Did the West just lose Africa to Russia and Iran?

By Stepan Stepanenko and Catherine Perez-Shakdam

Niger’s military coup, coupled with the new regime’s call for Wagner assistance and apparent negotiations with the Iranian regime, is the beginning of a dangerous realignment in the Sahel region.

If left unaddressed by democratic states, this will see a new stronghold of terror networks on Europe’s borders. Russian and Iranian moves to secure the favor of Niger’s coup leaders show the unity of both in their bid to redress historic balances of power, plunging the country and the region into further turmoil by making democracy and economic development for the region unattainable.

In a historic emergency meeting in Abuja earlier this month, Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called for the immediate release and reinstatement of Niger’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, held by the military since 19 July.

President Ousted. Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s democratically elected president, was ousted by members of his presidential guard on July 26 and has since been under house arrest with his wife and son in the presidential compound in the capital, Niamey. Facing prosecution for “high treason”, if found guilty, Bazoum could face the death penalty, according to Niger’s penal code. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

ECOWAS issued a stern ultimatum to Niger’s military, giving them one week to comply with their demands or face the consequences, including the potential use of force to restore the nation’s rightful leader. The bloc’s unwavering stance sends a clear message that the international community will not tolerate the disruption of democracy in the Sahel region.

Niger’s coup, orchestrated by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, has further exposed deep-rooted issues within the country. The rise in insecurity and stagnant economic prospects have contributed to the nation’s fragility, leading to disillusionment among the populace – a theme that unfortunately runs throughout much of the region, reminding many that Niger could be only the beginning of a much broader realignment, with efforts by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran to exploit chaos to advance their respective agendas.

Taking Charge. Coup leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani , who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger July 28, 2023. (REUTERS/Balima Boureima) 

Niger’s new leadership is on shaky grounds, coming in at a time when violence and turbulence were decreasing in the country. Coupled with  wider criticism of the presidential guard’s move to detain president Bazoum, the new leadership has no choice but to seek external support from those willing to prey on instability for their personal benefit.

So it comes as no surprise that Evgeniy Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner Group, was quick to praise the coup and offer support for the new regime. More worrying is the news that Niger has already asked for assistance from the Russian mercenary group in a visit by the coup’s leader, General Salifou Mody, to Mali – a well-known Wagner outpost.

Offering Order to sow Disorder. Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who remains active despite leading a failed mutiny against the Russian army’s top brass, has hailed Niger’s military coup as  good news and offered his fighters’ services to bring order.

While Russia’s mercenary presence in Africa is well documented, if still largely out of the public eye in the west, a tell-tale sign of the region’s importance to Russia’s future plans in its standoff with the West is Iran’s efforts to assist the coup leaders.

The Sahel has grappled for years with Islamic radicalism, with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram vying for control, and the risk that Africa could soon lose territory to the Caliphate 2.0 are too real to be discounted.

Taking into account the recent visit to Niger of Esmail Qaani, the infamous Commander of the Quds Forces – a division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations – the future of Niger could be grim.

Appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei following the death of General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Qaani is one of the regime’s most loyal and trusted military operatives and his presence generally signals a desire from Tehran to establish or curate influence.

Niger’s new leadership already announced it is cutting bilateral military ties with France and called back its ambassadors from France, the US, Nigeria, and Togo.

But how did we get here, and more importantly, what does it mean for Western interests and the prospects of peace for the people of Niger and the Sahel?

General Abdourahamane Tchiani’s discontent stems, at least in part, from the presence of foreign forces in Niger. The perception that these forces undermine the military’s authority has fueled dissent and complicated efforts by the United States and France to combat insurgent attacks by Islamic radical groups.

In turn, the coup’s leader’s move to welcome Russia’s assistance clearly indicates that foreign presence is only a pretense.

Flames over Niamey. The headquarters of Niger’s ruling party burns in the background as supporters of the mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger.

Likewise, in a show of hypocrisy, Mali’s Assimi Goïta, who has made Russia his protector and guarantor, has called for an end to colonialism and the influence of the West on the region, echoing the same lines voiced by Russian diplomats and outlets such as Media Afrique TV, closely linked to Prigozhin’s Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC).

The ethnicity and the legitimacy of President Bazoum have also been problematic, fanning old upsets. The predominantly ethnic Arab military have challenged Bazoum’s leadership, despite his majority win in the elections, highlighting the fragility of Niger’s democratic institutions and the difficulties in preserving their integrity.

Niger is only the latest African country to fall prey to violence. Military power seizures in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali most likely paved the way, not to say emboldened, Niger’s military junta.

Before such dynamics, ECOWAS and the African Union have little to no influence. This lack of deterrence has created a troubling environment, encouraging opportunistic military leaders to challenge democratic norms.

The implications of this coup are far-reaching. Niger’s strategic alliances with Western nations in combating insurgency and curbing illegal migration to Europe will be jeopardised. The West could also lose access to vital gold and uranium resources, disrupting markets and broad economic outlooks.

The new military leadership is sure to act as a further facilitator for Russian and Iran to circumvent US and EU and other sanctions placed on their trade.

Undeterred by international moral and legal norms, the impetus of the newly enthroned coup leaders to cling to power will outweigh any restrictions placed on such dealings.

Ultimately, the success of this military takeover could set a dangerous precedent for democracy in the region and Africa as a whole. The formation of a military alliance by the regimes of Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso raises concerns about the erosion of democratic values and the need for African leaders to prioritize the interests of their citizens.

Capitalizing on Coup and Chaos. Joining Russia in eyeing Niger as possible inroad against US in Africa, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for stability and calm in Niger, whose President Mohammed Bazoum has been detained and removed in a coup led by members of his presidential guard.

We may also want to consider that Niger’s coup may not be the expression of internal divisions alone but rather the result of a Russian and Iranian bid for control at the heart of Africa to offset Western influence and access.

Taking into account the fragility of the new leader’s power base, the stage is set for the center of Africa to be the new battleground between totalitarianism and democratic forces.

About the writers:

A co-founder and director of UK-based media and consultancy company  ‘Forward Strategy’, Catherine Perez-Shakdam is a frequent contributor to i24NEWS, Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Jerusalem Post, Politico, the Daily Express, and the Daily Mail.

In 2021, Chatherine gained international attention when news broke of her decade-long infiltration of the Iranian regime, during which she was able to gain access to the highest echelons of the regime’s inner circles. Despite the danger following being labeled an ‘enemy of the state’ by Iran, Catherine utilized her extensive knowledge and close-encounter insight to expose a system that had long operated under a shroud of secrecy. Her revelations have provided a unique perspective on Iran’s actions, challenging its narrative and exposing the true nature of its operations.

Dr. Stepan Stepanenko

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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