The Media Today

Q&A: Nick Turse on the coup in Niger and coverage of US intervention in the Sahel

August 30, 2023
Nigeriens participate in a march called by supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, pictured, in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

In late July, Mohamed Bazoum, the president of Niger, was removed from power in a coup carried out by the commander of the presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, and other senior military officials. The upheaval sent shockwaves through neighboring countries and international allies, including France and the United States, that had come to rely on Bazoum as their last reliable partner in the Sahel, the region in Africa that lies directly below the Sahara desert and has recently experienced multiple coups and been a prime breeding ground for Islamist extremist groups.

Bazoum’s diplomatic supporters imposed sanctions in the hope of bringing about his return to power. The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, entered into negotiations with the coup leaders, going so far as to threaten military intervention if the coup was not reversed. In response, the junta, known as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, put the military on maximum alert, but no troops have yet been deployed. Efforts to find a broader diplomatic solution have ranged from the tense to the nonexistent; last week, the French ambassador was asked to leave the country. While Bazoum remains captive in his own home, support for the junta has grown, both from Nigeriens and the leaders of neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, who themselves came to power in coups. The US avoided using the word “coup,” presumably to safeguard its military operations in the country. Meanwhile, Russia has reportedly sought to exploit the chaos by using government-associated channels to push critiques and false information on social media.    

Last week, I spoke with Nick Turse, a reporter who has long covered the Sahel and Niger through the lens of US diplomatic and military activity in the region, for outlets including The Intercept and The Guardian. We discussed how the events in Niger have been communicated in the media and what the coup says about the larger story of Western military partnerships in the Sahel. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

FM: It’s been a month since the coup took place. Where do things currently stand in Niger?

NT: The junta has been in charge for a month. The United States—which has been a major military influence in the country, providing security assistance—has over a thousand troops based in the country and has conducted unilateral combat missions there over the years. The US won’t outright call this a coup that’s taking place; they only call it an attempted coup and seem to be trying to walk a fine line, keeping alive what seems to be the fiction of a possible reversal.  

It doesn’t look like the junta has any designs on giving up power, although they talked about a timetable for it—I think as a way to forestall any sort of intervention by ECOWAS, the economic bloc that has threatened military intervention to return President Bazoum to power. The junta seems to be consolidating. Five of its members are US-trained officers and they’ve now appointed governors around the country from their security forces, of which another five are US-trained officers. So they’re putting their own people in charge, and they seem to be strengthening their hold on the country despite what some of the region wants and what the US also seems to want.

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How are the coup leaders approaching the media a month in? 

They’ve rebuffed all my efforts to speak with them. I’ve tried several members, including a brigadier general, Moussa Barmou. I’ve made the case that, if they want continued Western influence, they should talk to Western outlets, but so far, they haven’t been interested in talking with me. I think they’ve been very selective about who they’ve talked to, and what they’ll say. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the country, contacts of mine. Very few of them are willing to speak on the record about what’s going on there because they fear an official backlash. I’ve talked to some reporters; they say it’s become an even more challenging environment to report. It’s never been an easy one for locals or foreign press. The government keeps a tight leash on the press, and people basically know what they can and can’t report, so there’s a lot of self-censorship already. 

How are people getting their news and information?

The junta has taken to the airwaves quite a bit to make announcements on the national broadcaster. There’s been official media outreach by the generals who are in charge and there’s been plenty of reporting on what’s happened in the country, but I wouldn’t say it’s been especially critical. A lot of information spreads via WhatsApp. A lot of rumors have been flying about contending interventions from France or ECOWAS. In some groups that I’m part of, I’ve seen this come up a few times—unverified reports about impending military action, which hasn’t come to pass. There’s a lot of traffic in rumors out there.

Ali Lamine Zeine, the civilian leader who was appointed by the coup leaders as prime minister, is being featured in the media; he even gave an interview to the New York Times. What do you make of him giving interviews to Western outlets when other junta leaders aren’t doing so?

I don’t know a lot about him and I’ve never spoken with him, but he has a reputation as a technocrat and it looks to me like they want him to be the Western-media-facing voice. When the junta talks to the public, they’ve had a military spokesperson in military fatigues speak. I think they wanted a kinder, gentler spokesperson for a Western audience—someone who would be more palatable and give a civilian face to the government; someone who is seen as a stabilizing force, a steady hand.

In much of your reporting, you focus on the fact that many of the coups that have happened in the Sahel region, for example in Mali and Burkina Faso, have been carried out by military figures with US training.

I feel like this is something that the US government tries to sweep under the rug: they don’t want to talk about this penchant to overthrow the governments they’ve been training these people to bolster, prop up, protect all these years. Now, the US has a really robust training effort; they train a lot of people, so it’s not all that shocking. And in my reporting, I really don’t talk about it in terms of causation. It’s a correlation that I bring up. There’s conflicting evidence out there as to whether there’s any possible causation. I’ve seen some compelling evidence by people who looked at this very closely, researched it, and I’ve written a little bit about it. But I think this is something that more needs to be addressed as part of a broader look at US security assistance. The US has pumped billions of dollars into the Sahel as part of the War on Terror, and the results have been uniformly dismal from one country to the next. Coups by US-trained military officers are just a small part of it.

