About the Episode
Niger's recent coup has reignited debates about democracy, stability, and Western influence. Join Kamissa Camara of the US Institute of Peace and Deep Dish hosts Lizzy Shackelford and Brian Hanson as they explore Niger's coup, its place in the Sahel's instability, and the urgent need to rethink policies in this complex region.
Countering Coups: How to Reverse Military Rule Across the Sahel, Kamissa Camara and Susan Stigant, U.S. Institute of Peace, Thursday, August 3, 2023
Less is More: A New Strategy for US Security Assistance to Africa, Lizzy Shackelford, Ethan Kessler, and Emma Sanderson, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, August 21, 2023
[Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs – going beyond the headlines are critical global issues. I’m your host, Brian Hanson, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Last month there was a coup in Niger.
Where the head of the presidential guard force, Abdourahmane Tchiani, ousted the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, that he had been charged to protect. But this coup is part of a bigger pattern. Over the last three years, there have been eight military takeovers in six different countries all across the Sahel region. This entire region is now under military rule, beset by many challenges, including widespread violent extremist groups, whose influence spreading inside and outside the region. So, was Niger’s fall inevitable? What explains the pattern of coups in the Sahel? And what actions by Western countries, such as the United States and France, made Niger and the region more vulnerable to militaries overthrowing democratic governments?
To explore these questions, I have with me today two experts... One of them is someone you’ve heard from before, my Deep Dish co-host, Lizzy Shackelford. Lizzy previously served as a US diplomat in several African countries and she just coauthored a report titled “Less is More: A New Strategy for US Security Assistance to Africa”.
I am also very happy to have with me Kamissa Camara. Kamissa is currently a senior advisor for Africa at the US Institute of Peace, and she has first-hand experience in the region, having served as foreign minister, chief of staff to the president, and other high-level positions in Mali, one of Niger’s neighbors. Kamissa recently co-authored a piece for the US Institute of Peace titled, “Countering Coups: How to Reverse Military Rule Across the Sahel”.
Now, every American remembers the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, which might be the closest thing many of us have experienced to an attempted coup. But Kamissa who lived through one in Mali herself, explains what that would actually entails...]
Kamissa Camara: You have no idea what a coup is. You have no idea. I was in a coup and there were military men negotiating with people, other military men at the door of the president's house, where he sleeps with his family. They were able to march in. And go and get him from his living room. They walked on his carpet to get him. This is what a coup is.
Brian Hanson: Many observers were really surprised by the coup in Niger because in many ways, you know, an emerging democracy with a pretty functional government, strong ties to Western governments and support, significant military assistance there. Were you surprised by the coup?
Kamissa Camara: I was definitely surprised by the coup, but not shocked. I think that, looking at Niger's trajectory, especially over the past 10 to 12 years, the external features of the country were satisfactory to international partners of Niger. We've had 2 or rather 3 democratic presidential elections. We had, President Muhammad who was elected twice in democratic elections. There was peaceful transition to President Mohammed Basu, who was also elected in a democratic elections two years ago. However, one big event, which occurred between the transition, is a coup attempt. So, military coups are not foreign in Niger. Niger has had, five or six coups, in the past 50 years. And the reason I'm saying I'm not too shocked that this coup happened is despite democratic elections, these countries in the Sahel region, because Niger is part of a region called the Sahel, are very fragile countries. Some of the presidents whom we say have been democratically elected, have been very often elected on shaky grounds. You can say that a majority of the population hasn't really voted for them because a lot of people actually don't vote in these elections.
Brian Hanson: When the coup happened in that transition between presidents, was it the same actors over the same issues or does it just represent a broader vulnerability of democracy in Niger?
Kamissa Camara: First of all, when coup attempts occur. they're usually, covered up by the potential victims of the coup, because they don't want to show that they're fragile or that they are vulnerable to coup attempts. So, we don't really know who the actors were, but I would say that, yeah, it's definitely a demonstration that the senior leadership of the country is not such a strong institution that it usually is in, for example, the US or European countries.
Brian Hanson: And, Lizzy, could you bring in a little bit of perspective, from the US, you know, you formally in the State Department, still have contacts inside the US government. Now, what was the thinking inside the US government you know, at the time this coup occurred? Was it seen as likely, or... What was the perspective?
