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Out of Africa, a new world war?

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Supporters of Niger’s ruling junta hold a Russian flag at the start of a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger (Photograph by Sam Mednick/AP)

You can think of the unfolding disaster in Niger in four ways, from embarrassing to ominous, catastrophic and apocalyptic.

Embarrassing, because the country’s coup on July 26 is blowback for a clueless West: neither the hapless former colonial power, France, nor the waning superpower, the United States, saw this coming. Ominous, because it’s a windfall for Russia and China, as they vie with the West for influence in the region and world. Potentially catastrophic, because it’s a setback in the struggle against jihadist terrorism and uncontrolled migration. Possibly apocalyptic, if it marks a slide into world war.

And all this because a general heard that he might be fired and decided instead to oust the leader he was meant to protect. That — not ideology, not geopolitics, not the world food crisis, not anything large, but a staffing problem — is the immediate reason for Niger’s coup, the fifth since its independence from France in 1960.

It brings to more than half a dozen the putsches in the region just since 2020, including two each in Mali and Burkina Faso, and others in Guinea and Sudan. Chaos now reigns from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. If there is hell on Earth, it’s the Sahel, the arid and wretched savannas south of the Sahara.

The Nigerien general’s name is Abdourahamane (Omar) Tchiani. As commander of the presidential guard, he was supposed to protect President Mohamed Bazoum, elected in 2021 and a rare American ally in the Sahel. But when Bazoum mused about replacing Tchiani, the general showed up with his junta and goons. Bazoum fled across the hall from his office into a safe room. Holed up, he has been begging the outside world for help, even dictating an op-ed article in The Washington Post by phone.

If the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali are any guide, here is what will happen next. Niger’s junta will kick out French and American troops stationed there and throw itself into the arms of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, a ruthless Russian mercenary army. Even as the Nigerien revolt was under way, Putin was hosting other pliant African leaders in St Petersburg, schmoozing them into supporting, or at least not opposing, his war against Ukraine.

Prigozhin also showed up in St Petersburg for photo ops with the African leaders. That may seem surprising, since the Wagner boss is supposed to be in Belarusian exile, in punishment for his short-lived mutiny in June. Apparently, though, Putin's interests in the Sahel trump his concerns about Prigozhin.

For years, the Wagner Group has been fighting for the worst kind of people in Africa, hawking its services in return for concessions to diamonds or other riches of the soil. Putin blesses these Wagner operations and atrocities because he will do anything to pry countries away from the US.

In that way, Putin — like his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping — views the Sahel as just another front line in his civilisational struggle against the US-led West. Others run through Ukraine, obviously, but also Asia and the Arctic — last week, a combined Russian and Chinese flotilla sailed provocatively close to Alaska.

Putin is particularly drawn to the Sahel because the region can destabilise the West in many ways at once. It has become the global epicentre of terrorism, as groups such as Boko Haram and the local branches of the Islamic State move into the power vacuums left by coups, ethnic uprisings, banditry and Wagner mercenaries. To fight the terrorists, Western countries, notably France and the US, have stationed troops in the few places that remain co-operative. Niger has been among the most important, housing an American drone base. Without a Western presence, there will be nothing to stop the terrorists.

Putin loves that prospect. It will cause even more suffering and even greater migrations northward and towards the European Union, which he loathes and wants to destabilise. That is also a reason Putin has weaponised grain, which he is preventing Ukraine from exporting, fully aware that his blockade causes hunger in places such as Africa.

The cynicism on the part of Putin and Prigozhin is breathtaking. Even as he is starving other Africans by bombing Ukrainian grain depots, Putin promised the ones who showed up in St Petersburg “free” Russian grain instead — in amounts the United Nations considers risible. Prigozhin went on Telegram to praise the Nigerien junta for its righteous “struggle” against their country’s “colonisers”, by which he apparently means the French and Americans.

The wilful gullibility of their African audiences is just as shocking. It should be plain to all countries in the region, and indeed every human alive, that Russia is the cause of the world’s food crisis, and that Putin is nowadays the coloniser fighting an imperialist war of subjugation in Ukraine.

What can the rest of the world do? Hard to say. The African Union and the West have of course condemned the putsch. The Economic Community of West African States, a bloc led by Nigeria, has stopped trade with Niger and shut off Nigerian electricity exports to it.

Ecowas even issued the junta an ultimatum to restore Bazoum to power or face military intervention. On cue, the pro-Russian regimes in Burkina Faso and Mali answered that they would then come to the aid of the new leaders in Niger. With Russians in the second row on one side and Americans on the other, we would be in another proxy war, and another step closer to a Third World War.

For now, Nigeria and the other Ecowas countries appear to have calculated that the risk is too great — they let their ultimatum's deadline pass on Sunday without sending soldiers. The US and France are also unlikely to take up arms for Bazoum. They fear that Niger could be the next Iraq or Afghanistan, or worse, that they might end up shooting at Russians and igniting a global conflagration.

As I said, blowback. The US and its allies have for years neglected the region diplomatically. Of late, Washington has not even had ambassadors to Niger or Nigeria — the senator Rand Paul has been blocking nominees to force the White House to release information on Covid; a new ambassador to Niger was confirmed only the day after the coup.

Politics must once again stop at the water’s edge. As Putin and Xi see it, we are already in the next world war, even if no one has declared it yet or started shooting directly at the other side. The US, Europe and the wider West must support Africa — and indeed the whole Global South — not just now, but from now on. We have to make it easier for the world not just to stare down juntas, but to resist the dark side in geopolitics.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics

• Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics

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Published August 10, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 09, 2023 at 7:22 pm)

Out of Africa, a new world war?

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