in Libya and Sudan have led to assessments of how the Niger coup might impact military balances in these Arab nations. In Libya, situated to Niger’s north, analyses suggest that the coup could serve the interests of Libyan Major General Khalifa Haftar and his alliance with the Russian “Wagner” group. This potential outcome could broaden Russian influence in Africa, potentially at the expense of declining French influence.

In Sudan, the Rapid Support Forces, led by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), have lost a significant ally following the fall of Bazoum in the coup. The Rapid Support Forces historically received support from Arab tribes in West African countries, leveraging Hemedti’s affiliation with the Zureikat tribe that extends across these nations. This support was crucial for their operations in Sudan. However, post-coup, the ease of obtaining similar assistance is uncertain.

Consequently, all these nations are closely monitoring developments in Niger, particularly with respect to the threats issued within the Economic Community of West African States and the potential for military intervention by member countries. Some members of ECOWAS still harbor reservations about implementing these threats, preferring to exhaust diplomatic avenues before resorting to force.

As uncertainty lingers, the worst-case scenario feared by all is the emergence of security chaos and a transition to civil war within Niger that could exacerbate the instability in West Africa.

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