By: sam doak
August 4 2023
On July 26, 2023, Niger's elected President, Mohamed Bazoum, was detained by members of his presidential guard and removed from power in a coup. A few hours later, Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane, a spokesperson for Niger’s armed forces, appeared on television. Explaining to the public that the military had “decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with,” Abdramane announced the closure of Niger’s borders and the implementation of a curfew.
The international community was quick to respond to the actions of Niger’s military. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union both released statements condemning the removal of Bazoum’s government, with ECOWAS characterizing the event as an “attempted coup d'Etat.”
Events in Niger have attracted widespread global attention, partly because Bazoum was commonly considered one of the few pro-Western heads of state in the Sahel region. The junta now in charge of the country has staked out a markedly different position, publicly accusing France of seeking “for ways and means to intervene militarily in Niger.” Widely interpreted as a sign of Niger’s rejection of Western influence, supporters of the recent coup have frequently been pictured carrying Russian flags.
Coup supporters in Niger holding up flags, including Russian flags. Source: Sky News
Against this backdrop, a considerable amount of misinformation has circulated across major social media platforms. Fueled in part by pro-Kremlin accounts, misleading and outright false narratives concerning the coup and its consequences have contributed to many receiving a warped picture of how events have unfolded.
Logically Facts has already covered a wide variety of false and misleading narratives since the announcement of the coup on July 26. Several viral claims have concerned the targeting of European citizens in the country. Notably, users on Twitter and TikTok circulated a misattributed video and falsely claimed protesters had destroyed the French embassy. This was shared alongside false claims that Nigerien authorities had banned uranium exports to France and ordered the arrest of all European nationals, painting a picture of a complete collapse in the country’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Western nations.
Western audiences proved susceptible to misattributed videos. Shortly after the coup, a video filmed in neighboring Burkina Faso was passed off as evidence of widespread popular support for the new Nigerien junta. Similarly, a video shot in Nigeria was falsely presented as footage of the Nigerien armed forces training in anticipation of attempts at regime change.
Prior to his removal from power, President Bazoum pointed to Russia waging “disinformation campaigns” in the country and accused them of wanting to exploit Niger’s natural resources. Early indications suggest such activity may have increased in recent days. On August 4, the German foreign ministry claimed that the dissemination of Russian disinformation in Niger has escalated markedly since the coup.
Using the social media monitoring platform Brandwatch, Logically Facts found that narratives concerning Western involvement in Niger and potential collaboration with Russia have been key themes in online discussions of these events. A search for content on X – formerly known as Twitter – mentioning “Niger” from July 25 onwards reveals many of the top associated terms refer to the country’s natural resources and its relationship with France. The term “Wagner” was also prominent in these results, referring to the now infamous Russian mercenary group that has supported numerous anti-democratic regimes across the continent in recent years.
A word cloud generated by Brandwatch for X (formerly Twitter) posts mentioning “Niger” between July 25 and August 4. The larger the word, the more commonly it has been included in posts mentioning Niger.
While pro-Russian sentiment is certainly a factor in the unfolding events, such displays seem to have as much to do with Western failures as they do with admiration for Moscow. On this, Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, told Logically Facts, “The colonial legacy of France has clearly caused significant mistrust and disdain in certain communities, some of which have struggled with real problems related to terrorism in recent years. The Russian proxy PMC Wagner offered a competent alternative to engaging in counterterrorism operations in places like the Central African Republic, and that’s why you sometimes see the Russian flag appear as a symbol against the colonial legacy on the whole.”
Narratives concerning Western exploitation in Niger are not without merit. France in particular, has a complicated relationship with its former colony, and has long been criticized for the financial and military power it has wielded in West Africa. Niger’s uranium exports, which are important to the nuclear reactors that provide around 70 percent of France’s electricity, have become emblematic of the extractive element of France’s relationship with the country. As public displays of resentment have unfolded, French officials have been forced to refute misinformation “about their role in the current crisis.” More widely, Niger’s importance to Western powers has increased since the invasion of Ukraine as it sits on the route planned for a major pipeline designed to reduce European dependence on Russian natural gas.
On why pro-Kremlin commentators have been so markedly keen to amplify false and misleading claims concerning events in Niger, Walter commented, “What Russia is aiming to do is create an alternate structure rather than a shift in the current structure. By painting the removal of French troops from Mali or the demand that European nationals leave Niger as part of a broader movement, it allows Russia to claim a more significant level of influence over geopolitics and trade in the Global South.”
Walter points out that while Russia has been successful in exerting influence within African countries on numerous occasions, narratives concerning an overturning of global power structures appear to be overblown: “while there are different areas, particularly in Africa, in which Russia and specifically PMC Wagner have been successful at undermining Western influence, to say there’s been a shift in the global order is untrue.”
As previously covered by DW News, pro-Russian disinformation concerning West African countries is nothing new. As recently as January 2023, cartoons were widely circulated on social media showing Wagner forces battling zombie-like French troops in neighboring Mali. Closely resembling current messaging concerning events in Niger, in this instance, Russian military support was framed as anti-colonialist in contrast to Western involvement.
Framing Russia as an anti-colonialist power appears flimsy when the country’s recent track record on the continent is considered. On the broader narrative that Russian intervention is rooted in benevolence, Walter commented, “The reality is, Russia and its proxies are seeking to extract as much wealth and influence from Africa as possible. Whether talking about gypsum mines in the Central African Republic or uranium deposits in Niger, there is always more at play than simply being a friendly alternative. By primarily engaging through PMC Wagner on the continent, Russia has also established sufficient diplomatic cover for some of their own neo-colonial ambitions.”
It is yet to be seen how events in Niger will unfold. Under an ultimatum issued by the West African nations that comprise ECOWAS, the Nigerien military has until August 6 to reinstate President Bazoum, at which point the organization has stated it will consider military intervention. Logically Facts will continue to monitor the situation in Niger and work to correct any false and misleading narratives that arise.