There’s a reason the White House hasn’t called the coup in Niger a coup

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There’s a reason the White House hasn’t called the coup in Niger a coup

Our eyes don’t lie: The military in Niger, or at least a faction within it, has ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, confined him in his home, suspended Niger’s Constitution and is in the early stages of gutting the country’s infant democracy. Bazoum was the first elected head of state since the West African country declared independence from France in 1960. Yet the Biden administration remains allergic to calling the coup a coup. 

The Biden administration remains allergic to calling the coup a coup.

Bazoum hasn’t minced words. Writing for The Washington Post this week, he called himself a “hostage” and warned that a group of mutinous soldiers intended to reverse the political and socioeconomic progress the country has made since his election in 2021. “If it succeeds,” he wrote, “it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world.”

To point out that the U.S. hasn’t called what’s happening in Niger a coup d’etat isn’t to say that the Biden administration has sat on its hands. On Aug. 2, the U.S. State Department advised U.S. citizens in Niger to leave the country and ordered the partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Niamey, Niger’s capital. The Pentagon has suspended security cooperation with Niger’s military, at least for the time being. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned Bazoum’s arrest and stated that Washington’s relationship with Niger will depend on his reinstatement. On Aug. 3, which is Niger’s independence day, President Joe Biden released a statement calling for Bazoum’s immediate release.

Still, U.S. officials, have been avoiding the word “coup.” Asked on July 26 if that word characterized what was happening in Niger, John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said the administration would avoid titles until events were clearer. Bazoum was still out of office a week later, but apparently things still weren’t clear enough for U.S. officials to use the term. Instead calling it a coup, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Aug. 2, “We are calling it an attempt to take power which may still be reversed.”

Why is the U.S. so hesitant to state the obvious? Several factors are at play, the most significant of which is U.S. law.

Inspired in the mid-1980s by worries about a coup in El Salvador, Congress prohibited assistance to the government of any country whose elected head of government was deposed in a military coup (or in a coup in which the military had a “decisive” role). Such assistance can only resume if the secretary of state certifies that a democratically elected government has retaken power. While the latest version of the law allows the president to bypass these restrictions by issuing a national security waiver, using this authority would have to be justified to lawmakers. If history is any guide, lawmakers who disagree with the administration’s justification would make their concerns public, potentially leading to some embarrassment and awkward questions for U.S. officials. 

Calling Niger’s military takeover a coup would therefore put Washington in a difficult position. It would mean having to follow through with the spirit of the law and cut all military and economic assistance to the Nigerien government, when such a decision could worsen the country’s security at a time when jihadist groups are challenging state authority across the region. Or Washington could call what’s happened a coup but continue business as usual. That choice would subject the administration to significant pushback and establish a precedent for future presidents.

As of now, Biden’s White House is following the same playbook then-President Barack Obama’s White House used in Egypt.

As of now, Biden’s White House is following the same playbook then-President Barack Obama’s White House used in Egypt. Mohammed Morsi, who in 2012 won the country’s first competitive presidential election, was overthrown less than a year later by Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi then won the 2014 presidential election and has held the office ever since. Then, as now, the State Department argued the situation was too erratic to make a determination of whether it was a coup.

Eventually, the Obama administration decided it didn’t have to make a determination one way or the other, which allowed most U.S. security aid to continue. While sales to Egypt of big-ticket items like F-16s and tanks were initially frozen, those limitations were lifted in 2015 due to concerns about Egypt’s potential destabilization.

There’s a good case to be made that the U.S. is shying away from a coup designation for the sake of its own security interests. The U.S., after all, has approximately 1,100 troops stationed in Niger across three military bases, mostly to train, advise and assist the Nigerien military on counterterrorism tasks.

One of those bases, in Agadez, was built at a cost of $110 million and serves as Washington’s main base for unmanned surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance flights against terrorist groups in North Africa and West Africa. The Central Intelligence Agency runs drone operations from a separate base in Dirkou, 350 miles east of Agadez. Retaining control over these assets is no doubt factoring into the ongoing U.S. inter-agency debate on Niger policy.

The administration may also be declining to make a coup designation for another reason: to maximize its flexibility as it supports a possible de-escalation. U.S. officials are at least cautiously optimistic that Bazoum could be released and re-instated in office, if only because there is some question as to whether the Nigerien military as a whole supports the takeover.

Washington wants to preserve space for the Economic Community of West African States to find a diplomatic resolution.

Washington wants to preserve space for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find a diplomatic resolution to the standoff. ECOWAS sent a delegation to Niamey on Aug. 2 for that purpose. Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno met with Bazoum on July 31. Although the talks are at any early stage and could very well break down, calling what happened a coup could cause Washington’s African partners to believe the U.S. has no confidence in their diplomatic efforts.

Events in Niger are still fluid, but a familiar plotline has emerged. There’s the dictionary definition of a coup, and then there’s Washington’s definition, which is subject to change depending on U.S. goals.

Daniel R. DePetris

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

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