Russia rapidly expands its influence in Niger in an alliance against the West
For the fifth time since it gained independence from France in 1960, Niger’s leadership has been overthrown by a military coup.
Mohamed Bazoum, one of the West’s last allies in the Sahel region in Northern Africa was detained by his own presidential guard on Wednesday night.
The next day, hundreds of people gathered in Niamey, Niger’s capital.
Bazoum may have been ousted by local soldiers, but the crowds were waving Russian flags and chanting support for the Wagner mercenary group.
Analysts warned Russia is rapidly expanding its influence in the region in an alliance against the West.
Instability is mounting across the Sahel region – and with it come fresh threats to Europe’s energy supply.
Daniel Foubert, founder of consulting firm Excalibur Insight, says this creates risks for European energy security.
“I think it could generate a new energy crisis, if Russia does in Africa what it does in Ukraine,” he says.
“If they can conduct such a war in Europe, why not in Africa, when nobody is looking. The French are not interested.”
But they should be. Niger produces about 5pc of the world’s uranium, a crucial component in nuclear power, but it exports all of it to France, which sources 70pc of its electricity from nuclear sources.
Sayen Gohil, a risk analyst at Fitch Solutions, says: “Niger is more dependent on uranium exports to France than France is dependent on uranium imports from Niger.”
But the coup highlights a wider problem with uranium, which is not under sanctions. Nearly two thirds of France’s uranium imports in 2022 came from countries now in Russia’s sphere of influence
Last year, 30pc of France’s uranium imports came directly from Russia. A further 12pc and 9.6pc came from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively, both former Soviet states.
“That is relatively concerning, as France relies on nuclear power,” says Gohil.
He notes that there have been seven coups across west and central Africa in the last three years alone.
A jihadist insurgency has been spreading from Mali. Niger was a key Western ally in the region – an increasingly important one after Mali and Burkina Faso kicked out the French troops stationed there.
There is a clear pattern. Russia has already established a clear influence in Mali and reportedly in Burkina Faso following similar coups. Gohil says: “The lesson is that this is a key risk that Niger will move away from relying on France and the US and move towards Russia.”
France also exports nuclear energy to Germany. “There are regional implications for nuclear power in Europe,” says Gohil. Overall, the European Union gets a quarter of electricity from nuclear power.
“If demand wasn’t rising, that would not be a problem, but it is,” says Philip Andrews-Speed, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
Prices have climbed steadily and steeply. From January 2021 to January 2023, the price of uranium rose by 74pc. In the first six months of this year, it has climbed by a further 11pc.
“Britain is talking about wanting new reactors. Poland and Romania are likely to move ahead with nuclear. Turkey is building its first nuclear power plant. Finland has another one. There is a big argument being made for energy security and relatively green energy,” says Andrews-Speed. This was boosted by the energy crisis.
Russia’s presence could also disrupt the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline, which is planned to run from Nigeria, through Niger to Europe, as part of the strategy to diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia.
Once complete, this will send around 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe per year – enough to satisfy gas demand from about 30 million European homes.
This is expected to replace a sizeable chunk of the 155 billion cubic metres that Europe used to import from Russia.
“That could be a reason for Russia to immediately try and build very close ties with the new military junta and potentially blockade this project,” says Gohil. However, Putin is unlikely to have the economic means to do this, he adds.
But the Russian presence in Niger in itself could also bolster its war effort in Ukraine. “Their modus operandi is gold. Wagner isn’t necessarily interested in uranium but gold can provide tangible value and they can send reserves back to Russia.
“That is what they have been doing in other African countries,” says Gohil. Fresh gold reserves will also stabilise the economy back home in Russia.
Crucially, there is a massive threat to regional instability. Russia is steadily building a sphere of influence in opposition to the West, argues Daniel Foubert.
“They are slowly expanding and it is becoming extremely dangerous. Russia will be able to use its presence in Africa as a way to put pressure on other important countries. They already have very good relations with Algeria, a big presence in Eastern Libya and strong relations with Egypt.
“We are slowly being cut off from the Global South.”
Gohil at Fitch Solutions adds: “Mali and Burkina Faso following coups and close ties with Russia effectively kicked France out and told the UN security mission to leave as well. So Niger was one of the last countries still firmly Western aligned in the region.”
The US also has a $100 million drone base in the country. “It is a key lynchpin in the fight against terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda and Isis in the region,” says Gohil.
Western African states are unlikely to fall within Russia’s sphere of influence as their economies are more robust. Russia’s sphere is more likely to spread east. “Chad might be a potential target,” says Gohil.
Russia’s creep is its own form of colonialism, taking over the power vacuum left by France.
“I think Macron is very weak,” says Foubert. The French President is grappling with protests at home. “There is no real strategy to fight Russia, it’s insufficient.”