U.S. Declares the Military Takeover in Niger a Coup

The Biden administration formally acknowledged on Tuesday what most countries declared months ago: that the military takeover in Niger in July was a coup.

Officials in the administration had sidestepped that declaration for weeks because the word “coup” has major policy implications. Congress has mandated that the United States must halt all economic and military aid to any government deemed to have been installed by a military coup until democracy is restored.

But on Tuesday, the administration said that efforts to restore Niger’s democratically elected government to power had failed and that what aid was not already restricted would be cut off.

“The United States has concluded that a military coup d’état has taken place in Niger,” Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that nearly $200 million in aid that was temporarily paused in August would be suspended. About $442 million in trade and agricultural assistance will also be suspended.

Humanitarian, food and health assistance will continue, Mr. Miller said, noting that the resumption of other U.S. assistance would require the junta “to usher in democratic governance in a quick and credible time frame.”

Notable is what else will not change. The new United States ambassador to Niger, Kathleen A. FitzGibbon, will remain at the United States Embassy in Niamey, Niger’s capital. Some 1,000 American military personnel will stay in the country at two bases. And while U.S. counterterrorism training in Niger has been suspended, the Pentagon will continue to fly surveillance drone flights to protect U.S. troops and alert the authorities if a terrorist threat is detected.

“A coup designation allows us to both express disapproval of what took place, including via the suspension of security assistance in certain accounts, but also to move on and establish a working relationship with the new authorities, who, however they came to power, are now there,” said J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel region of West Africa.

France began withdrawing its first troops from Niger on Tuesday, weeks after President Emmanuel Macron said he was recalling his ambassador and would order the return of 1,500 troops posted in the country.

France’s decision came after weeks of escalating tensions between France and the new military leaders in Niger, who seized power in a coup in July. It also capped years of waning influence for France, a former colonizer in West Africa whose economic presence and military clout in the region remains considerable despite being increasingly challenged by juntas and foreign powers like Russia.

In Washington, the Biden administration had held out increasingly dim hopes that the military junta would reverse its takeover and agree to restore a democratically elected government.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with the leaders of several nations that are members of the Economic Community of West African States, a regional group that has been pressuring Niger’s military leadership to relinquish power under the threat of a military intervention. The Biden administration has tried to avoid a conflict that could spill across the region.

In a description of the meeting, the State Department said attendees “were united in their position that the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland in Niger” — the country’s ruling military junta — “must release President Mohamed Bazoum, his family and all those unlawfully detained.”

Mr. Bazoum and his family have been detained since he was ousted in July.

After the coup, most Western countries suspended their aid and security partnerships with Niger, whose leader was seen as one of the last reliable allies in a region now dominated by men in uniform.

As Western countries have recalled troops training Nigerien soldiers in recent weeks, the future of Western involvement in the Sahel region south of the Sahara — the world’s epicenter of jihadist activity — remains uncertain.

Niger’s army has faced mounting losses since the coup, though analysts have warned that it is too early to tell whether the increase in attacks by armed groups are related to Western countries suspending their military partnerships. Last week, at least 29 soldiers were killed in an attack carried out by jihadist militants in the country’s west. A week earlier, a dozen had died in the southwest.

For years, Niger has been battling insurgents linked with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State near the border with Mali and Burkina Faso in the west, and Boko Haram in the south in the region neighboring Nigeria.

While the security situation has rapidly deteriorated since the coup, millions of Nigeriens are suffering from economic sanctions and border closures imposed by neighboring countries. The junta has also tightened its grip on society, silencing opposition voices and arresting a prominent journalist, Samira Sabou, last week.

Niger is a key transit country in the migration route to Europe, and in recent years the European Union has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into buffering its northern areas with centers for migrants and repatriation flights.

Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.

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