Lizzy Shackelford: In the State Department, I think not shocked at it occurring. I think, with this rash of crews across the region, every government in the area seems somewhat at risk and coups are a little bit like graffiti, once somebody gets away with it, you have a lot easier for people to kind of add on and add on because you've seen that somebody's made that approach and has been able to succeed and get something out of it. So, undoubtedly we heard, in the aftermath that the Military regimes and Burkina Faso and Mali had been in touch with the coup leaders in Niger ahead of time and so they were probably encouraging it.
Brian Hanson: And those are neighboring states with military governments that, could have encouraged those who are considering the coup, right?
Lizzy Shackelford: Precisely. I mean, you're seeing things kind of split in West Africa right now between the countries in ECOWAS, the economic community of West Africa, which is kind of the leading, international regional institution there, that opposed the coups and then the coup leaders and other regional countries that are looking for more, legitimacy for their position as military leaders. So, you know, you go back to where the State Department was and the US government, more broadly. People were very surprised because Niger seemed to be the place that everyone was seeing the most progress. It's important though, to note that this progress, well real, Niger saw fewer civilian deaths and violence in the first six months of this year than in the same period in any year since 2017.
Brian Hanson: And that goes to that issue of the extremists, right? Fewer people were dying, so the security situation presumably seemed like it was getting better.
Lizzy Shackelford: I mean, to be fair, this is a fairly short, data set to be able to compare. So, you know, whether that was really demonstrating something durable in terms of a real change. It's not entirely clear. It was kind of too soon to be able to tell if that was going to stick around. But there was certainly a sense in the United States and in other Western partners that Niger was on a more positive track, both because of the democratic transition and because of some advances in terms of bringing a little bit more security and stability at a time when, again, neighboring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso were seeing less. But I think part of it is a bit of a blindsided perspective that you get in the US government sometimes. You really want to see wins when it's something that kind of fits the pattern of what you're trying to establish there. And so, I think we were too soon to call Niger a success story. And the military assistance that the US and France were providing was very significant, but all that can do is address the conflict itself, not the underlying problems in Niger and these other countries that really helped make them susceptible to extremist violence and insurgency. So, surprise, but I think at the end of the day, not a lot of shock because it was certainly a place where this could have happened.
Kamissa Camara: But Lizzy, let me, ask you this because I feel like we've had that same discussion when the coup happened in Mali in 2012, right? So, for years, Mali was considered a beacon of democracy and was really heralded in the international, system. The gains of the Mali's democracy were praised internationally for years. And then when the coup happened in 2012, well, actually people were shocked. Oh, my God. How did that happen? Right? and the same conclusion. Well, maybe we were too quick to characterize Mali's democracy as a democracy. There were underlying challenges to the country's system and how it was governed and we overlooked what was happening inside. Does that point to a flaw in how international partners, like the United States friends or other partners actually evaluate, those countries that are receiving assistance.
Lizzy Shackelford: Absolutely. I mean, we are very quick to pick winners and decide, you know, mission accomplished, and we don't move on. But what we do is we just kind of lean in on the same playbook and the playbook that the US has had across, West Africa and across you know, other parts of the African continent, certainly in places like Somalia, is that you see some gains from the counterterrorism activity. Measured by how many, of the other military have we trained? How effective are they getting at operations rather than kind of how much are we taking care of the fundamental instability. And so that's much easier to measure. It's much easier to measure. Like, how much have we invested? And what are we seeing in terms of better performance by these partner militaries? But we say, well, it's really important. We've learned that we have to have a holistic response. We need to make sure that we're addressing democracy and economic challenges. We say all of that. But that is not where our focus goes. So, while those lessons are learned, and I think that those lessons were learned after Mali. They are not applied and how we address other places. It's just easier for the US government, how it's built, to focus in on providing security assistance. The changes in economic challenges and some of these places that are facing such deep, challenges from climate change, longstanding conflicts, really marginalized groups that haven't been brought into, the economy and the political system. Those are generational changes that are really hard to make anywhere in the world, not just in West Africa. And so, it's a much smaller focus because it is hard to get anything accomplished in a single, let's say, presidential term, so that you can show some delivery there. And it's not quite as satisfying as saying, look at what this military that we've trained is now able to do.
