At first, the coup in Niger resembled others that have roiled West Africa in recent years. On July 26, soldiers detained Niger’s president at his home in the capital, Niamey. Hours later, they declared they had seized power. Foreign powers condemned the putsch but did nothing.
Then the coup took a different course.
The United States and France threatened to cut ties with Niger, endangering hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. The deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, though detained, was able to speak with world leaders, receive visitors and post defiant messages on social media.
Neighboring countries threatened to go to war — some to scuttle the coup, and others to ensure its success.
The Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc of countries known as ECOWAS, issued an ultimatum to the junta on July 30: Restore Mr. Bazoum to power within one week or face the consequences, including possible military action.
A day later, the neighboring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso leaped to the junta’s defense. In a joint statement, they said they would consider any foreign intervention in Niger as a “declaration of war” against them. (Guinea also supported Niger’s military, but without the threat of force.)
European countries, led by France, which ruled Niger as a colony until 1960, began evacuating their citizens from Niamey on Tuesday. The United States Embassy prepared to evacuate staff. Both France and the United States suspended military cooperation with Niger.
Niger’s coup has become a red line for many. But the saber-rattling has plunged the region into turmoil, exposing deep divisions. The coup leaders insist they are going nowhere. With worries that the crisis could spill over into a regional war, the stakes are rapidly rising.
Why does Niger matter?
If the coup succeeds, Niger will be the last domino to fall in an unbroken line of countries stretching across Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, that are ruled by military juntas.
Democratically elected leaders are falling like bowling pins: Since 2020, three of Niger’s neighbors — Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea — have experienced five coups. Many in the West had pinned their hopes on Mr. Bazoum, a friendly figure in a rough neighborhood.
Although Niger has a long history of coups, Mr. Bazoum promised a democratic future. Elected in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power in 2021, he advocated for girls’ education and tried to reduce the country’s birthrate, the highest in the world.
After years of stagnation, the economy was forecast to grow 7 percent this year. And Mr. Bazoum proved a steadfast partner to the United States, which has 1,100 troops and two drone bases in Niger; and to France, which has 1,500 troops based there.
The alliance with the West helped Niger push back militants — fatalities from Islamist violence fell sharply last year. But for reasons that remain unclear, it may also have stoked tensions inside the military, contributing to last week’s coup.
What is ECOWAS, and can it stop a coup?
West Africa’s most powerful regional grouping, ECOWAS represents 15 countries with a combined population of about 400 million people. Although founded to boost economies, ECOWAS has regularly waded into regional conflicts.
Since 1990, its peacekeepers have intervened to help quell rebellions, uphold cease-fires and force out dictators. The most recent mission was in Gambia in 2017, where its soldiers helped stop former President Yahya Jammeh from overturning an election he had lost.
Some want ECOWAS to emulate that example in Niger. The bloc’s head, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, says that West Africa cannot afford more coups and that ECOWAS needs to stop being a “toothless bulldog.”
“Tinubu is taking this Niger crisis personally,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a researcher at the African Studies Center of Leiden University in the Netherlands. “This was a one-coup-too-many for him, and for ECOWAS.”
On Wednesday, Nigeria’s military chief of staff, Christopher Musa, told Radio France International that if ordered, his forces were ready to deploy.
Still, many doubt that ECOWAS really wants to go to war over Niger. Gambia, where the bloc last deployed, is the smallest country on mainland Africa, with a weak army. Niger is twice the size of France, and its battle-tested army has been trained by American and European special forces.
“We will see if ECOWAS can ratchet up pressure any longer,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But I suspect that their bluff has been called.”
Where is the president?
Mr. Bazoum appears to be trapped in a strange limbo.
Typically, during coups, ousted leaders are forced to flee or sign a formal resignation. Mr. Bazoum has done neither, instead staying at home, where he spoke with the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and with President Emmanuel Macron of France. On Sunday, he welcomed the leader of Chad, Mahamat Déby, who later posted a smiling photo of the imprisoned president on social media.
Senior Nigerien diplomats, insisting that the coup can be reversed, still call Mr. Bazoum their boss.
“If this coup succeeds, it will be a disaster,” Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “A disaster for Niger, for the region and for the world.”
But Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the self-declared coup leader, insists it is going ahead.
The head of Niger’s Presidential Guard for 12 years, General Tchiani until recently was in charge of Mr. Bazoum’s security. Why he decided to become the president’s jailer, and to seize power, remains unclear.
But he says he will not bow to international pressure. In a television address Wednesday night, General Tchiani railed against “illegal, unjust and inhuman” sanctions imposed by ECOWAS on Niger since the coup. And he will not reinstate Mr. Bazoum, he added.
Who benefits from the chaos?
The sight of coup supporters brandishing Russian flags in central Niamey, some chanting slogans in favor of President Vladimir V. Putin, stoked suspicions that the Kremlin had a hand in the coup.
In fact, there is little evidence to support that idea, experts say. But that hasn’t prevented Russian officials from seeing Niger’s crisis as a major opportunity.
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch whose Wagner mercenary paramilitaries have been deployed to Mali, has pitched his services to Niger’s coup leaders. On Wednesday, one traveled to Mali’s capital, Bamako, where he met with Malian leaders and Wagner officials.
The other potential beneficiaries are the region’s Islamist militants. Since the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, militants’ attacks on civilians in those countries have soared. But in Niger, they have dropped — a trend that many fear could now be reversed.
If the coup succeeds, “it could provide a large base, a sanctuary, to Wagner and the jihadists in the heart of West Africa,” Mr. Liman-Tinguiri, the diplomat, said. “This is not another coup as usual.”
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.