On Monday, 7 August, the US Department of State’s Ambassador, Acting Deputy Secretary of State, and Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, travelled to Niger and met with some of the coup leaders, in the country’s capital, Niamey. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said the aim of the visit was for the US to “express our grave concern regarding developments in Niger and our resolute commitment to supporting the democracy and constitutional order.”
After Ms Nuland’s more than two hours-long meeting – and side conversations – with coup participants – Brigadier General Moussa Barmou, who claims the job title of Chief of the Defence Staff of the coup, and three of his colonels – Ms Nuland briefed journalists via teleconference; she was speaking from Niamey.
Ms Nuland’s travel to Niamey came about at the express direction of the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken – President Biden’s chief foreign affairs adviser.
“The Secretary asked me to make this trip,” Ms Nuland confirmed.
“Before we arrived and throughout the day,” Ms Nuland said, she requested to see overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, “for some gestures of health and welfare.” The coup leaders denied her request while also blocking her from meeting with the overall coup leader and current military head of government, General Abdourahamane Tiani.
“We’ve talked to him on the phone, but we haven’t seen him,” she explained. Also, we “were not granted an opportunity to see the self-proclaimed president, Mr Tiani. So, we were left to have to depend on Mr Barmou to make clear, again, what is at stake.”
Notably, Ms Nuland’s visit is one day after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)’s deadline expired on Sunday, 6 August and 14 days after the day the coup occurred. “So, a difficult mission, but a necessary one from the perspective of American interest in trying to see if this very difficult situation can be solved diplomatically,” Ms Nuland said.
In other coup events in Africa such as the coup in Zimbabwe in November 2017, there was much public discourse on whether to call it a coup or not a coup. Like in Harare’s 2017 coup, a general dressed in military fatigue addressed the country’s population, from the state broadcaster, after a military takeover. In a 1st August readout, S=spokesperson Miller characterized the coup as an “attempted takeover,” in disclosing that Secretary Blinken spoke with the African Union (AU)’s Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat. The US has not yet labelled the coup event as a coup but rather as “concerning developments,” Ms Nuland told journalists on Monday,
“We understand our legal responsibilities,” she said.
The US government officials may be constrained by America’s domestic law: Section 7008, of the US Department of State’s Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act which would be set in motion if a “duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree in which the military played a decisive role in the ousting of a duly elected head of government.” Not only would the State Department be constrained in being able to help a country when a coup d’état has happened, but the US Department of Defense (DoD) may also be restricted by some legal statutes. Regardless, American policy advisors and their legal counsel would need to evaluate the Niger context. Last Friday, 4 August, Secretary Blinken paused some foreign assistance to Niger.
In the meantime, Monday’s meeting means that Ms Nuland is now the highest-ranking Biden administration official to have an in-person meeting with the coup d’état leaders. This is important in the public’s, practitioners,’ and scholars’ understanding of how the Biden administration has assessed and adopted a perspective on the junta activity in Niger.
Other people that Ms Nuland did get to see, include “A broad cross-section of Nigerien civil society,” Ms Nuland said. In characterizing them, Ms Nuland said “These are longtime friends of the United States. They are journalists, they are democratic advocates, they are human rights activists. We had a frank exchange about the situation here.”
There are at least 1,100 US troops in Niger because both President Bazoum and the Biden administration consider their relationship important, particularly in counterterrorism. The Global Terrorism Index 2023 (GTI) ranks Niger in the top 10 countries most impacted by terrorism, in terms of “fatalities, injuries, and hostages,” with a score of 7.6, behind Myanmar.
General Barmou has many years of previous experience working with US Special Forces in Niger. This made it easier for Ms Nuland and her team. Ms Nuland confirmed, “So we were able to go through, in considerable detail, the risks to aspects of our cooperation that he historically cared about a lot.”
On the junta’s interactions with the Wagner Group, Ms Nuland said, “I got the sense in my meetings today that the people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in,” adding that “I would not say that we learned much more about their thinking on that front.”
The US proposed to the coup leaders to keep “an open door to continue talking,” said Ms Nuland, adding that the aim is for the military junta to “hear our offer to try to work with them to solve this diplomatically and return the constitutional order.” She said, “Their ideas do not comport with the Constitution. And that would be difficult in terms of our relationship if that’s the path they take, but we gave them a number of options to keep talking and we hope they take us up on that.”
What’s at stake from the US-lens, should Niger not abide by its constitutional order? Ms Nuland explained, “the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security support for the people of Niger.”
On how to publicly characterize the coup activity in Niger, the US Executive Branch — in particular, the State Department and DoD – may need to be convincingly transparent, coupled with consistent, public diplomacy activity and narratives that provide explanations of its defence, foreign, and political affairs behaviour. This is Ms Nuland’s “third visit to Niger in the two years that she has held the position of under-secretary at the State Department.
Mr Blinken had an official visit to Niamey in March.