Brian Hanson: And Kamissa, can I follow up with you on this, one of the narratives of these coups, is that if the government delivers for its people, we'll be able to be secure. So, when we look at a place like Niger, what we look for is, okay, yeah, the situation is getting better. People should be happy. My sense is the situation is more vulnerable than that. And that that kind of metric of how we doing, probably is not the right way to look. From your personal experience, how do we think about? This and the way to understand the vulnerability to coups and, how to support governments who are democratic governments who are trying to do well by their people.
Kamissa Camara: I will start by saying that Western partners, tend to oversimplify the issues at hand saying. Oh, this government needs to deliver for its people for the country to be stable is, oh, my God, such oversimplification, of what is actually happening on the ground. I think in every democracy, even the United States there are some disagreements about how the country is governed or how some of the decisions are made, but because the institutions in the United States are so strong, there is almost never, the prospect of a government being overthrown because this decision has been made and the people of Kentucky or the people of Connecticut are not happy with what happened, right? And so, to come back to this idea of delivering for your people, when a country like, Mali is facing a jihadist insurgency you know, back in 2012, and we often forget Mali faced, a separatist rebellion, a jihadi insurgency, uh French and African military had to get into literally save the country from dislocating. Right? And we had no army at the time. And so, when President Keita was elected in 2013. His number one goal was to rebuild the army, and that also meant that 30 to 40% of the national budget annually would go towards defense. So, what do you do then for education for health when you have millions and millions of youth coming onto the job market. They don't have jobs. They don't have prospects. They actually don't even have an education to start with. And so, it's almost like, an impossible task at hand. Right? And so, working in government was a very humbling experience because of the number of obstacles that you face on an everyday basis that you can't really go and tell that your State Department counterpart. Because that person would just not understand. You just have to deliver. What do you mean? I work 20 hours a day, but I still don't have the health system or the right schools for these young people who are coming onto the job market and those military men, we have to keep them happy because they die every day because of this Islamist insurgency, and then they leave widows and children who also need, to go to school and feed themselves. So, it's almost like a never ending challenge, that is not impossible to overcome, but that will take years, decades, for it to happen.
Brian Hanson: And Lizzy, your paper that you've just published is very critical of in this environment, how the US comes in and other Western powers to focus on military assistance. Can you lay out what that strategy is and how it feeds into the dynamic we've just been talking about in ways that you see is really negative?
Lizzy Shackelford: I want to start by saying, I do think that the intentions are very positive and there's a logical sense to saying that, if a country is facing a violent insurgency and they're facing what US and other Western partners are calling it kind of a terrorist threat and, civilians are not secure in their day to day lives. Different villages and communities are under threat. It absolutely makes sense to try and address that first. And you know this was a conversation I had, over and over again when my last posting was in Somalia. You know, how are you supposed to focus on things like getting to a 1 person 1 vote election when people aren't safe enough to move around the country? Absolutely. It is totally true. But that doesn't change the fact that the challenges that are underlying this, the challenges that Kamissa is referring to, if you can't feed your family, you know, if you can't sustain yourself and your family, those are very core challenges. And you're looking at a government that can't help you do that. And they're not delivering. So, there are no military solutions to those underlying problems. There are no military solutions to a poor economy that has no jobs for an ever increasing number of youth coming up. There are no military solutions to having no healthcare system access in a country. But when the United States and other Western partners are looking at these challenges, they do see 1st and foremost, the security challenge. They see that for 2 reasons. 1, because Western interests primarily in new areas like West Africa are on what are the potential threats to the United States in the West. And that comes from a long history of looking at kind of the counterterrorism imperative. So, understanding that. US national security interest is going to drive what we do. And it's also combined with the fact that is where our resources are to respond. The US provides a tremendous amount of our budget to our defense system as well, to the Pentagon, to the Department of Defense, but also to the State Department's portion of what it does that is security assistance as well. So, the civilian side of the shop is also providing security assistance. So, it's a huge imbalance in resources and personnel that we have to address problems. When the biggest tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail, as they say. And that's one of the challenges with how the US looks to tackle our national security interests around the world. And that's really helped shape what has become a military first or a security first response in US partnerships across West Africa. And while, that is important, I think they are heavily imbalanced in a way that helps to both lead these countries governments to addressing their problems first with counter terrorism approaches and security approaches. And it also creates an imbalance in institutions where the security institutions become much stronger and more capable vis a vis kind of in comparison to civilian institutions, because they're getting this boost. They're getting this training. They're getting resources from the West. And part of that, feeds into that narrative that these military takeovers are feeding to the population, which is we're better prepared to address these issues than your civilian government is.
