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A demonstration in support of the coup in Niger’s capital, Niamey. August 3, 2023.

‘An open invitation’ Niger coup raises fears of Wagner Group upping Russia’s influence in Africa

Source: Meduza
A demonstration in support of the coup in Niger’s capital, Niamey. August 3, 2023.
A demonstration in support of the coup in Niger’s capital, Niamey. August 3, 2023.
Djibo Issifou / dpa / picture-alliance / Scanpix / LETA

On July 26, presidential guards overthrew Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. The ousted president was seen as an important partner for the West — he took part in the Crimea Platform, supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and snubbed the recent Russia–Africa Summit in St. Petersburg. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, has referred to the military coup that overthrew Niger’s government as an “unconstitutional act” and called for the “constitutional order” to be restored. But Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group reportedly supports Niger’s new military junta. Previously, a military coup in neighboring Mali paved the way for the mercenary group to increase its presence in the country significantly. Wagner also has its eyes on Burkina Faso, where the government was twice overthrown last year. This has contributed to larger concerns about growing Russian influence in Africa, as pro-coup protestors in Niger were seen waving Russian flags and holding signs reading “Long live Putin.”

One week after a military coup took place in Niger, ousted President Mohamed Bazoum published a column in The Washington Post, appealing to the U.S. and the international community to restore constitutional order in the country and to protect Africa from Russian influence via Wagner Group.

With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine.

Wagner Group maintains an active presence in Mali and is seeking to expand into Burkina Faso, two countries that neighbor Niger. Soon after the coup took place, news broke that its organizers had travelled to Mali. One theory suggests that the coup organizers were trying to obtain Wagner’s support there. According to CNN, which cites the Mali authorities, Niger’s military junta met with its counterparts in Mali to discuss “ways and means to strengthen our security cooperation.”

In the aftermath of the coup, a demonstration in support of the military junta took place in Niamey, Niger’s capital city. Several demonstrators held up Russian flags and signs reading “Long live Putin.”

Coup in Niger: Why are protestors yelling “Long live Putin” and waving Russian flags?
DW in Russian

Niger is considered an important partner for the West, specifically for curbing illegal immigration and Islamic extremism. There are more than one thousand American and French soldiers stationed in Niger. In March 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the country a “model of democracy.”

Bazoum, the deposed president, had maintained contact with the Ukrainian authorities, supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and participated in the Crimea Platform — a diplomatic initiative to transfer control of Crimea from Russia and back to Ukraine.

The military coup took place on July 26, with the presidential guard removing Bazoum from power, announcing that Niger’s borders had been closed, declaring a curfew, and suspending all government institutions. General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who leads the presidential guard, later declared himself the head of a transitional government.

Several Western and African countries have called for Bazoum’s immediate release. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also called the coup in Niger an “anti-constitutional act.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “we always occupy a clear position in such cases. We reaffirm our position that it is necessary to restore the constitutional order in Niger.”

Asked about the president of Niger’s appeal to the international community, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “it’s unlikely that the intervention of some non-regional forces could help change this situation for the better.”

Bazoum was taken hostage the day before the Russia–Africa Summit, an event hosted by the Russian government in St. Petersburg. Niger did not send delegates to the event.

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Mali and Burkina Faso expressed their support for the coup in Niger. Both states are governed by militaries that also came to power recently through coups. As BBC Russian notes, Wagner Group’s influence in those countries grew significantly after the coups took place. Africa has long been a region of business interest for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s founder.

On July 27, Telegram channels connected to Wagner Group started sharing a statement allegedly made by Prigozhin, in which he said the coup in Niger was good news and a long overdue liberation from colonizers. In the message, he also offered his fighters to the military junta to “help restore order” in Niger.

“What happened in Niger is essentially a struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers. With colonizers who try to impose their own conditions and rules of life, and keep them in the same condition as Africa was hundreds years ago,” Prigozhin is cited as saying by Reuters. “In fact, it means gaining independence. The rest will depend on the people of Niger.” Reuters noted that while the voice in the recording sounded like Prigozhin’s, journalists were unable to definitively confirm it was indeed him speaking.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, on her visit to Niger in the wake of the coup, told the military junta about “Wagner and its threat to those countries where it is present, reminding them that security gets worse, that human rights get worse when Wagner enters.”

“I will say that I got the sense in my meetings today that the people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in,” Nuland added.

More on Russian influence in Africa

Putin, the anti-colonialist The Kremlin’s new model of Russian ‘soft power’ will fuel anti-Western resentment in Southern Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia

More on Russian influence in Africa

Putin, the anti-colonialist The Kremlin’s new model of Russian ‘soft power’ will fuel anti-Western resentment in Southern Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia

Summary by Sasha Slobodov

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