Two Negatives Make a Positive? Nigerien Coup and the Question of Inter-Junta Recognition’s Legitimacy


On 26 July 2023, the military of Niger detained President Mohamed Bazoum and announced a coup d’etat. The country, located in the African region of Sahel, has a long history of armed conflicts. Since its independence in 1960, the country had seen quite a few coup attempts, with four being successful, starting with Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountche overthrow of Hamani Diori in 1974 which saw the constitution suspended and the national assembly dissolved.

Represented by Colonel Amadou Abdramane and later being proclaimed leadership by Abdourahmane Tchiani, the coup sought to replace the regime which had put the country in a state of “continuing deterioration of security, and poor economic and social governance.” The junta established by the ongoing attempt pleaded to the public for support, and the responses so far have been affirming with Russian flags seen waving at the capital of Niamey.

Countries and organisations of the Western-led international community have mostly made their opposition to the coup clear. ECOWAS, the West African economic bloc, has even issued an unequivocal statement demanding reinstatement of the democratically elected government. Interestingly, other junta in the region, namely those in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, have voiced unified support for the Nigerien military government. The first two even went on to threaten retaliation against those that use force against the new junta.

This instance leaves the international community uneasy. With forceful takeovers taking place in parts of the world (mainly in the African continent) on almost a regular basis in recent years, there are fears that coups can spread like a contagion. More than mere assertions, the recognitions expressed by the other juntas, which have so far been the only ones publicly expressed at the global stage, begs questions. Are these claims legitimate? What would be the consequences of rendering them as such? Most importantly, how should the international community stand?

The Importance of Defining Legitimacy of Recognition Among Juntas

There is a common belief among jurists, especially in recent years, that the recognition of states and governments can be treated as two separate matters. Recognition of states has seen much development of the concept through discourses over decades and even centuries, starting with practice that later translated into theory.

Two most common theories on state recognition are constitutive and declaratory theories. The first started really developing around the 19th century when countries widely saw international law as ius gentium voluntarium or being a result of voluntary engagement among states as main actors. The second theory then emerged as an alternative which seeks to bring a more pragmatic perspective by putting declaration aside as ‘cherry on top’ of the three conditions of statehood as per the 1933 Montevideo Convention: permanent population, defined territory, and effective government.

Recognition of government is more complicated. For one, not every country even concedes to the need for recognition of government. Once they do, however, a door to many paths opens. With ‘effective government’ being one of the three aforementioned conditions to statehood, failure to recognize the government of a state can derive from rejection to the sitting regime for reasons such as illegitimate rise to power and violations of human rights. This, as seen in the ICJ’s Namibia case, can extend to calls for the withdrawal of a sitting regime and restoration of the original.

What is noteworthy about the recognitions toward the Nigerien junta is the fact that they have only been made by other regimes with similar character while the rest of the world have either stayed silent or voiced opposition. Eyebrows are naturally raised as to the intentions behind the daring moves taken by the collective beyond making a display of solidarity. Furthermore, provided the nature of these governments, the sorts of things they could orchestrate in the future under the guise of legitimacy is a big concern.

In the past, military dictatorships have conspired in organising grave transnational criminal activities. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, eight military dictatorships in South America jointly arranged kidnappings, tortures, rapes, and murders as part of the US-backed Operation Condor. Pinochet’s takeover of Chile in 1973 exemplifies just how dire the impact of coups can be with thousands of leftists killed or subjected to forced disappearance and hundreds of thousands being arrested in the years following. Geopolitics at the time, including the establishment of similar dictatorships in countries like Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia, contributed to the general’s 17-year reign.

Reasons to Fight for What is ‘Right’

A number of reasons exist as to why the international community should do something about the situation in Niger and the recognition it now has from kindred regimes. The first of these goes back to the attributes of coups themselves. Mainly distinguishable for being a violent process of toppling government leaders at the top by a small group connected to the military, traditional coups d’etat would usually result in some degree of casualties and/or losses.

Though no deaths have been registered related to the coup thus far, it would be premature to conclude that the situation is well-controlled. Aside from the country’s already chaotic state before the coup, the real outcomes would only really be visible in the months and years following the change. Even in less than a week, more than a hundred politicians have been arrested and riots have taken place on the streets, including an attack on the French embassy by coup supporters.

Whether the country’s people realise it or not, human rights never cease to be under threat under a military regime. Giving legitimacy to a junta can be detrimental to the upholding of human rights in various forms, from suppression of freedom of expression to manifest arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. Taking Myanmar as an example, promises made for a transition to democratic election, despite even being foretold as a sham from the start, still managed to let the international community down as the planned August election just got postponed (again).

On a global level, the emergence of a new military government is a threat to peace and security which organisations like the United Nations are built to eradicate. Internally, ethnic and sectarian conflicts may arise, further engraving the cycle of human rights violations which are often accompanied by refugee and migration crises. The unpredictability of the administration’s behaviour is also a considerable factor. Military leaders with expansionist mindset could cause regional instability through ways like direct annexation of neighbouring territories or, more likely, providing encouragement and support for analogous authoritarian dominions.

Recognition by African juntas toward Niger signals an alarming direction to which the region is headed. In an eerily corresponding manner to South America, the region has had a history of domino effect of coups transpiring in the 1960s. In fact, unlike the American counterparts, African countries have consistently seen coups since then, with the continent-wide number exceeding a total of 200 by 2015. If not handled well, fears of a second large wave of coup in the region may prove material.

Making Peace with a New Global Reality

While delegitimizing the recognition of the Nigerien junta by its peers may seem to be a favourable course of action, the international community ought not to distance itself from recognising the surrounding predicaments. The matter of fact is that the military are the ones controlling the government and little actual resistance from within is found as of yet. In contrast to Myanmar, for instance, there is no sign that fighting fire with fire is the only way out in Niger.

Referring back to the theory of recognition, in the words of Philip Jessup, countries don’t engage in contractual relationships but rather declare the existence of certain facts. Discounting the negative notions on coups, when truth seen is that the current existing government seems to have effective control over the country and thus fulfilling the element of statehood, states should take due consideration of other principles in international law which also covers respect to sovereignty.

The West’s response to the events that are unfolding has been less than optimal. As the US-supported ECOWAS and the French government resort to using threats, more tension will only build up. When demand for transfer of power is not met and concrete military actions are taken, all hell would break loose. Rather than risking an all-out armed conflict, engaging in civil dialogues, a method the UN itself champions, would prove fruitful.

Momentously, the UN recently just published the New Agenda for Peace. The Agenda, changing the outdated global outlook which was intended to help the world recover from the Cold War’s divide, was made with new interstate dynamics in mind. The international community’s next actions on the matter could either be a platform to showcase just how adept we are to challenges or the very thing to reveal our hypocrisy.

Rafsi Albar
Rafsi Albar
Rafsi Albar studies public international law at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. He assists teaching in administrative law, conducts various public interest legal research, and serves as an editor at Juris Gentium Law Review, the country’s foremost student-run publication.