Niger’s Coup: Unleashing Uranium, Françafrique’s Ghosts, And Russia’s Shadow

by Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

The tremors from the recent coup in Niger are not an isolated event but a domino in a sophisticated game of strategy and survival, highlighting the intricate interplay of geopolitical influences and natural resources, particularly the uranium that fuels France’s extensive nuclear sector.

France’s relationship with Niger has been anchored by their mutual need – France’s demand for uranium and Niger’s dependence on France’s financial support and military protection. Niger is the source of a substantial portion of the EU’s uranium imports and meets 15% of France’s uranium requirements as well as a fifth of Europe’s uranium needs. This symbiosis, however, is strained with the advent of the coup, challenging France’s continued relevance and influence in Niger and beyond.

The coup is the physical manifestation of the simmering resentment against “Françafrique”, the contentious economic and diplomatic ties between France and its former African colonies. This isn’t just an outpouring of the Nigeriens’ frustrations; it reflects the broader African sentiment against perceived neo-imperialism. France’s controversial military operations in the Sahel region, including Serval and Barkhane, have not only been ineffective in curbing jihadist insurgency but have indirectly fueled their growth. As Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador, aptly remarks, “every liberating army becomes, after a while, an occupier.”

This contemporary crisis also exposes the EU’s ambiguous Africa strategy. The EU is at a crossroads – escalating tensions in Niger could potentially discourage it from imposing sanctions on Russia, a key uranium supplier, thereby compounding the bloc’s dependence on foreign resources. It’s not just about immediate uranium supply; it’s about reassessing the EU’s broader relationships and strategies in Africa.

Russia’s approach in Africa

While Europe grapples with the reverberations of its colonial past, another power has stealthily navigated the African political waters, extending its reach and consolidating its influence. This is Russia, operating under the banner of anti-neocolonialism and led during many years by the shadowy businesses of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has massively funded disinformation campaigns in Africa, and supported by its Wagner Group, who has woven its web across Africa, securing interests and leveraging instability.

Russia’s renewed focus on Africa was clearly exhibited in the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019, and more recently, in St. Petersburg. Russia paints itself as the sturdy backbone of African security.  Here, Putin brilliantly exploited soft power, offering debt relief and humanitarian aid to African nations while positioning Russia as a counterbalance to Western influence. His anti-neocolonial rhetoric, combined with gestures of respect towards African sovereignty, are part of a shrewd strategy to recalibrate Africa’s geopolitical alliances. One of the most interesting outcomes of the recent 2023 Russia-Africa Summit was the agreement on the creation of a new permanent Russian-African security mechanism, aimed at combating terrorism, extremism, transnational crime, and ensuring food security. Offering both training to African servicemen and law enforcement and supply of weapons – occasionally gratis – to strengthen African sovereignty and to save African leaders from the pain of former colonial powers.

The Wagner Group’s actions in Africa reflect the complexity of Russia’s strategy. It has been instrumental in advancing Russian interests in nations like Mali and the Central African Republic, but recent events suggest it might be asserting its own agenda, independently of the Kremlin. The Wagner rebellion fiasco raises questions about the dynamic between Putin and the private military company. Is Putin the puppet master, or is the Wagner Group a beast too big to control?

The coup in Niger presents a compelling case study in this narrative. The sight of Russian flags waved by coup supporters was an ominous sign of shifting alliances. While there’s no concrete evidence of Wagner or Russia directly instigating the coup, their potential gain from the ensuing instability cannot be ignored. Prigozhin’s offer of Wagner’s services to the coup leaders adds another layer to this geopolitical puzzle.

Piecing the geopolitical puzzle together

This situation demands a deeper understanding of the multi-faceted approach of Russia and the Wagner Group in Africa. Each coup, every summit, each show of support or condemnation forms a piece of a grand geopolitical jigsaw puzzle. Russia’s growing influence in Africa, like the mythical Hydra, seems to thrive amidst chaos and uncertainty. However, each new head of this Hydra that emerges offers an opportunity for vigilance and comprehension of Russia’s complex and ever-evolving strategy in Africa.

The recent coup in Niger was not an unforeseen event, but a climactic endpoint of an ongoing political tension that had been building for months. Niger, one of the only two non-military regimes in the G5 Sahel, was balancing on the edge of a precipice, mired in corruption and insecurity. Whispers of a coup had been circulating since February, with the turning point coming from within the presidential guard, instigating other factions to seize control. The capital, Niamey, more exposed to jihadist attacks than its G5 counterparts, buckled under the strain of constant threats and the influx of displaced residents.

Some interpret this coup as a step backwards in democracy, but for a nation worn out by years of corruption and mismanagement, it serves as a necessary reaction. It is  a bleak tableau where jobless youth and impoverished rural communities are the hardest hit. In such a scenario, any change, including a coup, signals a potential for much-needed reform.

Amidst Niger’s political tumult, a stark resentment towards France is fuelled in Niamey. While ECOWAS condemns the coup, the West grapples with a diplomatic quandary: how to assist without colonial echoes. Anti-French sentiment, amplified by Russian influences, is not inherently anti-European. The West must pivot: the diplomatic roadmap ahead calls for the West to prioritise authentic partnerships over paternalistic approaches. There must be a shift from merely offering aid to fostering mutual understandings, from imposing conditions, to soliciting African-led solutions. The tri-border region, a migration and extremism nexus, demands stability, especially in the tri-border area of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, crucial for migration routes and vital to countering extremism.Ultimately, the coup in Niger serves as a wake-up call to the international community. It underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive reassessment of relationships with Africa, to move away from the shadows of colonialism and towards equitable partnerships. It also highlights the need to carefully dissect Russia’s sophisticated approach in Africa, which challenges the status quo and dictates the need for a coordinated international response.

With every move and countermove in this intricate game of geopolitics, the international community must remain alert and adaptive, ready to confront Hydra’s next gambit. After all, it is not just about surviving the immediate storm but navigating the complex currents of power, influence, and survival in a world that continues to evolve.

Diplomatic recalibration is not a choice, it is a must.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI Europe or any other institution.

Nigerien Armed Forces conduct a convoy movement. Copyright: DVIDS/ Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Runser

More about the author:

Dr Joana de Deus Pereira, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI Europe

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