Biden must immediately call Niger’s coup a ‘coup’

A junta of military officers in Niger have violently ousted President Mohamed Bazoum from power and are now using him as a hostage. The consequences of military rule are serious, and the U.S. cannot afford to lose more time in confronting this potential disaster.

To leverage maximum pressure for a return to civilian governance, the Biden administration must officially declare this event a military coup and begin the process of activating congressional sanctions against its perpetrators.

On July 26, news emerged from Niger’s capital Niamey that the executive residence had been surrounded by armed members of the country’s presidential guard unit. That force, normally tasked with protecting the president, reportedly detained the democratically elected Bazoum and were demanding his resignation.

By evening, the army and other branches of the military had joined the coup d’état. A televised announcement from a panel of military officers declared the formation of a military junta and their seizure of political power.

Coups have been on the rise throughout Western Africa in recent years. This one figures to be the sixth successful coup attempt in the region in just the last three years. Many of these military seizures have been justified by their perpetrators as necessary for restoring peace amidst ongoing jihadist insurgencies challenging stability in the region. Niger is no exception: The junta claimed in its televised address that the intervention was required to halt the country’s deteriorating security situation.

Even when they claim to be protectors of the people and restorers of peace, military juntas like this have a very poor record. Mali’s military junta reportedly contracted the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries to disappear and execute civilians as part of its total war effort. In neighboring Burkina Faso, the ruling junta has overseen a significant loss of territorial control to insurgents, who have themselves carried out more atrocities against civilians. Despite their claims to the contrary, military rule does not appear to be the remedy to region’s desperate security concerns.

Given the potential for greater violence if military rule continues, and the close ties between the U.S. and Niger’s democratically elected government, the Biden administration should take immediate action to pressure this military clique to stand down. This involves quite literally calling a coup a “coup.”

Congressional appropriations legislation stipulates that if a duly elected foreign government is overthrown by a military coup, broad swaths of foreign assistance are immediately suspended. This sanctioning mechanism automatically activates upon the presidential administration designating through statements that a “coup” has taken place. This occurred after the 2021 coup in Myanmar, when the Biden administration used this declaration to impose immediate economic and military sanctions against the Burmese junta.

The dangers of not calling a coup a “coup” can be severe. Nearly half the coups over the last decade have not been officially designated as such by American administrations. Without this declaration, coup regimes may be emboldened. Such was the case after the 2013 Egyptian coup, when the rhetorical gymnastics of the Obama administration to avoid saying “coup” were lambasted by late-night comedians. Since then, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the coup’s perpetrator, has remained in power and entrenched his autocratic rule over Egypt.

Niger’s coup represents a major threat to democracy and security in the Sahel. As it has become evident that the military has effectively ousted President Bazoum, the White House should waste no more time in officially declaring the event a “coup” in a pointed public statement.

Once it has been declared, a suite of economic and security sanctions should be prepared and communicated to the junta’s leaders. Leveraging these potential sanctions could help the international community negotiate the release of high-level hostages who are in immediate danger. It would also have a greater effect than the current strategy of withholding designation and announcing unspecified assistance pauses.

The threat of losing valuable American security assistance during the ongoing struggle against insurgency would also put the junta’s unity under pressure. Facing severe sanctions and forceful international condemnation could cause some in the junta to advocate a return to the barracks. Juntas rely on military unity for stability, so any pressure point applied to that unity could advance a quicker return to civilian governance.

Time is of the essence. Niger’s imprisoned president is calling for all support from the international community to return to democracy. Military juntas are a dangerous variety of authoritarian rule and one that is not positioned to protect the innocent. Failure to act with conviction could lead to worsening civilian casualties, insurgent violence, and entrenched autocracy.

For these reasons, the Biden administration must act urgently to officially declare a coup in Niger and formulate a wave of sanctions against this military junta.

Austin S. Matthews is a professor of political science at East Carolina University. His research focuses on authoritarian regimes and the dynamics of regime change.

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