Kamissa Camara: I agree with you, Liz. And I think, what we tend to overlook also is, those military leaders who take over in coups know how to speak to their Western partners. In their initial declarations, all of them, without exception, mention the security issue as the number 1 argument that led them to conduct the coup. They know that will appeal to the international community. So, they mentioned it, whether they believe in it or not, but then what they tell their populations is we are going to give you the health system that you need. We are going to give you the education that you need. We're going to give you the jobs that you need. And you know what we're going to do with these international powers and the western partners who've been invading our countries? We're going to put them out. That is what they tell to their population. So, you see, it's almost like a schizophrenic discourse that they hold because they know what the West wants to hear, but they also know that for their population, the security aspect is important. Yes, but they have more basic needs that are not met.
Lizzy Shackelford: And on top of that, you're seeing that impact on governments like the United States. The United States has not yet called what happened in Niger a coup. It's a coup! But because of the United States concerns, primarily with their national security interests, which is counterterrorism in the region. There's this hesitance to admit it because then we would have to end our security cooperation, and there is a fear of doing that despite what's happening right now in the country.
Brian Hanson: One of the things that's been interesting is there has been mobilization in the region. We talked a little bit about it earlier in this conversation, but ECOWAS, the economic community of West Africa, which is actually more than an economic community and has in the past played a role in issues of security in the region, Kamissa, what's your sense? And I know the situation is still unfolding, but what's your sense of the role of ECOWAS here or what they can do as a regional partner. Is that to some extent going to be more effective than folks outside the region who have been cast as these negative players that are going to be rejected and pushed out by the coup leaders and what can they do?
Kamissa Camara: Their mission has been forced to evolve because of the instability in West Africa. And so, the ECOWAS has been, for the past 30 years, deeply involved in peace operations in West Africa, but also in punishing military overthrows. Unfortunately for the ECOWAS, over the past three years, we've had two coups in Mali. We've had two coups in Burkina Faso. We've had one coup in Guinea. And, never has the ECOWAS able to reverse one of those military overthrows and so very quickly, has shown its limitations. Some of the critics that have been made towards the ECOWAS number 1, that it's a club of presidents that look out for their own interests and number 2, that it's an ineffective organization that needs to be reformed. One of the reforms that have been proposed is to consider military overthrows as terrorist attacks. Of course, this has not been yet accepted, the ECOWAS has been very effective at imposing sanctions against coup countries, but we've seen in the case of Mali after the August 2020 coup and the May 2021 coup, the harsh sanctions that were imposed on Mali have not made the junta go away. And so, with the fact that Niger, which was considered a relatively stable country is now under military threat, literally that the president has been kidnapped for almost 20 days now, that despite the threats, the sanctions, the military intervention in preparation, allegedly that the president hasn't been reinstated. And so, I think we're all starting to feel a little awkward, towards the ECOWAS. I personally do not believe that a military intervention will take place because of so many voices, being against, and then, I almost feel that this military coup in Niger is almost, a confirmation that military leaders in the Sahel have now become political players. Now, whether we accept that as a reality or not is what will define, further actions, further discussions, further negotiations, with these military leaders. But to me, they have the upper hand as of today.
Brian Hanson: And Lizzy, as we think about the possible role for Western powers, and in this case, the US and France, I believe both have troops inside Niger. Is there a role that Western countries can play at this point? Or as Kamissa already talked about, the coup leaders set up the West to be, one of the enemies of the people and their interests. What can be done if anything, by Western powers at a time like this?
