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BRUSSELS/PARIS — Europe’s hope it could buoy an island of stability in West Africa is drowning as Niger slips under military rule.
The EU — and France particularly — bet big on Niger, with Paris sending resources and troops to the country and the EU committing €40 million to help train and equip the Nigerien military. The goal was to arrest Russia’s seeping influence in the region, eradicate burgeoning terrorist threats and stem the migration routes snaking through Niger.
All of that is now in doubt.
This week, Niger’s military — the same one the EU pledged to train — took the country’s democratically elected president hostage and proclaimed it was now in charge. As the coup unfolded, the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group was quick to take (dubious) credit for helping and Russian propagandists gladly spread the message widely.
For Europe, it’s a major setback. The Continent has lost significant sway in the region after similar military coups in nearby countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. Those events forced France, once a local colonial power, to pull out and shift its strategy. It will now have to do so again, alongside its EU allies.
“The shock waves are going to be far-reaching,” Laurent Bigot, a former French diplomat and Western Africa specialist, told POLITICO. “With our fixation on stability, we make the same mistake of supporting failing regimes, and at the end it leads us inevitably towards a crisis.”
This week’s coup, Bigot added, “sounds the death knell for France’s military presence in Africa.”
Timing is everything
Regional instability means that coups are not unusual in this part of Africa. But the timing of the heave against Niger’s leader, a Western ally, is ominous for Brussels.
Moscow’s influence on this week’s events is impossible to ignore — from claims of direct involvement in the coup by the Wagner Group, which has a deep presence in the region, to supporters brandishing a Russian flag outside the National Assembly.
The timing of the power grab also was striking, coming on the eve of a major Russia-Africa summit hosted in St. Petersburg by President Vladimir Putin. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin — supposedly banished into exile a month ago after staging a failed uprising in Russia — appeared on the fringes of the summit in eye-catching photo opportunities. And he brazenly claimed to have aided the rebels.
“This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists,” Prigozhin said in a voice message posted on a Wagner-branded Telegram channel.
“This shows the effectiveness of Wagner,” Prigozhin continued. “A thousand Wagner fighters are able to restore order and destroy terrorists, preventing them from harming the civilian population.”
Prigozhin’s line is being amplified by allied information outlets: On Friday, the Grey Zone Telegram channel reported that demonstrations in support of Wagner had been held in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Central African Republic — all countries where the mercenary group is already entrenched — in addition to Niger.
Nonetheless, veteran Russia watcher Mark Galeotti doubted that the coup in Niger was made to order.
“This sounds like opportunistic spin to me rather than cunning planning,” Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a consultancy, told POLITICO. “Coups are potentially risky things — no one schedules them for someone else’s photo op.”
Still, a major challenge for the West in the Sahel is the Wagner Group’s ability to court local leaders in a way it can’t. Described by Galeotti as a “one-stop shop” for autocrats, Wagner offers services ranging from armed security to propaganda in exchange for lucrative concessions — a cut of which is typically kicked back to local elites.
The other challenge lurking for Europe is the implication for migration.
Europe is grappling with an influx of migrants from Africa, inking a deal with Tunisia in recent weeks in a bid to reduce the flow of people seeking asylum on Europe’s shores.
Many of these migrants come from — or through — Niger, and the country was seen as a reliable and safe partner for Europe as it discussed the issue. The country itself is also home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
According to a senior EU official who was granted anonymity to speak freely, French reports on migration patterns in Niger and the surrounding region have been central to Europe’s plans to manage the situation.
Additionally, international organizations mapping migration trends are constantly monitoring the Nigerien towns of Arlit and Séguédine. Associations like the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, have a heavy presence there.
Since news of the coup broke on Wednesday, European officials and leaders have scrambled to assess the situation.
French President Emmanuel Macron, top EU diplomat Josep Borrel and European Council President Charles Michel have all spoken to Bazoum, who remains under armed guard at the presidential palace in Niamey — but an information gap remains.
Officials say the situation in the capital is much calmer than it was in other countries, like Sudan, where internal clashes broke out in April.
As of Friday, the EU ambassador remained in place in the capital of Niamey. (The EU’s ambassador to Sudan was assaulted during April’s violence.)
European officials are also present in Niger through a civilian-led mission aimed at strengthening the country’s internal security sector — although its future now hangs in the balance. A similar mission in nearby Mali, in place since 2014, has been depleted as European forces have moved out of the war-torn country.
However the situation plays out, there is a widespread sense in Brussels and national capitals the bloc will need to remain engaged in the country, particularly given its role in migration.
“There’s too much at stake for the EU,” said an EU diplomat who has been closely following the region and migration. “It will need to engage also with who will be in charge, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting from Brussels. Laura Kayali contributed reporting from Paris.