Written by Pierfrancesco Maria Lanza (external contributor) and Edited by Sara Lolli
The Nigerien coup d’état: which impact on the EU strategy in the Sahel?
It was the 26th July when a new coup d’état shook the stability of the Sahel region another time. Following the recent coup d’état in Niger, the Sahel risks a period of unprecedented instability, violence and poverty which may lead to the rise of jihadist terrorism and new migration flows. Being affected by significant security problems, the area has always gained the focus of the European Union, France and their allies, which cooperated with Niger and the other Sahelian countries to manage migration flows and led operations to stop the violence of rebel and terrorist groups. As a result, this analysis aims to investigate the future of the EU role in the region and the possible impact of the recent events on its strategy. The analysis will examine the previous and present EU involvement in the Sahel considering all the measures taken in the area and will then focus on the implications that the recent coup d’état in Niger may have on the EU strategy.
The EU has been engaged since 2011 providing security support and development and humanitarian assistance to Sahel countries: Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. In light of the 2011 Strategy for the Sahel, the EU launched the civilian mission EUCAP Sahel Niger in 2012 in the framework of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) with the objective of helping Niger to fight terrorism and organised crime. Its mandate was to provide advice, training and capacity-building to Nigerien security forces (European Union, n.d.). In 2013, the EU deployed its training mission EUTM-Mali to provide military training, advise Malian Armed Forces and contribute to the stability of the country. The Mission was initiated alongside the French contribution of Operation Serval, renamed Operation Barkhane in 2014, which aimed to fight the independentists and terrorist groups affiliated to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State settled in the northern regions and clashing with the Malian government (European Union, n.d.). In January 2015, the EU launched EUCAP Sahel Mali, its civilian crisis management mission aimed to support the security sector reform and the strengthening of governance and accountability of the Malian security forces (EEAS, 2021). Following the launch of the new mission, the EU reviewed its priorities with a more comprehensive approach. Indeed, the increasing migration flows following instability in the region pushed the Union to mobilise against irregular migration and related trafficking. Therefore, in April 2015, the Council of the EU adopted the Sahel Regional Action Plan (RAP) 2015–2020. An update followed in June 2016. The main priorities of the RAP were preventing and countering radicalization; creating appropriate conditions for youth; migration and mobility; border management and the fight against illicit trafficking and transnational organised crime (European Union, 2015). The RAP was completed by the appointment of an EU Special Representative for the Sahel in December 2015 with the aim to guide the EU action in the region and provide coordination with the local institutions (Council of the European Union, 2015). In terms of financial aid, since 2014, the EU and its Member States have mobilised 8 billion euros covering all key elements of the integrated approach. The EU financed development cooperation instruments in the region with an amount of €4.6 billion and humanitarian assistance with €1.16 billion. During the Covid-19 crisis, the EU reoriented €449 million to face the sanitary and socio-economic impacts (EEAS, 2021). However, the pandemic, the effects of climate change and the reinforcement of rebel and jihadist groups contributed to destabilise the situation once again. In August 2020, a coup d’état took over the power in Mali, while another coup took place in Chad in April 2021. In the same month, the Council approved the new EU Integrated Strategy in the Sahel to reinforce its security approach through the improvement of governance in the Sahelian countries. Indeed, although advocating for a more comprehensive approach in the region, the 2011 Strategy for the Sahel was almost unsuccessful (Goxho, 2021). The new attempt aims to promote state legitimacy by reforming the security sector, promoting the respect and the protection of human rights in civil and military operations and addressing a sustainable and long-term development involving civil society and local authorities (Council of the European Union, 2021). It is evident that the new Strategy has been negatively affected since its launch, given the previous events in Mali and Chad. However, the situation got further worse because of a new coup in Mali in May 2021 and two following coups even in Burkina Faso in January and September 2022 (ISPI, 2023).
The authoritarian shift that occurred in all these countries, previously considered French and Western allies, generated a change in their international relations. The Malian military junta cut its ties with France and asked for the support of Russia and the private company of mercenaries Wagner, which deployed troops on the ground to fight against the northern rebels and terrorist groups (Doxsee, Bermudez Jr and Jun, 2023). Burkina Faso’s new government has requested assistance from Russia in the fight against terrorists (Rampe, 2023) and it is increasingly closer to asking for Wagner’s contribution (Lechner & Eledinov, 2023). Being Niger the last country with a democratic government, the EU and the rest of the international community put much more effort into supporting President Bazoum’s government. Examples of the importance of Niger for the EU can be the opening in Niamey of the first Italian embassy in the Sahel already in 2018 (La Repubblica, 2018), the deployment of around 1500 French soldiers in 3 different military bases (Rich 2023) and the increasing of EU development aids to Niger, making it one of the main recipients (ISPI, 2023). In fact, in 2021 the EU mobilised €503 million for the period 2021-2024 within its Multi-annual Indicative Programme 2021-2027 to improve governance, education and sustainable economic growth in the country (European Commission, n.d.). In February 2023, the Council launched a new CSDP military partnership mission in Niger-EUMPM Niger to support the country in its fight against terrorist armed groups. The mission’s aims were enabling the Niger Armed Forces to contain the terrorist threat, protecting the population and ensuring a safe and secure environment in compliance with human rights law and international humanitarian law (Council of the European Union, 2023). As a result, the EU put a lot of effort in Niger to contain the expansion of terrorism and contrasting human trafficking across the Sahel. However, the new coup d’état in the country has influenced once again the EU priorities in the area.
