At the time of writing a new evacuation operation in the African Sahel area – stretching from Senegal in the west to Sudan/Ethiopia/Eritrea/Somalia in the east, south of the Sahara – is under way under characteristically tense circumstances.

Not long ago it was Sudan under conditions of extreme turbulence as a result of erupting infighting between the regular army, led by general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and its former partner-in-government Rapid Support Forces RSF, led by Abdul Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, the violence there, still today, devastatingly affecting mainly the capital Khartoum and – as before – the western Darfur region, the violence killing thousands and making million flee into neighboring Chad and in other directions. The Sudan crisis displayed dramatic scenes and stories of evacuating foreigners (including the Swedish embassy staff). An already suffering Sudan has been made to suffer tragically more as a result of the infighting between the two power-hungry generals, Burhan and Dagalo.

And then there has been the lingering crises and power struggles in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, and others in the problem-loaded Sahel region.

And now, few weeks later after the eruption of violence in Sudan, it is Niger’s turn, bordering Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad and other countries in the mainly French-speaking West Africa, and dramatic, comparable, scenes of this time French-led evacuation operations of foreign nationals, pending the resolution or non-resolution to this new crisis, this new headache for the international community in general and post-colonial France in particular.

In the case of Niger, unlike for instance Sudan, the shape of event unfolding was a “regular” or “classical” army coup d’etat against the incumbent (since the elections 2 years ago) Mohamed Bazoum whom the plotters have held in detention (together with some 130 fellow party leaders) while they, under the emerging coup regime leader, general Abdourahamane Tchiani, were busy abolishing the constitution, consolidating power and seeking support, mainly from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

Tchiani and his team have so far been successful in that their coup (a label the US hesitates to apply since doing so would require the US by law to inhibit all humanitarian assistance, and aid) has received a surprising degree of popular support in the capital Niamey, based mainly on prevailing anti-French sentiment, based in turn on colonial history, and in that neighboring – and likeminded – Mali and Burkina Faso have committed themselves to declaring that any military intervention into the Nigerien crisis, whether by France, the US or the West African cooperation body ECOWAS, would be considered a military attack on them. But other than that, the negative reaction on the part of a rather united international community, given the paramount important importance attached to Niger as a symbol of peace and stability in a troubled region and a hub for international action against jihadist terror groups permeating the affected countries, has been conspicuously strong, with demands for the ousted president to be re-instated immediately. ECOWAS even went as far the other day as to threaten use of force should such re-instating not materialize with a week.

The coup – or attempted coup, should it fail in the end, perhaps soon – has been largely justified in terms of army criticisms against the government’s weakness in combatting terrorism – and hinted displeasure at patronizing language from Paris, where Emmanuel Macron faces a huge dilemma, similar to that pertaining to French (and international) shortcomings in dealing with very similar problems: how to handle a post-colonial Niger with its share of the region´s struggle with the fight against jihadist terrorism and with some 1500 French troops in an exposed position as protectors also of a sizeable civilian presence in the country. Niger is also a problematic hub in the region’s massive migratory movements towards the North, to Libya/Tunisia and onwards. And Macron’s problem, and dilemma, is also US president Biden’s; Niger hosts several US and allied bases seen to be crucial in the anti-jihadist struggle. The US can ill afford a Niger with a coup government that tend to look elsewhere, to Moscow, even China, and to whatever is left of the Wagner group, for support, assistance and legitimization.

So a lot is at stake in Niger, while – like in Sudan – evacuation planes, Paris-bound, seek to provide the solution to the immediate security threat. At the time of writing, there is no way of predicting what even the next few days will bring. In the best of worlds it could be that under the intense pressure of the French – (and US-) led Western international community, including in this case the UN even for clear and present Russian and Chinese reluctance, the crisis soon ends in the restoration of the Bazoum presidency after a Tchiany retreat, without threats of military violence having to be tested.

But more sinister scenarios can not be excluded, including if a spiral of violence inside Niger makes France and/or the US and/or ECOWAS feel compelled, morally and politically, to intervene militarily and makes the regimes in Mali and/or Burkina Faso feel compelled to respond as pledged. And south of Niger there is mighty Nigeria, strongly affected with its Boko Haram problem towards the border with Niger. What might Nigeria feel obliged to do?

Broadly speaking, the entire Sahel area east to west, from Senegal to Sudan and beyond (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea), represents an enormous challenge to “the West”, a toxic beverage with notorious political instability, more often than not linked to a festering problem of jihadist terrorism (the various Al Qaida branches, Al Shabab in the East, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, et alia), demographic expansion, migration exportation, serious effects of climate change, and expanding geopolitical and geoeconomic competition from other players, such as Russia and China.

So, in this broader and deeply concerning context, the fate of Niger is important. No wonder, therefore, that in its Vilnius concluding declaration NATO leaders spent several paragraphs outlining the global problem of terrorism and stating their firm commitment to combat it. The new variety of Bush’s “war on terror” clearly now has the Sahel scene foremost in mind as area of focus, mindful, presumably, that failures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that anti-terrorism struggle must be for the long haul and must be multifaceted.

The author is ambassador, holds a Ph d and is a fellow of RSAWS.
The text has been publisched on Consilio International.