Niger was, in many ways, one of the West’s last and best hopes for a flailing, decades-long counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel region of Africa. The West African country, though struggling with poverty and instability, was led by a democratically elected leader with a pro-Western orientation.
Niger was seen as a port in the storm in a region beset by a growing surge in terrorism and an epidemic of coups that had toppled governments all around it.
The United States, alongside France, pinned much of its hopes for the region on Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, expressed in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid to and investment in the country and a $110 million pet project from the U.S. Defense Department in the form of a drone base for counterterrorism operations in the region.
Until the coup came for Niger, too. In late July, soldiers detained Bazoum at his home and installed a military junta—the eighth coup in the Sahel in the past three years—triggering yet another regional crisis. The latest military takeover marks a potential turning point in U.S. and Western policy on the Sahel region—or so many Western government officials privately and outside experts publicly hope.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in investment at risk of going up in smoke, officials and experts are pushing the Biden administration from the inside and outside to dramatically rethink decades of orthodoxy on the West’s security-focused engagement with Africa and military involvement in the Sahel region.
“Niger is a line in the sand for stopping this trend,” said Jendayi Frazer, a former top U.S. envoy for African affairs who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And if it can’t be stopped in Niger, then I think that there’s real trouble for the rest of West Africa.”
The United States can’t dictate the course of events in the Sahel from afar, nor does it have any appetite to, as Russia’s war in Ukraine and competition with China dominate the agenda in Washington.
But the crisis in Niger and broader outbreak of coups in the Sahel encapsulate every vexing angle of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century: the many failures (and fewer successes) of counterterrorism operations; great-power competition with Russia and China (both becoming increasingly involved in a battle for influence in Africa); and the age-old debate in U.S. policy over whether democracy and human rights or short-term security challenges should come first. How Washington responds will be a litmus test for how it balances these foreign-policy priorities.
The complex debate playing out within the Biden administration is underscored by the fact that it hasn’t even officially called the coup in Niger a “coup.” Under U.S. law, broad swaths of U.S. foreign assistance and security cooperation must be suspended in a country where the United States determines a coup has taken place.
So far, the Biden administration hasn’t taken that step, though it paused its security assistance. In addition to the $110 million drone base, the United States also launched a $442.6 million compact with Niger through a small foreign assistance agency, the Millennium Challenge Corp., aimed at improving the Nigerien economy.
The upheaval has thrown that major initiative into limbo, along with the future presence of around 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger. Still, U.S. officials and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy voiced concern that if the coup (or, in official U.S. government parlance, “crisis”) in Niger isn’t reversed or a diplomatic offramp cobbled together, it could heighten the risk of other stable democratic countries in the region falling to their own military coups, such as Senegal and Ghana.
The coups in Niger and elsewhere also set back regional efforts to combat terrorism, as countries in the Sahel ruled by juntas have failed to halt the expansion of terrorist groups compared even with the limited and uneven successes of Western counterterrorism initiatives.
The junta that took power in Mali in 2021, after another coup in 2020, halted counterterrorism cooperation with the West and sided instead with Russia. Since then, Islamic State-linked terrorist groups have doubled the size of the territory they control in central Mali, according to a new U.N. report.
The Niger coup could further dampen U.S. prospects of stemming the tide of Islamist terrorism in the Sahel, a trend that has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the region and given terrorist groups such as the Islamic State more breathing space to organize and plan future attacks.
Former U.S. officials have joined a growing chorus of experts criticizing decades of U.S. policy on the Sahel region that focused on security-first partnerships with brittle and less-than-democratic governments without a proper balance of initiatives aimed at improving countries’ democratic governance structures, civil societies, and economies.
“The approach to engaging with that part of Africa by the U.S., by France, needs to be rethought,” said Zainab Usman, a senior fellow and the director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A new study led by former U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs concludes similarly: “The US strategy toward Africa today is neither effective nor sustainable. It’s time to flip the script. US policy in Africa has for too long prioritized short-term security to the detriment of long-term stability by prioritizing the provision of military and security assistance.”
The Biden administration in August 2022 unveiled a new U.S.-Africa strategy aimed at addressing those criticisms, seeking to recast “traditional U.S. policy priorities” and focus on democratic development and economic investment while de-emphasizing security ties.
The strategy, on paper at least, aligns with criticism brought up amid the Niger crisis that Washington is too focused on counterterrorism and security issues and doesn’t do enough to help governments in the Sahel address underlying governance and economic issues that has spurred the rise of terrorist groups and the plague of coups.
The latest military takeover sparked a debate over whether the United States inadvertently laid the groundwork for juntas by training the military officers who orchestrated them—a criticism that Biden administration officials and others reject.
“I don’t think we are training people to cause coups, but I do think we need to look a lot closer at the impact of strengthening the hand and capacity of security services in places with weak civilian governance and institutions,” Shackelford said.
Overall, she said, “it’s painfully clear that what we’ve been trying to do over the years and over hundreds of millions of dollars in the Sahel hasn’t worked.”
But actually implementing the strategy in a way that would address these long-standing challenges in the Sahel is easier said than done, U.S. officials privately concede.
That’s thanks to bureaucratic inertia in Washington on existing security assistance programs and simple math: The Pentagon has an $800 billion annual budget, dwarfing by far the money available to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other aid agencies focused on diplomacy and development.
A key test of whether the Biden administration absorbs these lessons will come this week as Biden’s top Africa envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee, visits West Africa to find a way to reverse the coup-that-isn’t-quite-yet-a-coup in Niger.
Phee will travel to Nigeria and Ghana, the region’s two democratic heavyweights, to address the crisis. African and European officials are watching closely to see if Phee refers to the events in Niger as a “coup” and whether the United States will publicly back a threat by the region’s most powerful political bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to intervene militarily in Niger to reverse the military takeover.
It’s unclear what an ECOWAS military intervention would look like, particularly after the bloc failed to follow through on its threat to intervene in the first weeks of the crisis, and some experts warn that such an intervention could trigger further proxy conflicts.
An earlier diplomatic effort to reinstall Bazoum, when acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Niger this month, ended in failure after the coup leaders refused to allow her to meet with Bazoum. Her visit angered key ally France in the process, Politico reported, as Paris argued that Washington was only empowering the coup plotters by engaging with them.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a press briefing last week, said the Biden administration’s top priority on Niger was reversing the putsch and supporting ECOWAS efforts to resolve the crisis. “We are working intensively with all of our partners, including with France, to try to ensure the preservation of democracy in Niger,” he said.
Frazer, the former U.S. envoy, criticized the Biden administration for not doing more to forcefully support ECOWAS and its efforts to restore a democratic government in Niger. She argued that support for democracy in Niger and ECOWAS needed to go beyond simply suspending security assistance and threatening sanctions on the coup leaders.
“If you declare Bazoum to be the great democratic lead partner in the Sahel, but then when there’s trouble, you just issue statements condemning the coup and threatening sanctions, that cannot be a substitute for policy engagement,” she said. “If you’re not there to back ECOWAS, to support them publicly, then you’re not in the game.”
Robbie Gramer for ForeignPolicy