FOUR CORNERS: Foreign Editor David Pratt's weekly digest of stories from around the world 



Niger: Latest coup underscores diminishing Western influence in troubled region 


In recent years it’s been derisively dubbed the “coup belt.” Spanning five countries of western and north-central Africa that includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, the Sahel region has seen itself the epicentre of a series of insurrections that has set alarm bells ringing from Washington to Brussels.  

Meanwhile Moscow looks on, eyeing its own opportunities for geopolitical leverage. Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, whose future seemed uncertain following a short and abortive mutiny against the Kremlin a few weeks ago, is already extending its influence in the Sahel region and elsewhere across Africa. 

It was last Wednesday that Niger saw the latest insurrection in the Sahel coup belt as the seventh putsch in west and central Africa since 2020 got underway.  

Just like previous coups, it poses potentially grave consequences for democratic progress and the fight against an insurgency by jihadist militants in a region where Niger is a key Western ally. 

Ever since the coups that took place in Niger’s neighbours Burkina Faso and Mali, both countries have since pivoted towards Moscow and the question giving sleepless nights to western security and diplomatic officials now is whether Niger is set to do the same.  

Niger’s coup last week was started after members of the Presidential Guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum inside his palace in the capital Niamey. 

Army spokesperson Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane said in a statement broadcast on a state-run television channel that “the defence and security forces … have decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with.” 

While the precise motives behind the revolt remain unclear, analysts say rising costs of living and perceptions of government incompetence and corruption may have driven the guards’ move. 

What is certain though is the nervousness with which news of the coup was received in Washington and Europe. It was just less than a month ago that Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, met Bazoum - and possibly some of the insurrectionists.  

During that two-day trip to the country, Borrell hailed Niger as “a haven of stability”. “Niger is a solid, reliable partner, both politically and in terms of security,” Borrell insisted at the time. “And we support President Bazoum enormously, with all our might,” he added, evidently oblivious to the impending events of last week. 

Embarrassing as the timing of the coup is, it has massive ramifications both for the EU and the US the latter having over 1,100 troops based in Niger.  

Both parties have sought to bolster Niger’s stability after the rebellions in Mali and Burkina Faso allowed Russian influence mainly through the Wagner group to extend in the Sahel. 

For decades African regimes have readily resorted to mercenaries, particularly to compensate for the weakness of their armed forces. Just as the West exploited such vulnerabilities in the past, so Wagner today is stepping into the breach.  

This comes even as links between the group and the Kremlin appear to be in a process of ‘rethink’ following the recent mutiny in Russia over the war in Ukraine.  

Last year after its pull-out from Mali, France shifted more than 1,000 of its own military personnel to Niger. But in what historically has been a Francophone region, anti-French sentiment has opened the way to the likes of Wagner.  

As if this was not cause enough for Western concern, the instability has also presented Islamist extremists like the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qaeda with the ideal conditions to exploit the same anti- Western sentiment in what observers say has become one of the world’s deadliest regions in terms of a jihadist presence. 

This weekend as the situation in Niger’s capital Niamey remains tense, there has been a slew of condemnation from the international community. And perhaps in a sign of the geopolitical struggle that lies ahead, the EU yesterday suspended all security cooperation and budgetary aid to Niger. 

For his part, the head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, weighed in on the situation issuing an audio message that said: “What happened in Niger is nothing more than the struggle of the people of Niger against colonisers, who tried to impose their own rules of life.” 

Niger’s coup is just the latest in a series that underscores the extent of diminishing Western influence in this troubled region. More importantly perhaps, it also points to how the Sahel looks set to become a new battleground between the West and Russia. 


Ukraine: Offensive finally begins to gain momentum but concerns remain 

The Herald:

Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses the plenary session of the Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St Petersburg, on Thursday Picture: Thanassis Stavrakis/ AP Photo

It’s a measure of how significant developments are on the ground that even Russian President Vladimir Putin last week conceded that attacks by Ukraine’s armed forces have stepped up on a number of fronts.  

Speaking to Russian media during a press conference held as part of a summit with African leaders in St Petersburg, Putin confirmed that “hostilities have intensified” primarily on the frontline running through the Zaporizhzhia region. 

In what both Ukrainian and western officials admit has been a shift in tactics, Ukrainian forces are said to have concentrated their efforts in pounding Russian defensive positions with heavy artillery fire rather than advance swiftly across extensive Russian minefields aiming to punch a hole through enemy lines using Nato armour. 

The change in tactics however say some observers has as much to do with reducing the numbers of Ukrainian casualties the estimates of which are said to have been heavy during the earlier stages of the offensive.  

After eight weeks of painfully slow progress Ukraine’s push appears to have entered a new phase last Wednesday after Kyiv committed a large part of it reserve forces in the south. According to the think tank the Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian forces launched a significant mechanised operation in western Zaporizhzhia and appears to have broken through some Russian defensive positions.  

Reports of battlefield progress will doubtless bring some sense of relief to Western military and political officials who have been watching nervously at what until now has been limited success by the Ukraine forces on the ground. 

Asked last week whether the offensive was a failure US General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was at pains to reassure that things were going to plan.  