From 2000 to 2003, when the US assistance to Niger and its Sahelien neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso started, the State Department counted nine terrorist attacks in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, in just those three countries, there were close to two thousand eight hundred attacks, so about a 30,000 percent increase over that time. The attacks have gone up, fatalities of civilians have gone up, and the number of terrorist groups operating in the region has proliferated over that time. Again, this is something where correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the metrics have all gone in the wrong direction. It raises some real questions about the way that the United States uses its security assistance and a need to take a harder look at it. This is something that the State Department doesn’t seem very interested in. But it’s something that I think they and the broader public should have a much stronger interest in.

Do you see other news outlets taking interest in this when reporting on the region? 

I don’t see a lot on it. There was recent New York Times coverage and it said something like, the US security assistance in the Sahel over the past twenty years has been no silver bullet. To me, that was the understatement of the year: when you have a 30,000 percent increase in terrorist attacks I think it’s more than: it’s been no silver bullet—it’s been a dismal failure. And that’s one of the rare times that it’s actually mentioned. If it’s in a report, it’s downplayed. 

I don’t think you can really look at the US counterterrorism campaign in the region or the results of it and not factor in that the US has invested a tremendous amount of time and money. And it’s not just treasure—it’s blood and treasure. US troops have died there. and certainly, many of the local forces that we’ve trained have died and civilians have died in large numbers. But I don’t think it makes a lot of stories. And the stories that do mention the rise in terror, they don’t mention just how involved the US and other international partners have been, including France and a lot of European Union countries. I think it bears looking at whether all these security systems have exacerbated the problem.

Whenever there’s coverage of the US training in the region, it’s divorced from the reality of the facts on the ground. Every year, Special Operations Command Africa and Africom invite a select handful of reporters—often the same reporters again and again—to an exercise called Flintlock. Every year, it’s sort of the same story: it always begins, like, In the searing heat, under the pewter sun and talks about these, like, raw African troops who are having orders barked at them by Americans or other Western trainers. And it talks about a fraught security environment, but the US has sent in Green Berets, and they’re going to turn things around. There’s always some sort of caveat thrown into the piece that, you know, terrorism has gone up, but expectations are high that this is going to turn it around. This has been going on now for more than a decade, and the major outlets write the same story, that’s mostly upbeat.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday morning, The Atlantic published the first excerpt from a forthcoming book by Franklin Foer, a staff writer at the magazine, that promises to “dramatize in forensic detail the first two years of the Biden presidency.” (The excerpt concerns the withdrawal from Afghanistan.) Politico’s Playbook newsletter reported yesterday that the book is the “first insider account” of Biden’s administration—it’s based on some three hundred interviews conducted since 2020—and that its release will thus test “how a generally leak-proof White House grapples with the first detailed excavation of its successes and failures.” The book has been kept tightly under wraps, but other excerpts have now started to appear, including in Axios (and The Guardian, as it often does, got a copy).
  • Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire dug into the recent layoffs at the Texas Tribune, the first in the outlet’s fourteen-year history; the cuts spooked many media-watchers given the Tribune’s status as the “gold standard of nonprofit journalism and a role model other outlets have been encouraged to follow,” and led to calls for more transparency, on the Tribune’s part, as to what exactly led to them. “The layoffs suggest a changing funding environment as much as budget planning mistakes or a lack of business-side personnel,” Scire writes, though “some of the journalists who were laid off have posted about what they see as ‘leadership failures’ and ‘a financial and leadership tailspin.’”
  • CNBC’s Gabrielle Fonrouge and Lillian Rizzo report, citing court records linked to a lawsuit against the sportswear brand Under Armour, that Kevin Plank, the company’s founder, “forged an unusual relationship with television anchor Stephanie Ruhle that included trips on his private jet, access to confidential company information and a secret phone reserved just for their communications.” Ruhle, who is now a prominent anchor on MSNBC, worked at the time for Bloomberg and covered Under Armour. (Under Armour has denied any impropriety; MSNBC and Ruhle have yet to comment.)
  • On Monday, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went into lockdown after a gunman fatally shot a faculty member. This morning, the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the university, published a striking front page filled with texts that students exchanged during the lockdown. Caitlyn Yaede, the print managing editor, wrote that she “shed many tears” while typing up the messages. The Raleigh News & Observer has more on the front page and the Tar Heel’s broader coverage of the lockdown.
  • And Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary leader who was killed in a plane crash last week months after leading a mutinous march on Moscow, was buried in St. Petersburg yesterday amid an atmosphere of secrecy and confusion. According to the Post, the service was closed to the public and “hearses and funeral corteges laid false trails at several local cemeteries” in an apparent bid to confuse journalists.

ICYMI: Prigozhin and the press

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.