Biden administration unwilling to call Niger coup a 'coup' – POLITICO

Foreign Affairs
A legal decision that the West African country has had a coup could force the U.S. to stop sending military aid.
Washington’s unwillingness to formally label the overthrow in Niger as a coup isn’t unprecedented. It still won’t use the term to describe the 2013 coup in Egypt, another recipient of military aid. | AFP via Getty Images
By Nahal Toosi and Lara Seligman

Link Copied
The Biden administration is refusing to call the military-backed ouster of Niger’s president a “coup,” knowing that doing so could trigger an end to U.S. security aid to a country that’s key to battling terrorism and curbing Russian influence in Africa.
The reluctance is the latest example of President Joe Biden’s struggle to balance a stated reverence for democracy with the harsh reality of geopolitics, especially when it comes to partner nations tackling challenges such as extremism. Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, just recently transitioned to democracy in a region where coups have become frequent.
Pressed on the hesitation to use the label for Niger, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller insisted Monday that the situation is “fluid” and still an “attempt” at removing Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum.
“We are watching and monitoring the situation and trying to prevent President Bazoum from being removed from office,” Miller said.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the U.S. “economic and security partnership with Niger, which is significant, hundreds of millions of dollars” was in “clear jeopardy.”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reports from Niamey, the Nigerien capital, show that Bazoum was taken captive by his bodyguards last week. The country’s military then endorsed the ouster, and Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who oversees the presidential guards, declared he was leading a transitional government. The exact reasons for the coup are unclear, but Tchiani has spoken vaguely of the need to stop the country’s “demise.”
Multiple U.S. officials, including Blinken, have spoken with Bazoum in recent days, and they’ve demanded that Nigerien security forces restore him to power.
But labeling the events “coup” — a legal determination, not simply a matter of using a word — could spur an end to U.S. military equipment and training, and potentially economic aid. Traditionally speaking, a coup d’etat is defined as an illegal seizure of power, often by a country’s military.
If the U.S. is forced to freeze aid to Niger, it will endanger its ties to a crucial Western ally and linchpin of U.S. counterterrorism in the Sahel region, where Islamist militants are steadily expanding their grip.
In 2019, the Pentagon opened a new drone base in the Nigerien city of Agadez that it uses to strike terrorist groups across West and North Africa. The facility, which hosts MQ-9 Reaper drones, cost the U.S. $100 million to construct and roughly $30 million a year to maintain.
The Nigerien armed forces have suspended all flights out of the base, according to a Defense Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss a developing situation.
Ending U.S. aid could also reduce leverage to convince Niger’s generals to restore democracy, although Washington’s efforts to financially weaken dictatorships, through sanctions for example, have had mixed results at best.
Until the past few days, Niamey was only one of the few remaining democracies in the Sahel: since 2021, neighboring governments in Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad have fallen to military coups.
“Niger was the basket that the U.S. and the French were putting all their eggs in,” said Joshua Meservey, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Global leaders, including across Africa, have called for Bazoum to be reinstated. Several of Niger’s neighbors even threatened military intervention if the ousted president is not returned to power by Aug. 6.
But the regional pressure is unlikely to have much effect — in part because it’s unclear whether the African nations have the will or military might to make good on the threat, argued Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That didn’t work in Mali, it didn’t work in Burkina Faso, it didn’t work in Guinea. Why would it work in Niger?” he said. He added that any intervention might ultimately prove counterproductive by alienating the population.
At the same time, supporters of the coup in Niger have staged marches in which they’ve waved Russian flags, adding to Western worries that Moscow — possibly through the mercenary Wagner Group that has been active in Mali and elsewhere in the region — is fueling the discord.
The Biden administration may be trying to keep its options open because there is still hope the coup could be reversed or the military could transition peacefully to a new democratic government. Regardless of the outcome, experts say, Washington may find a way to work with the Nigerien armed forces because of significant U.S. commitments and interests in the region.
“The U.S. cannot afford to pack up and leave,” Dizolele said.
Other Western countries were quick to suspend aid. France, Germany and the European Union say they are halting financial aid to Niger. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the events a “putsch.”
France, which ruled Niger as a colony until 1960, has about 1,500 troops there, but the U.S. has a significant military presence, too.
Since 2012, the U.S. has spent $500 million to train and arm the Nigerien armed forces, and stations about 1,100 troops — many of them commandos training and advising Nigerien special forces — in the country.
Niamey has participated for years in the annual Flintlock exercise, Africa’s largest special operations exercise, which sees Western troops training their African partners across the Sahel.
The fate of the base now hangs in the balance: American troops may be compelled by law to leave, or the new Nigerien government could force them out.
If the West cuts aid to Niger, there are also worries that Niamey could turn to Russia and China, or mercenary groups such as Wagner, for assistance. The Kremlin-backed group’s presence has exploded in places such as Mali, for example, after the West largely pulled out due to a 2021 coup.
“Once they launch a coup they become pariahs, but Wagner doesn’t care about that,” said Meservey of the Hudson Institute, noting that other coup governments in the region are working with Russia, China and Iran, another U.S. adversary.
“It may be that coup governments are now calculating that they can survive the inevitable pariah-ization that they will face from the West.”
But the situation is tricky for Biden and his aides, not to mention members of Congress and others who want U.S. economic and military aid to be used wisely.
Washington’s unwillingness to formally label the overthrow in Niger as a coup isn’t unprecedented. It still won’t use the term to describe the 2013 coup in Egypt, another recipient of military aid.
The Obama administration drew much mockery for refusing to use the label. That position hasn’t changed under subsequent administrations.
The State Department spokesperson at the time, Jen Psaki, said the Obama team had “determined we’re not going to make a determination.”
One comedian called it a verbal “kama sutra.”
Link Copied


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top