THE COUP D’ÉTAT AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
On 26th July 2023, soldiers of the Nigerien Presidential Guard led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani initiated the coup d’état which overturned the government of Mohamed Bazoum. A few hours later, the Nigerien Army announced its support to coup plotters and on 28th July, general Tchiani proclaimed himself as the new ad interim President of Niger, leading the Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie. The new military government justified the operation by contesting poor economic management and the deteriorating security situation, given the resurgence of terroristic attacks (Baldaro, 2023).
Until the coup, Niger was considered the last democracy of the Sahel, given all the previous coups d’état which affected the region. The causes of the new change of power are multiple and all linked to internal events. First of all, Niger has a long history of coups and authoritarian regimes and the armed forces have always had a huge influence on internal politics (Ibidem). Secondly, the coup may be the effect of President Bazoum’s willingness to gain control over the army through the dismissal of various high officers like Salifou Modi, former Chief of Staff of Nigerien army and new Ministry of Defence of the military junta or General Tchiani himself (Rich, 2023). Lastly, Bazoum was trying to reform various sectors of society starting from the oil one. Given the discovery of new deposits, the President wanted to substitute certain officers of the previous system of power to prevent corruption in this sector (Deutschmann, Diallo and Tilouine, 2023). As a consequence, the army arrested several members of Bazoum’s government and substituted many regional governors (Yusuf, 2023).
The Secretary General of the United Nations condemned the change of government and called for the immediate end of all actions undermining democratic principles (United Nations, 2023). ECOWAS, the regional organisation of Western Africa, as it strongly disagreed with the coup, it closed the borders, suspended all commercial and financial ties between its member states and Niger and freezed Nigerien assets held in regional central banks (ECOWAS, 2023). Furthermore, the organisation launched an ultimatum on Sunday 30th July threatening a military intervention and ordering the de facto Nigerien government to step back and restore democracy (Yusuf, 2023). In contrast, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council rejected any military intervention (African Union, 2023), but suspended Niger’s participation from all its activities (Hochet-Bodin & Sylvestre-Treiner, 2023). The United States and the rest of Western countries, which strongly supported Niger economically and militarily, endorsed the ECOWAS resolution by joining the organisation in calling for the restoration of democracy and the release of Bazoum and his family. As a result of the ECOWAS declaration, not only did multiple protests spread over Niger against France and Western countries, thus claiming for Russian support, but protesters assaulted also the French embassy. The juntas of Mali and Burkina Faso also announced that they would have considered a military intervention against Niger as a declaration of war against them. Due to the situation, Italy, France, Germany and Spain announced plans to evacuate their nationals from the country (Al Jazeera, 2023). Nevertheless, the ECOWAS ultimatum expired without the launch of any military intervention due to possible internal divisions, thus diplomatic solutions have been preferred (Thompson, 2023). Consequently, on 16th September, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger’s juntas signed a pact of mutual defence and cooperation at the cross-border region of Liptako Gourma. The treaty, establishing the Alliance of Sahel States, sets economic and military cooperation against terrorism, armed groups and any external aggression carried by other countries. Any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties (Al Jazeera, 2023). As negotiations are still taking place, it seems that the Nigerien junta has accepted the mediation of Algeria, even though the ECOWAS military intervention option is still on the table (McDowall, 2023).
THE IMPACT OF THE COUP ON THE EUROPEAN UNION AND ITS FUTURE STRATEGY
On 29th July, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, firmly condemned the coup d’état in Niger, called for the restoration of democracy and expressed the EU support to the declarations of ECOWAS (EEAS, 2023). On 12th August, the EU remarked its support for ECOWAS and its willingness to continue to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis (EEAS, 2023). In light of the uncertain situation, France decided to gradually withdraw its troops from the ground (Nasr, 2023). As declared by Mr. Borrell at the plenary of the European Parliament in September 2023, the EU suspended the allocation of €503 million of its budget support and development cooperation implemented through the Multi-annual Indicative Programme 2021-2027 (EEAS, 2023). Furthermore, the EU suspended the civilian mission EUCAP Sahel Niger and the military mission EUMPM Niger, which were contributing to empowering the Nigerien security system (Bilquin & Pichon, 2023). A non-paper circulated from the European External Action Service (EEAS) at the August 2023 informal meeting of EU defence ministers in Toledo, suggested to applying an autonomous sanctions regime against natural and legal persons directly or indirectly involved in undermining democracy and the rule of law in Niger (Brzozowski, 2023). In any case, the EU will continue to deliver humanitarian aid as 41% of the population is suffering from food insecurity (United Nations, 2023). It is evident that these events will negatively affect the cooperation with the new Nigerien government and will have an impact on the new EU Integrated Strategy of 2021. As a matter of fact, the EU trained the security forces that ended up being the protagonists of the coup d’état. Additionally, according to the EEAS, the most difficult potential issue would be taking a decision regarding financial support for any potential ECOWAS military intervention in Niger. The EEAS also acknowledged the need for a review of the EU Sahel Strategy, which should follow an analysis of the situation, in particular to find out why the EU has such a poor image in the Sahel countries. A possible way of improvement could be strengthening partnerships with local civil society organisations (Bilquin & Pichon, 2023). Another complex issue might be represented by migration flows. The EU supported Niger to reduce human trafficking and illegal immigration across its territory and now the military junta may challenge this cooperation or use it as leverage against possible sanctions, given the importance of the country in the management of migration routes (Ibidem). As MEPs pointed out during the plenary in September, the EU action towards Niger and the Sahel should be reviewed in light of a better management of goals and resources, given the issues faced by EU measures in the region (European Parliament, 2023). It is therefore necessary that the EU continues to monitor the situation and adopts a shared and consistent approach towards Niger and the Sahel, as they are crucial for the stability of Africa and Europe.
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