Rhissa Ag Boula, a former leader in Niger’s Tuareg uprisings three decades ago, announced on Wednesday he is forming a Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) to oppose the ruling junta and restore President Mohamed Bazoum to power.
The CRR is the first major organized resistance group, and the junta is unlikely to applaud its debut.
“Niger is the victim of a tragedy orchestrated by people charged with protecting it,” Ag Boula declared, vowing to use “any means necessary” to reverse the military’s power grab.
Ag Boula’s biography suggests he means business when he says “any means necessary.” He was a key figure in the Tuareg rebellion from 1991 to 1997, when that nomadic desert people took arms against the central government to demand more political autonomy and more government assistance after devastating droughts.
Ag Boula became Niger’s minister of tourism after the peace deal that ended the Tuareg rebellion, only to be arrested for complicity in the murder of a political rival in 2004. This sparked more armed clashes between his followers and the government, lasting until he was released a year later – quite possibly in a swap for four soldiers captured in a Tuareg ambush. Ag Boula’s own brother said he personally ordered the kidnappings to secure his freedom, a claim Ag Boula denied.
The nomad leader — rarely seen without the elaborate full-face covering traditionally adopted by Tuareg men to ward off sun, sand, and evil spirits — bounced between a few more spells of exile and arrest over the past decade. He seemed content with the government perch he was given under Bazoum’s administration, which would explain why he has decided to launch a resistance movement against the junta that deposed Bazoum two weeks ago, installing presidential guard commander General Abdourahmane Tchiani as leader in his place.
Niger has just about every ingredient necessary to brew up another civil war: valuable uranium deposits located in the poorest region, among the poorest nations in Africa; a militant Tuareg minority with a reputation as tenacious opponents; international terrorist franchises; junta governments in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso supporting Tchiani’s power play; and foreign involvement from the U.S., Europe, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — and, most disturbingly, Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday told the BBC that Russia and its notorious mercenary Wagner Group are “taking advantage” of instability in Niger. The junta leaders have reportedly asked Wagner, which has a reputation for extreme brutality, to help suppress internal revolts and resist external intervention. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on Monday literally invited the Niger junta to “give us a call” if they want help.
“Every single place that this Wagner group has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed. Insecurity has gone up, not down,” Blinken said.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last week angrily accused the Biden administration of giving Russia a “geopolitical win” by making a series of “missteps” and “unexpected blunders” that pushed Niger into Russia’s waiting arms. The Biden team was utterly blindsided by the coup and had no resources in place to aid Bazoum when he called for help from his safe room — while mutinous America-trained soldiers packing $500 million in American weapons were barging through his front door.
“It’s very nice to be friends of the West, but it may not be helpful when hard times come,” sighed Nigerien ambassador to Washington Kiari Liman Tinguiri.
Niger denied entry to ECOWAS and United Nations envoys on Tuesday, as a gesture of defiance against international pressure to restore Bazoum. Ag Boula said on Wednesday he will make his CRR forces available to assist ECOWAS and the U.N. in restoring constitutional order.
“While the extent of support for the CRR is unclear, Ag Boula’s statement will worry the coup leaders given his influence among Tuaregs who control commerce and politics in much of the vast north. Support from Tuaregs would be key to securing the military government’s control beyond Niamey’s city limits,” Al Jazeera News noted Wednesday.
The current chair of ECOWAS, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, announced a new round of sanctions against the Niger junta on Tuesday. ECOWAS representatives have said they regard the use of military force as a last resort, but they have not ruled it out. The juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso responded by saying they would fight to defend Niger’s military rulers, and they warned the U.N. that such a conflict could spell the end of the ECOWAS bloc.
CRR representatives said some prominent Nigerien political figures have joined the resistance movement, but they could not be named because the junta might act against them. Western intelligence agencies are attempting to determine how much support the CRR really has, and whether it could resist a violent crackdown by the junta. There is no question that Ag Boula has experience with running an uprising, and he appears to retain great influence among the Tuareg, who can easily block vital trade and supply routes in the Sahel desert region.
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