Senators debate future of U.S. policy in Niger after July coup

UPI

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Republican and Democratic senators criticized the Biden administration Tuesday for being slow to call a July military takeover in Niger a coup if the U.S. wants to deter future coups in West Africa.

"It's important for the U.S. to take a principled stance when coups occur," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said at a hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs. "We need to make our position crystal clear. Military takeovers of civilian-led governments are coups."

Whether the United States calls a coup a coup is not just a question of semantics. Taxpayer money is on the line because under U.S. law, the government must suspend most funding to a country after a coup.

The United States supplies governments in Africa with foreign aid, with a goal of stabilizing them and to help facilitate a partnership. However, the U.S. suspends funding to a country if it suffers a coup. In this case, it left beneficial partnerships with like Niger in limbo.

The State Department concluded Oct. 10, three months after the event, that a military coup took place in Niger, and the United States suspended $200 million of foreign assistance.

But in the hearing Tuesday morning, senators from both parties had questions about why the Biden administration did not formally designate the incident in Niger a coup sooner and why the administration has not applied sanctions to the government.

"Anyone engaged in coups should be personally sanctioned," Cardin said. "The failure to sanction, a policy shift that is clearly taking place here in our government, [it] sends the wrong message."

President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted from office and detained by the presidential guard of Niger on July 26, with general Abdourahamane Tchiani declaring himself leader of the military junta installed afterward.

"Violent incidents in Niger, which had been declining significantly due to President Bazoum's leadership and the partnership between Niger's security forces and U.S. and European forces, rose by 42% in the month after the coup," testified Molly Phee, the State Department's assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs.

She stressed that the United States avoided calling the seizures of power a coup after requests from its allies in the region.

"Although we promptly paused the majority of U.S. assistance for Niger after the coup, we delayed, at the request of our African partners, declaring that the incident constituted a coup as they sought to restore President Bazoum to office," she said.

"Our friends and partners, including the leaders of Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria, all asked us to delay making our formal assessment because they were fully committed to restoring President Bazoum to power and they thought that our statement would derail their efforts."

Sens. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., indicated they were not satisfied with Phee's explanation why the Biden administration waited to declare the incident in Niger a coup.

"There was no explanation as to why it's taken so long, not only in Niger, but Gabon, as well," Ricketts said. "That is something we can do quickly, even if we are going to delay some of the sanctions."

"The members of the committee are still puzzled. Why did it take so long to do the coup designation and why haven't sanctions been imposed," Kaine asked. "And I don't think those questions were answered to the committee's satisfaction."

Kaine was less certain on whether the Biden administration needed to implement stronger sanctions against Niger.

"Occasionally, there are coups that take place by an actor that wants to seize power and hold on to it, and occasionally there are coups that take place by an actor that believes the government was illegitimate and they are committed to a process to return democracy and have elections," Kaine said.

"If the actors are committed to returning to a popularly elected democratic government, that is a little bit of a different thing than if somebody seizes power and intends to hold it for as long as they can."

Phee said the State Department is pressuring the government of Niger to "get on a serious, credible path" back toward democracy if it wants the partnership with the United States to continue.

"If the State Department is going to say we are going to work with Niger to turn the government back to civilians, we need to set a deadline and say if you don't do it by this point, we're going to have some strict sanctions, and I didn't hear any of that today from the State Department," Ricketts said.

Seven nations in the Sahel region and the west coast of Africa have suffered coups since 2020, including Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon. Mali and Burkina Faso have seen two coups each since 2020.

"If our policy is that we don't want to see more coups, then we ought to be having a consistent policy on enforcing sanctions and at least setting up a framework," Ricketts said. "If you look at the pattern of coups in Africa, what we are doing is not working."