Young people in West African capitals wave the flags at protests or as they race through cities on motorcycles. Tailors sew dozens of them a day in the narrow alleys of buzzing markets. Taxi drivers put them on their dashboards.
Among the sea of flags flying high in a burst of patriotic fervor in Burkina Faso, Mali and lately Niger, countries that have recently undergone military coups, the red, white and blue flag of the Russian Federation has become commonplace. While it carries political overtones, it has emerged as a trendy accessory, much like a Che Guevara illustration a generation ago in the West.
“Stylish,” Nana Fidaous said about the loose outfit made with Russia’s colors that she had donned at a recent pro-military demonstration in Niger’s capital, Niamey. A high school student, Ms. Fidaous said she wasn’t sure about the symbolic meaning of wearing Russia’s colors. But she said it was time to learn more about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and what he could bring to Niger, which has been squeezed by sanctions and border closures by its West African neighbors in the wake of the coup.
As Russia has made inroads in some West and Central African countries, its flag has been the most visible sign of a broader geopolitical shift in the region, along with Russian weapons and mercenaries.
“The Russian flag has become a symbol of resistance in West Africa, affiliated with anti-West and anti-French attitudes,” said Kyle Walter, the head of research at Logically, a technology company that tracked an increase of pro-Russian and anti-French narratives related to Niger in the wake of a coup there this summer.
How so many Russian flags have ended up so easily in West African capitals has been a matter of speculation among analysts and some Western diplomats who track the flags’ origin, convinced that the Russian government has financed their distribution to spread its influence. And there is some evidence that the Kremlin has done so.
Ahmed Bello, the president of a Nigerien civil society group called PARADE, said that he distributed up to 70 Russian flags at each protest in Niamey and that his work was funded by the Russian government through intermediaries conducting similar operations in Mali.
“It is with them that we work to develop the expansion of Russian ideology in Africa,” he said. Microsoft has identified PARADE as a creation of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and a senior European military official said on condition of anonymity that the group was a front for Kremlin-backed operations on the continent.
Mr. Bello said he had begun sending flags to other cities across Niger. At a meeting earlier this year with Russia’s ambassador to Mali, Igor Gromyko, Mr. Bello said the ambassador had discussed how Russia could finance his activities in exchange for Mr. Bello’s help with promoting the opening of a Russian embassy in Niger.
The Russian Embassy in Mali did not respond to a request for comment.
But in Niger, there is no mistaking the role that fashion plays in the flag’s popularity.
“They just look so cool,” Rédouane Halidou, 21, said as he visited a tiny tailor workshop in a residential neighborhood of Niamey one morning. Two freshly sewn polo shirts were displayed on a table, one in Niger’s green, white and orange, another in Russia’s red, white and blue.
Russian flags and flag-themed shirts mean good business for tailors, according to half a dozen of them who have sold hundreds of pieces: A miniature flag for a car costs 80 cents. Shirts made with Russia’s national colors are sold for $3, and the largest flags go for as much as $6.
“Everyone makes them now,” said Amadou Issa, a tailor who manages five workshops and dozens of employees in Niamey. As he completed a large Russian flag on a recent afternoon, he said he and his teams had sewn hundreds of Russian flags since the coup.
They also make a catchy political statement. Russia is seen by many young Africans as an anticolonial power, there to help them cast off their colonial past and write a new chapter of national history that has nothing to do with democracy, which many associate with exploitative partnerships with Western countries, corruption and poverty.
After military rulers in Niger ousted the civilian president in late July, a wave of pro-Russian sentiment spread throughout the capital, coupled with widespread anger against France, Niger’s former colonizer and a longtime security ally. France’s ambassador to Niger lefton Wednesday. French troops positioned in the country are set to depart by the end of the year.
As hopes for economic opportunities and social progress under partnerships with France and the West have dwindled, an appetite for strongman rule has grown — a box that West African military leaders, allied with an autocrat like Mr. Putin, tick.
“It’s a release of frustration,” said Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien professor of linguistics and cultural studies at Rutgers University. “The youth is waiting. They’re demanding change so something happens in their lives, but there’s no prospect of employment.”
So far, the enthusiasm for Russia has yet to translate into political influence for Moscow in Niger. As in other countries in the region, Russia’s economic and humanitarian involvement is dwarfed here by infrastructure projects, aid and security partnerships with Western countries, China and Turkey.
At a recent news conference with Niger’s junta-appointed prime minister last month, a journalist from Russia Today, the Kremlin-owned television network, asked if the Russian flags seen on Niamey’s streets could prompt the country’s authorities to seek a partnership with Russia.
The prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, smiled and shook his head. Nigerien journalists laughed.
Yet the sudden surge of Russian flags on Niamey’s streets has echoed similar phenomena in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, where military-led governments seized power in coups in recent years and then allied with Russia for military cooperation.
Whether Niger’s new leaders might follow that path, after years of cooperation with Western allies like the United States and European countries, is unclear. But the ground seems to be quite fertile, helped by social media campaigns and pro-Russian groups like PARADE.
El Hadj Bagué, the owner of a grocery shop at a market in central Niamey, said he “used to hate President Vladimir Putin because of his invasion of Ukraine.” But the president’s friendly attitude toward Africa, which he said he had learned about on social media, changed his views. So when his 13-year-old bought him a small Russian flag after watching pro-Russian content on TikTok, Mr. Bagué happily put it on his car’s dashboard.
Mr. Bagué said his four children call Mr. Putin “Baba,” or Dad.
In Niamey, tailors said they would keep sewing flags as long as the demand was there. Amid the clanking sounds of sewing machines, Abdoulaziz Ali Ahmane said he had sewn dozens of the flags free “out of patriotic duty.”
“Niger’s and Russia’s flags go hand in hand now,” he said, greeting patrons in a large garment made of a Nigerien flag on one half, and a Russian flag on the other.
Omar Hama Saley contributed reporting.