The United States and its Western allies are faced with a difficult conundrum as they navigate potential responses to the military takeover in Niger if democratic rule is not restored.
Under US law, if the US State Department formally classifies that takeover as a coup, it would require the US to cut foreign and military assistance to the Nigerien government, which could have serious consequences for the fight against terrorism and stability in the region.
The Biden administration has not yet made such a determination, with State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel saying Thursday that “this continues to be an evolving situation and it is quite too soon to characterize the nature of these ongoing developments.”
US officials stress that they are focused on diplomatic efforts to restore democratic rule, but on Friday, John Kirby of the National Security Council warned that a military takeover would imperil US assistance to Niger.
Experts told CNN that punitive measures could push Niger toward Russian mercenary groups like Wagner and away from its partners in the West. It is also likely that the Wagner group, which has a significant presence in Africa, and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, may seek to exploit the situation for their own benefit. US officials have said there are no indications that the organization was involved in the military takeover.
A senior US government official told CNN that “there is a risk of Wagner trying to claim credit for anything that happens in Niger, but this is a domestic internal issue that Wagner did not instigate.”
However, the official did acknowledge that the Wagner group is “opportunistic, and they do look for new avenues for them to gain influence and take advantage of instability around the world, including on the African continent.”
“Washington has to thread a very difficult needle right now, because we have real hard security interests in Niger,” said Cameron Hudson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
‘The last domino’ in the region
Niger has become a point of stability in the Sahel region of Africa, which faces a significant fight against terrorists and Islamist extremists, and is a key partner to the US, serving as a base for hundreds of US troops to assist with counterterrorism missions. Niger’s neighbors including Mali and Burkina Faso have experienced coups of their own in recent years.
Niger, unlike other African nations such as Mali and the Central African Republic, has not received assistance from the infamous Russian mercenary organization – something US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended it for on a recent trip to Niamey.
“It’s the last domino, the last bastion and so, it will be very, very costly for the West to lose it,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Brookings.
The Biden administration is already under congressional pressure to respond to the situation on the ground in Niger from the top lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The United States must take swift action to hold anti-democratic forces accountable and send a clear signal that attacks on constitutional democracy will not be met with impunity,” Democratic Chairman Bob Menendez and Republican Ranking Member Jim Risch said in a statement Friday.
In a briefing Friday, Kirby again condemned the situation, which for now the administration sees as a feud between President Mohamed Bazoum and the putschists, apparently led by Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani, the commander of Niger’s presidential guard.
“We remind those attempting this power grab by force that an overthrow of democratically-elected President Bazoum would place US substantial cooperation with the government of Niger at risk,” he said. “Specifically, a military takeover may cause the United States to cease security and other cooperation with the government of Niger, jeopardizing existing security and non-security partnerships.”
A difficult geostrategic environment
Hudson, a former US government official, told CNN that Niger “is an essential part of our security posture in the region, and we cannot walk away from that.”
“But the flip side of that is we have a playbook that we tend to follow when these coups happen: We impose sanctions, we restrict military assistance, we take away development assistance,” he explained.
“We’re in a geostrategic environment now where doing those things that we would normally do that would reflect our values in support of democracy could actually create the opening that the terrorists are looking for, that Russia is looking for,” Hudson said.
Felbab-Brown of Brookings told CNN that she does not know if a restriction of US military and economic aid would be enough to push the Nigerien putschists, who have not expressed explicit anti-Western sentiments, into the arms of the Wagner or other mercenary groups.
“But it will certainly push them much more towards that line,” she said.
However, Kamissa Camara, a senior adviser for Africa at the US Institute of Peace, argued that “anybody could take advantage of the situation” in Niger.
“Any international power or Western power could take advantage,” said Camara, who served as Malian foreign minister under former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
“We’re reshuffling the cards basically. We don’t really know who this new general is” who has seized power, she told CNN. “We don’t know who he is, what his motives are, what his interests are. So, anybody who finds that out could take advantage of it.”
Prigozhin trying to take advantage
This week, as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted 17 African leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg, the Russian Foreign Ministry called for the release of detained Nigerien President Bazoum.
However, Priogzhin, the Wagner head who led a recent unsuccessful revolt against Moscow, has already sought to propagandize the situation in Niger.
In a message on Telegram, he blamed “former colonizers” for “filling these countries with terrorists and various bandit formations” and suggested that Wagner is ready to assist.
“It’s not surprising that Prigozhin would try to position himself in that manner. He likes to take credit for unrest that Wagner has had no role in thus far,” the senior US government official said.
A number of CNN investigations, and others by human rights groups, have established Wagner’s involvement in and complicity with atrocities against civilian populations in Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic, where they have been employed to assist local defense forces against rebellions and insurgencies, and suppress opposition.
Felbab-Brown told CNN that Prigozhin is trying to “personally” take advantage, given his “precarious” place following his failed revolt.
“He sees this as an opportunity to demonstrate to Moscow, to Putin, that he can still be of use, that he shouldn’t be liquidated,” she said.
‘Still space for diplomacy here’
For now, diplomatic efforts across the administration and partners like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore democratic rule in Niger continue.
“We believe that there is still space for diplomacy here,” Kirby said Friday.
Blinken spoke by phone Wednesday with Bazoum, who has been detained in his residence, “and made clear that we strongly support him as the democratically elected president of the country,” the top US diplomat said at a news conference in New Zealand. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke with Bazoum on Thursday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris spoke Thursday with President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, who is the head of ECOWAS, about the situation.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee spoke with Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou and former President Mahamadou Issoufou “to condemn the efforts to seize power as well as encouraged their roles in facilitating negotiations between President Bazoum and the instigators of this takeover,” State Department deputy spokesperson Patel said.
“The US continues to remain deeply engaged and on this, we’re monitoring and paying attention very closely in touch with officials from the constitutionally elected government of Niger as well as our colleagues at the embassy,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Tim Lister and Christian Sierra contributed to this report.