Lizzy Shackelford: I mean, I think that the Western powers need to do something because they can't sit there with what is now 1,100 American troops, roughly about 1,500 French troops. I think they've probably already started moving them out. So, a decision has to be made, which frankly for the US government so far, they have chosen not to make a decision. I don't think that there is space for the United States or France to lead a response. I think that at this stage, what's been happening, France certainly is on its back foot in the region entirely as the former colonial leader. It is very unpopular. President Macron has tried to change that, but I believe fairly ineffectively. I think it's just reinforced the unpopularity of France. The United States is looked at more positively by many countries in the region, but still it's face forward is one of military intervention, and at a time when in most countries, the violence has gotten only worse. So, it hasn't been effective. The playbook for the United States needs to change, but what that's going to look like, in the countries that have already been taken over by coups, I'm really not sure. I think that we should continue humanitarian assistance. I think we should maintain a presence in order to help boost, those actors who can create generational change in the future. But I think we need to really lower our expectations for what kind of outcome we can shape in the near term. Now that said know, we're looking at all of the littoral states in West Africa, the countries around the coast that have not yet been overrun by either coups or by extremist violence. And they're trying to find a way to avoid that fate. You're starting to see some extremist violence and insurgencies leaking in over some of the borders. So, what can those countries do to insulate their democracies, protect their citizens from both violence and from a military overthrow? And I think the next question is, how can the United States and others help with that plan? Rather than, what I fear we might see, which is, well, if we can't do military assistance and counterterrorism in these three countries, we're going to go roll those over more to Ghana and other countries along the coast because that playbook has not worked, so I hope that we will take the lead from political players in these countries who hopefully have a better sense of what they need to be able to demonstrate that they can deliver for their people. And I will conclude this point by saying. I don't envy anyone trying to do that. This is, again, generational challenges. Nothing that there are short quick fixes to.
Brian Hanson: Kamissa, how do you respond to what Lizzy just laid out? Is that the right track or would you encourage a different set of approaches?
Kamissa Camara: I think the US and other Western players in this region are all in a very difficult position currently. The US considers those literal countries as priorities, especially in the global fragility act. And so, the US is really trying to curb all of the consequences that could come out of the insecurity of the Sahel and protect those literal states. But to me, is this the right approach? At least it's something, but I feel like it's almost like you know, you just wash your hair and you're drying your shoulders, but you're not drying your hair.
Brian Hanson: Right. The drivers continue to make you wet.
Kamissa Camara: I mean, it's just, it's like. take care of your hair first and the hair is really the Sahel, right? And it might look bushy and messy, but that's where the efforts need to focus and even though really looks desperate from the outside. But, it's just a very complicated situation. Where do you start? That's been the question for years now.
Lizzy Shackelford: Can I ask just very direct question of do you think that the US government should be working directly with the military governments in Burkina Faso and Mali right now?
Kamissa Camara: Yeah, I think it definitely needs to. France has been ousted. France is no longer a creditable player in the region. Algeria is being very careful. And I think Algeria has been frustrated with the Malian government for few years now because of the stalled peace process, etc. and to me, the United States just doesn't have the baggage that France, has and it's considered a very powerful and very credible player, which it is. Maybe the US can be smarter about how to, work with these military leaders. They are there and they're planning to stay. So, you either work with them or you just forget about the Sahel, but then your hair is still wet.
Brian Hanson: Yeah, which is one of the really hard parts, right? You don't want to legitimate the military takeovers and coups, but at the same time, if they're in power and those are the people you have to deal with. Let me ask about one other external player that gets a ton of press in the US and has been a real focus of the coverage here anyway, right? Russia. And there's this narrative of Russia increasing its footprint in the region. And this being, Wagner forces on the ground taking great advantage. How should we understand Russia's role and how all of this fits into Russia's role in the region?
Kamissa Camara: Well, Lizzy, let me ask you this -- do you equate Wagner with Russia? Because it disturbs me that we conflict the two.
