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U.S.-Russia tensions are playing out in Niger in the wake of its military coup


The coup in Niger 10 days ago is just one example of the political instability that has thrown some West African governments into turmoil as they try to fight off Islamic extremists. And this instability has prompted a type of proxy battle reminiscent of the Cold War. To address terrorism, some countries have turned to the West for help while others have relied on Russia and its Wagner mercenary group. Niger itself was allied with the U.S., but the new leadership now appears to be aligning itself with Russia. To understand what these political dynamics - to understand these political dynamics, we called Wassim Nasr, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. He says the instability is particularly pronounced in Niger and two of its neighbors, Burkina Faso and Mali.

WASSIM NASR: We're talking about multiple coups because in the - for example, Niger has a history of coups, you see. Also, we had, like, in the past two years a double coup in Mali. Like, the military made the coup. Then they made a coup inside of the coup. In Burkina Faso, it was the same. Last year, there was a coup and before it, another coup. And each time in Mali and Burkina Faso, the argument or the justification of the coup that - made, of course, by the military, was the security situation. But each time they take on power, the situation deteriorates.

PERALTA: Let's talk a little about the geopolitics of this. I mean, Niger has been a key ally to the West, to the U.S., to France especially. But this region seems to be tilting toward Russia. I mean, what have Western countries and what have other West African countries, said about this coup?

NASR: Well, it is true because when we had the first coup in this series (ph) in Mali and then a second coup in the - in Burkina and then a second coup in Burkina - well, people thought that they can make coups and get away with it. And that's what's happening in Niger. And because even when you speak of people who are part of the government in Niger in the first hours, they were very, like, surprised. Why isn't no - anybody doing anything for us? - meaning our Western allies. So at best, it is seen as weakness. And at worst, it is seen as treason. We are talking about our allies, you see? So on the other part of the scope that you are talking about, they see, for example, Russians and Wagner mercenaries were getting involved and getting their hands dirty and sticking with the one who are described as their allies.

PERALTA: But interestingly, ECOWAS, which is the community of West African states, has threatened to use force to return President Bazoum to power. And ECOWAS is backed by the West. Do you think that that threat of force - they've given the military coup leaders an ultimatum. Do you think that threat of force is real?

NASR: Well, I don't know if it's going to play, actually, but they have the means to do it. If nothing is done, no more coups would be prevented. And so if this coup in Niger works out, all governments in Africa should be worried about their military. So it's a very important moment because otherwise, if nothing is done, well, maybe Western powers should leave the region, actually, because there's no point in staying there if you are not willing to at least accept that the rules of the games are changing and adapt to them.

PERALTA: What do you mean by the rules of the game are changing?

NASR: Well, actually, the Russians are playing dirty. They are sending mercenaries who are committing human rights abuses. They are backing coups. They are - you know, it's the Cold War play, you see? So if Western powers think that only by development and seminars and only by thinking war on terror things will work out by themselves, I don't think it's going to work out.

PERALTA: So, I mean, what you're describing is just a region full of instability. And it's - look. This is already a region that has been battered by violence. What's the humanitarian outlook here?

NASR: It's a disaster - Wagner's involvement that I got to work on very seriously in Mali for a year. There's a blood train behind their involvement and zero results against jihadis, you see, because they are killing innocent people in villages in Mali and Burkina Faso, which is fueling the recruitment of jihadi groups, actually, and without getting any actual military results on the ground. So the civilians are paying the highest price.

PERALTA: That's Wassim Nasr. He's a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. Wassim, thank you so much.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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