“It is far from a failure. I think that it’s way too early to make that kind of call,” insisted Milley, speaking after another round of talks on arms for Ukraine in its fight against Russia's now nearly 17-month invasion. Milley however admitted that that the Ukrainian offensive will be slow. 

“I think there's a lot of fighting left to go and I'll stay with what we said before: This is going to be long. It's going be hard. It's going to be bloody,” Milley told reporters.  

But some Western allies have questioned whether Ukraine can sustain the level of shelling needed to make the newer strategy work and that by turning to artillery bombardments, Kyiv’s forces might now face further issues, namely, a shortage of 155 mm munitions, among others. The extent of earlier western concerns about the offensive were also highlighted last week in a report in the Wall Street Journal that claimed the US knew that Ukrainian forces lacked the training and weapons they would need to succeed in their offensive. According to the report western military officials “hoped Ukrainian courage and resourcefulness would carry the day.”  

For now, western officials continue to play down concerns. But it’s only events on the battlefield in the coming weeks that will bring the definitive answer to the many pressing questions that remain over Ukraine’s effort to push Russian forces out of the country. 


Israel: Yet more volatile days lie ahead after passing of controversial Supreme Court law 

The Herald:

It’s a crisis that is now in its seventh month and resulted in the largest wave of protests in Israel’s history. But despite the widespread opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul that many see as threat to the country’s democracy, his far right government pushed ahead last week with passing the first part of the controversial legislation. 

The vote now means that the Supreme Court will no longer be able to overturn government decisions on the ground of “reasonableness”, which critics say opens the door for judicial meddling by the government. 

There is something very ironic in that two days after the passing of the law Israel began the commemoration of Tisha b’av a time of mourning and fasting in the Jewish calendar that marks the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem which in part was the result of civil strife and infighting among the Jewish people. 

Rarely in modern times has Israel been more divided than it is now. Such is the extent of the bitterness developing in society over the far right ultra nationalist government’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary that last week The Jerusalem Post cited a poll the results of which of would have been almost unthinkable in the past.  

The poll published initially by the Israel’s Channel 13 broadcaster found that over half of Israelis (56%) are concerned about a civil war breaking out amid the political crisis surrounding the government’s policy. 

For now the worry among the many largely secular and liberal opponents of the judicial overhaul was not the passing of the law itself. Rather, they are worried that it will now be followed by other, more radical legislation that would remove crucial remaining checks on Israeli governments.  

They worry too that the path has been laid that would allow Netanyahu’s far-right and ultraorthodox allies to impose their own deeply conservative and religious worldview on the rest of Israel’s population. This, say opponents, is only the start of the threat. 

“In a country that lacks a constitution, the Supreme Court has been a critical buttress, preventing the passage and implementation of laws that would allow Israel’s ultra-religious parties to tyrannise its majority secular population,” said Carmiel Arbit, a non-resident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. “The result is indeed a crisis,” the analyst added, speaking to AlJazeera. 

It's a crisis that shows no signs of abating and few doubt that even more volatile days lie ahead in Israel.    


United States:  Trump doubles down on presidential bid in the face of new legal woes 

The Herald:

Donald Trump insists he is the best candidate to replace President Joe Biden Picture: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall


He might be facing a deluge of legal action against him, but this weekend Donald Trump doubled down on his campaign as a Republican presidential hopeful in the 2024 race for the White House. Polls show Trump holds a lead over his rivals even as his legal woes mount. 

Trump along with chief rival Ron DeSantis headlined the Republican party's annual Lincoln Dinner fundraiser on Friday night where all 13 candidates were given 10 minutes to speak during the event. 

Trump insisted he was the best candidate to defeat Joe Biden, citing the polls that show him far ahead of DeSantis. 

“I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” Trump said of DeSantis, who he consistently referred to as “DeSanctis.” 

Trump told attendees that he was the only candidate who can win next year's election and suggested this was the only reason he faces a raft of criminal and civil charges.  

Trump has already insisted he will still run for the White House, even if he is convicted.  

There were more than 1,200 people in the huge ballroom - all of whom have an outsize influence on who will be the Republican nominee. 

In a social media post last Thursday just before fundraiser, Trump said that an “indictment of me would only further destroy our country”. 

Trump became the first former president to face federal criminal charges after being indicted in June for retaining secret government documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. 

Last Thursday he was landed with new charges having been accused of attempting to have surveillance video footage at his residence deleted ahead of an FBI search. 

In filing the expanded indictment on Thursday, Federal prosecutors also added a third defendant to the case alongside Trump and his personal aide Waltine Nauta: Carlos de Oliveira, a property manager at Mar-a-Lago. 

Trump and his co-defendants are now facing additional counts of obstruction of justice.  

De Oliveira told an IT colleague ahead of last year’s FBI search that “the boss” wanted the server containing surveillance camera footage deleted, according to the indictment. 

For now Congressional Republicans have defended Trump against what many in the party have called a "weaponised Department of Justice."  

But it was left to Will Hurd one of Trump’s other rivals for the Republican nomination to express the views of others at the Lincoln Dinner fundraiser on Friday. A shocked audience listened as Hurd insisted that Trump is only running for president to stay out of jail.