American officials have tap danced around a word that would prompt a cutoff of U.S. assistance to a valued African ally.
For more than a month in Niger’s capital, Niamey, the democratically elected president has been a prisoner in his own home. The camouflage-clad generals who seized power say they may put him on trial. Talk of foreign intervention is met with threats of his execution.
To many people, the military takeover in Niger in late July was obviously a coup. And yet, in a prime example of contorted diplomatic-speak, Biden administration officials have so far carefully danced around the word.
That, they say, is because the word “coup” has major policy implications: Congress has mandated that the United States must halt all economic and military aid to any government deemed to have been installed by a military coup until democracy is restored in that country.
That might seem a fitting punishment for military leaders who have sabotaged a fragile African democracy. But U.S. officials worry it could also reduce America’s leverage over Niger’s future, jeopardize military operations against militants in the region, invite Russian influence and exacerbate humanitarian suffering in one of the world’s poorest countries.
The Biden administration has already paused most U.S. aid to the West African country, and representatives for the National Security Council and the State Department said the Biden administration was pursuing diplomacy as it evaluated America’s democratic and security goals for Niger. A formal determination with long-term policy consequences would originate in the State Department’s legal office.
Sarah Margon, the director of foreign policy for the Open Society Foundations, noted that such debates are growing familiar in Washington. In 2013, the Obama administration held long internal deliberations after a military takeover in Egypt, which President Barack Obama never labeled a coup.
“It is increasingly a politicized determination, predominantly influenced by security concerns — especially counterterrorism,” said Ms. Margon, whose nomination for a top State Department human rights post was blocked by Republicans last year.
Many foreign policy and pro-democracy experts say the Biden administration should forcefully, and formally, declare the events a coup — shorthand for the French phrase “coup d’état,” which roughly translates to a blow to the state — now that several weeks have passed and the military leaders who detained President Mohamed Bazoum are refusing to even negotiate.
The question has particular significance given that President Biden has made the defense of democracy a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. Biden administration officials have paid particular attention to democracy in African countries; in an August 2022 speech in Pretoria, South Africa, laying out the Biden administration’s vision for sub-Saharan Africa, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken used the word “democracy” 11 times, calling it one of four pillars of U.S. policy on the continent.
At stake for Niger, a U.S. ally, is hundreds of millions of dollars in American funding. According to the State Department, the United States sent about $281 million in security assistance to Niger between fiscal years 2017 and 2022, and about $664 million in health and development assistance. Over $180 million in aid from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development is “under review,” a department spokesman said.
A formal coup determination would also create pressure for the U.S. military to close two bases in the country. But those bases were established to help fight extremist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which for years have been destabilizing the African Sahel, the vast sweep of land south of the Sahara that includes Niger. Current law does not mandate the closure of such bases under such a determination, however.
Another worry is that severing ties with Niger might create an opportunity for Russia, whose growing presence in Africa has alarmed U.S. officials.
Throughout August, Biden officials maintained that declaring a coup would be premature because they hoped Mr. Bazoum might be freed soon and his governing power restored.
“We hope we don’t have to get to the point where we need to make that determination, because our hope is to see the constitutional order restored,” the State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, told reporters on Aug. 8. “We don’t believe that window’s closed at this point, but it’s a very dynamic situation.”
Nearly a month later, that position is becoming harder to maintain.
U.S. officials have grown more pessimistic since the acting deputy secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, visited Niamey on Aug. 7. Ms. Nuland met with generals there, but her requests to see Mr. Bazoum, as well as the coup leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, were denied.
Speaking to reporters by phone before she left Niamey, Ms. Nuland said she had visited the country in hopes of starting negotiations “to see if we could try to resolve these issues diplomatically.”
Ms. Nuland said she had made “absolutely clear what is at stake in our relationship, and the economic and other kinds of support that we will legally have to cut off if democracy is not restored.”
Since then, General Tchiani and his colleagues seem to have only hardened their position, cutting off Mr. Bazoum’s contact with the outside world and even threatening to kill him should democratic African nations make good on their talk of intervening militarily to restore his rule.
Tom Malinowski, a former top State Department official for human rights in the Obama administration, said he understood why the Biden team did not want to make an immediate declaration.
“But at this point,” he added, “it’s hard to justify not calling the thing by its name. The coup law exists precisely for hard cases like this, to ensure we prioritize support for democracy when our national security establishment would prefer not to, because preserving our reputation as a country with principles is also a vital national interest.”
Mr. Obama faced a similar quandary in 2013 after Egypt’s top general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the country’s elected leadership. Obama officials fretted about severing America’s close military ties with a key Arab counterterrorism partner. Ultimately, the Obama administration did not issue a formal decision on the question, though as a compromise step, it halted some military aid. The assistance was restored within a couple of years.
Even if the State Department issues a formal declaration of a coup, a loophole exists: Congress passed legislation last year granting the secretary of state the power to issue a waiver on national security grounds allowing U.S. aid to continue to a foreign regime that took power by force.
Carl LeVan, a professor at American University’s School of International Service, said the question was especially pressing given a recent wave of coups across Africa, including one last week in Gabon.
“This is the seventh coup in Africa in the past three years, so something is not working in U.S. and Western foreign policy, and something is enabling military takeovers,” Mr. LeVan said.
One culprit, Ms. Margon suggested, is a U.S. overemphasis on terrorism and other security concerns, which she said military strongmen exploit to maintain assistance from Washington.
The U.S. government can be all too artful in its use of language in such instances, Mr. LeVan said. He recalled the way the Clinton administration, in 1994, referred to massacres in Rwanda as “acts of genocide” at a moment when U.S. officials widely believed a genocide was taking place. But the administration feared that a formal declaration would create pressure for military intervention.
“How low is the bar going to be set for democracy before the United States and African democratic forces say, ‘There is a bottom level from which we will not sink’?” Mr. LeVan asked.