Abdourahamane Tchiani | The shadow General

Niger’s coup leader has consolidated support among other Generals but is facing growing regional and international pressure to restore the ousted President

Updated - August 13, 2023 09:29 am IST

Published - August 13, 2023 02:22 am IST

His job, as the commander of the Presidential Guard, was to protect the President. In 2021, in the final days of Mahamadou Issoufou’s presidency and when the country was on the cusp of its first democratic transition of power since Independence, he led a unit to thwart a coup attempt. Yet, two years later, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani himself led a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum, Mr. Issoufou’s successor, and declared himself the head of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, the junta that’s now in control of Niger, West Africa’s largest country.

When he captured power on July 28, Gen. Tchiani said he was forced to intervene to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country. Tensions have been growing between the military and President Bazoum’s administration. When Mr. Bazoum became President in 2021, he promised that democracy would deliver. But his administration could do little in improving security as Islamist violence spread across the Sahel region or cushioning the blow of high inflation. He had also moved to rein in the military with some top level changes, and cut back on the perks given to the Presidential Guard. Gen. Tchiani became the commander of the Presidential Guard in 2011 and was a close aide of the former President Issoufou. He was promoted as a General in 2018 by Mr. Issoufou, and President Bazoum allowed him to continue as the commander of the Presidential Guard. But relations between the two reportedly collapsed in recent months. According to some reports, President Bazoum decided in a Cabinet meeting on July 24 to remove Gen. Tchiani as the head of the Presidential Guard. In four days, the latter captured power.

Military career

Born in 1960, the year Niger became independent from France, in the Tillabéri Region, Abdourahamane Tchiani joined the Army at the age of 24. Tillabéri is a main recruitment area for Niger’s military. Hailing from the majority ethnic group Hausa, he rose through the ranks gradually and led forces in Zinder, Agadez, and Diffa region. He also served in UN Peacekeeping Missions in the Ivory Coast, Sudan and and the Democratic Republic of Congo and was a key commander in a multinational task force formed to fight the Islamist Boko Haram in the region. Throughout his career, Gen. Tchiani has followed the command structure, cooperated with international and regional actors and kept a low profile—until July 28. He is not one of the elite military Generals of the country who have built vibrant partnerships with the U.S. and France forces stationed in the country. But Gen. Tchiani realised that the civil-military relationship was not at its best days.

There was growing resentment among the Generals as well as the public. Mali and Burkina Faso, two neighbouring countries that were also battling Islamist militancy, saw successful military coups over the past two years. Gen. Tchiani, empowered by the domestic power struggle and regional examples, moved quickly to dislodge President Bazoum and take the reins of the country in his own hands. He quickly mobilised support of the military and has rejected international calls to restore the democratically elected government. His post-coup actions, including new Cabinet appointments, suggests that he is not going to go anywhere.

But the challenge before Gen. Tchiani is that his coup has geopolitical implications as well which he is struggling to cope with. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the military regimes sacked French and other international troops and turned to Wagner, Russia’s private military group, for security. For both the U.S. and France, Niger is critical in their plans to fight Islamists in West Africa. They have some 2,500 troops present in the country. If Niger’s junta follows Mali and Burkina Faso, it would be a major setback for the U.S. and France.

The Economic Community of West African States, a regional grouping with close ties to the West, has already issued an ultimatum to the junta to restore democracy, and decided to keep regional troops on standby for a possible military intervention. On the other side, Mali and Burkina Faso have pledged support to Niger’s junta if they come under foreign attack. Gen. Tchiani may have taken power but it’s not clear whether he’s ready to deal with the consequences of his own action.

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