Bloomberg Opinion-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 US, 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’s 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’s what’ll 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 underway, 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’ll 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 civilizational 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 destabilize the West in many ways at once. It has become the global epicenter 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, and notably France and the US, have stationed troops in the few places that remain cooperative. Niger has been among the most important, housing an American drone base. Without a Western presence, there’ll be nothing to stop the terrorists.
Putin loves that prospect. It’ll cause even more suffering and even greater migrations northward and toward the European Union, which he loathes and wants to destabilize. That’s also a reason Putin has weaponized grain, which he’s preventing Ukraine from exporting, fully aware that his blockade causes hunger in places like Africa.
The willful 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 colonizer 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 (Ecowas), 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’d 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’d be in another proxy war, and another step closer to World War III.
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 hasn’t even had ambassadors to Niger or Nigeria. Senator Rand Paul has until recently been blocking nominees to force the White House to release information on Covid-19; 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’re already in the next world war, even if nobody’s 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.
#2 – A View From London: Gwynne Dyer on Trump Indictments
Gwynne Dyer — Aug 19 2023
– Gwynne Dyer is a UK-based Canadian journalist and historian who writes about international affairs
OPINION: “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine,” wrote Sextus Empiricus, a Sceptic philosopher who lived mainly in Athens and Alexandria almost 2000 years ago. Justice may be slow to come, but in the end the wicked will be punished. The mills are turning.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said British prime minister William Gladstone in 1868. That is certainly true for the many victims of Donald Trump, from the investors in the Atlantic City casinos he deliberately and repeatedly drove into bankruptcy in the 1980s to the 81 million American voters he tried to cheat after the 2020 presidential election.
But the grinding noise in the background has finally stopped. Something like justice is about to catch up with Trump not in New York (34 felony charges for falsifying business records), or in Florida (40 felony counts for hiding classified official documents), or in Washington (4 felony charges of plotting to overturn the US election), but in Georgia.
There is a widespread view that all these indictments are strengthening Trump’s support among his ‘core’ supporters, and he appears to believe that himself. “We need one more indictment to close out this election,” Trump bragged to a roomful of Republican Party bigwigs in Alabama early this month. But that’s not true.
The ‘core vote’ is enough to guarantee that Trump will get the Party’s nomination for president again, but in the real election fifteen months from now Democrats and ‘independents’ vote too. In that race, Trump and Biden are currently running neck and neck.
Given Trump’s enormous self-confidence, that was enough to convince him that he would never spend time in jail – until this week and the Georgia indictments. Only thirteen more criminal charges (for a total of 91) – but Georgia is different.
The New York cases are weak and Trump isn’t worried. If the federal indictments in Washington and Florida haven’t yet gone to trial, he could just order his Attorney General to cancel them. If he has been found guilty already, he can use his presidential powers to pardon himself. But there’s nothing he can do about the indictments in Georgia.
Not only can he not pardon himself for any convictions in Georgia (the president can only pardon federal offences), but convictions are far more likely in the Georgia courts, for several reasons.
One is that in Georgia Trump has been charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law (RICO), which was originally designed to arraign Mafia and other underworld bosses who gave the orders but did not commit the crimes personally. Many states (and the federal government) have RICO laws, but Georgia’s is particularly broad
Another difference is the fact that eighteen other people have been indicted for helping Trump to commit the crimes he is charged with. The list includes Trump’s former lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and John Eastman, the law professor who made up bogus legal theories to justify Trump’s actions.
There are another fourteen people included in the indictment, most of them ordinary people who were drawn into Trump’s scheme to overthrow the election outcome in Georgia, and a further thirty named but unindicted co-conspirators.
Trump will doubtless pay their legal expenses and get them good lawyers, but a lot of them will be very frightened and open to a plea bargain. The whole point of going after the ‘little fish’ is to shake loose further evidence of Trump’s direct involvement in the plot, and it’s likely to work.
Finally, the trial will be televised. Normally that would work well for a TV pro like Trump, but he will be very uncomfortable on a stage which he does not control. The spectacle will shrink him in the public’s eyes even if he isn’t found guilty, but he’s more likely to be convicted – and then it gets really interesting.
If there’s a conviction before the election (improbable), then it would probably scuttle Trump’s chances of regaining the presidency, and he would really go to jail once the appeals ran out.
If he was safely in the White House before he was convicted, then there would be a convicted criminal running the country, which was a contingency overlooked by the authors of the Constitution.
But it’s doubtful that Georgia could ‘extradite’ him. Civil war? Probably not. Political paralysis? Certainly. For how long, and with what effects? Nobody knows.
Down here in the weeds, speculating about possible futures, it’s easy to forget that all this is due to an actual coup attempt by the outgoing US president. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” a Roman lawyer of classical times would have said. I would say that justice must be done so the heavens don’t fall.