Why the nightmare in Niger is the world’s problem
OVER THE past decade a losing battle against violent jihadists, autocrats and insurgents has been raging across the Sahel, an arid and dirt-poor zone in western Africa. That struggle has reached a crisis point after a military coup on July 26th in Niger. It was the last semi-functioning state left in the region after recent military takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso. The immediate prospect is a country on a knife-edge: ecowas, a group of west African states, has demanded the elected government be restored by August 6th and threatened to take military action against Nigers junta. The longer-term prospect is of an arc of instability that spreads farther across the continent, endangering far bigger economies including Ghana and Nigeria and even becoming a base for extremism and terrorism beyond Africas shores. Nigers nightmare is another perilous step towards the struggle in the Sahel becoming a global security threat. The ousting of Mohamed Bazoum, Nigers president, by elements of the army led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, has struck a match in a fireworks factory. France, the former colonial power, is evacuating its citizens. It has 1,500 troops in Niger to fight jihadists and has suspended aid and threatened an uncompromising response to any attack on its interests after protesters tried to torch its embassy in Niamey, the capital. The junta says it will defend itself against ecowass plan of aggression. Its pals in the military regimes of Mali and Burkina Faso say they would treat an attack on Niger as a declaration of war on them, too. The scale of the jihadist disaster in Africa is daunting. As well as the Sahel, militants control vast stretches of north-eastern Nigeria and Somalia. In total, these areas are home to more than one in ten sub-Saharan Africans. In the 12 months to June more than 22,000 Africans died in jihadist-related violence, 50% more than in the preceding year and double the number killed in Iraq in 2014 when Islamic State was at its peak. Nigers coup-plotters claim that they would do a better job of fighting jihadists but the toppling of elected governments in Burkina Faso and Mali was followed by spikes in jihadist violence there. Improvised, thuggish crackdowns by illegitimate, isolated military governments will not solve a problem with such deep roots. Jihadism is a symptom of social and economic collapse as much as a cause. In the case of the Sahel the drumbeat of population increases and climate change have created a zero-sum competition for land and other resources as well as destabilising internal migration. Corrupt and incompetent governments intensify these problems, creating predatory bureaucracies and brutal armies that stoke jihad by aggravating sectarian tensions and abusing ethnic minorities. Post-colonial fatigue and cynicism about the West have added to the conflagration. A French-led military effort to combat jihadists in the Sahel that began in 2013 produced dismal results, partly because of local suspicion of France. In the place of Western support some countries have sought help from sinister places, including the mercenaries of Wagner. They are led by Yevgeny Prigozhin who has just led a mutiny in Russia and is more interested in getting his hands on the regions mineral wealth than bringing about peace. For the rest of Africa and the outside world one option now is to do nothing: after all, repeated efforts to control extremism and establish stable governments in the Sahel have failed. The trouble is the threat, which has been consistently underestimated, is no longer geographically confined. Insurgents are threatening to spill westward over borders and destabilise richer and more densely populated countries on the coastal plain, including Ghana and Ivory Coast, two of sub-Saharan Africas ten-biggest economies. It is possible they could link up with extremists in Nigeria, the largest economy of all. Americas most senior military commander for Africa warned earlier this year that as the extremist groups grow the risk of terrorist plots against US citizens, embassies, and ultimately the homeland are likely to rise and that threats once contained on the continent are transforming into worldwide threats. A global effort to contain African jihadism has therefore become essential. In part that means addressing its deep roots. Paradoxically, Niger was showing the way. Mr Bazoum, who was inaugurated as president in 2021 in Nigers first democratic transfer of power, has improved governance and services such as health and education. He has tried to resolve local grievances and ethnic disputes through talks and persuaded some jihadists to lay down their arms by offering them an amnesty. He has welcomed Western forces to train the army and fight terrorists. Nigers enlightened approach to the jihadist threat is one more reason to hope that ecowas is able to reverse the coup there. That has happened before: in the past two decades it has reversed coups in the Gambia, Guinea and Sao Tome, among other places. Yet if Nigers new military junta remains in power, the West should withdraw support from the country and instead focus on helping the densely populated countries in the coastal strip make a last stand against African jihadism. That means urging these states to adopt a comprehensive approach to stemming jihadism, learning the lessons from Niger about the rule of law and the importance of providing decent services. It means training soldiers who come up against jihadists not to brutalise the local population and being open to direct military intervention by Western forces at the invitation of governments in the region. Last, it means building a broader alliance against jihadism that extends beyond colonial powers. Many countries now have an interest in Africas being stable and growing richer, including China and Turkey. They need to help. The threat is urgent: the jihadists are at the gates.