Lizzy Shackelford: I do, and I don't. I mean, at this stage, Wagner is basically a criminal syndicate, right? I mean, it's tied to Russia. It pours money and resources back to Russia and vice versa. But I don't think that what it's doing is being directed from Moscow. And I also don't think that there's this big Russian driven conspiracy to create a bunch of military governments across, West Africa. I think they've been opportunistic and there have been opportunities for them to exploit. when people talk about, you know, well, if the US pulls out, Russia will, move in and take over influence as though the United States had that much influence with what we were doing in the first place. If we did, we wouldn't have a bunch of coups. but it's worrisome for a few reasons. One is because where Wagner goes, violence tends to increase. They don't even feign to be concerned with addressing the underlying issues. They're basically, service providers in exchange for resources for helping keep individuals and entities in power. That's basically how I see them. But I do think it's a problem, because it complicates how the US can engage and I also think it like builds a fog in the minds of the White House and the State Department over what you're addressing there. And the focus becomes just zeroed in on how do we counter Russia in country X rather than how do we address these problems for better national security outcomes.
Kamissa Camara: And I agree with you, Lizzy, I would say that Russia, Wagner partnership in the Sahel is almost, an American obsession. And the US just can't see past that. And to me, it's just a temporary disruptor in the region. There you have military junta leaders who have nothing to lose. Of course, they're going to hire contractors to secure them because they know that they can be overthrown and even killed, any day. And they are in a quest for power and for them to be able to do that, well, they have to play on propaganda tools, right? All of these military juntas play on this issue of sovereignty, right? And they do so after 10, 15 years of heavy foreign military assistance in their countries because of the jihadi insurgency and saying, well, now we want all of these Western, players out is hypocritical. Number one. Number two. you're not telling your people. You're not explaining to them what role these Western players were playing in your country. And you're not also telling them yet. You actually called them to help you out with the security issue and so now you have this propaganda around Putin as a leader. It's just disturbing to me all of a sudden Putin. It becomes this ideal that everybody in the Sahel wants to resemble you have no idea who Putin is, you don't even know what his foreign policy is or how he got up there. Right? And so, to me, the Wagner Group as a paid contractor, and Russia as a major international player who is being considerably isolated from Europe can find an opportunity in Africa to still make noise about itself.
Lizzy Shackelford: And I'm telling you, whoever imported all of those Russian flags, I feel like, somebody was thinking, you want to make sure that we continue to get assistance from the West. Let's distribute a bunch of Russian flags around here and just make sure their hair is on fire and that they're worried about Russia.
Kamissa Camara: And it's a great strategy. And I keep telling people these flags have been planted there for you to see, and it worked.
Brian Hanson: And Lizzy, what should our listeners pay attention to as events continue to unfold?
Lizzy Shackelford: I would be keeping an eye out primarily for what leadership in African organizations start to, or continue to do, what direction they take, because I think that's going to be one of the biggest challenges to try and have some form of stability moving forward is are there solutions that can be created or ways to ensure that this rash of coups does not expand further I'd also say, keep a lookout at how the US government decides to approach these now several military run countries. And if we have any bit of humility, in order to accept that, what we were doing in the region. It might not have caused these outcomes, but it certainly didn't help prevent them.
Brian Hanson: Kamissa, what would be signs of hope?
Kamissa Camara: What gives me hope is the voices at the grassroots level, the civil society groups have been sort of quiet recently. But they're really working to bring out the voices of the actual people on the ground and to demonstrate that what we see on TV and in the media, you know, those people running with Russian flags, actually do not represent the whole population. The population wants something else for themselves and unless this very small group of people who's taking others opinions hostage are uncovered, the voices from the ground are just not going to come to light.
Brian Hanson: Kamissa Camara of the US Institute of Peace and Lizzy Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – I want to thank you both so much for being on Deep Dish and really helping us not only understand the Niger coup, but really the challenges that the countries and the regions faces and for providing some solutions that it's going to take to move the whole region forward.
Kamissa Camara: Thank you.
Lizzy Shackelford: Thank you, Brian.
[Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish.
A reminder that we want to hear more from you, our listeners. So, send us an email or, better yet, a voice memo, to firstname.lastname@example.org -- You can suggest issues you’d like us to cover, guests you’d love to hear from, or you can just let us know how you think we’re doing.
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As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode is produced and edited by Kyra Dahring and mixed by Frank McKearn from Aphorism Productions.
Thank you for listening. I’m Brian Hanson and we’ll be back next week with another slice of Deep Dish.]
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