The Coup in Niger has Sparked a War within ECOWAS

The 26 July 2023 coup in Niger that overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum has set in motion a series of events that have the potential to derail the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for years to come.  The Niger coup d’état, the seventh coup on the continent since 2020, appears to have been ‘a bridge too far’ for many ECOWAS members.  Threats by some ECOWAS members, notably the group’s current chair Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, for military action into Niger to restore President Bazoum to office have fractured the organization into the Sahel coup block made up of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger versus the rest.  Indeed, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, recently signed a mutual defense pact agreeing to aid each other militarily against foreign military intervention.  Should ECOWAS, therefore, intervene militarily into Niger, we could witness a war within the regional body itself.  Were this to happen, it would be a setback for regional integration.

A body to promote economy opportunity and mutual understanding between states

ECOWAS was established on May 28, 1975, by fifteen West African countries.  Those countries are Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau.  At present, however, its membership stands at sixteen members, with the addition of Cape Verde in 1977.  The purpose of ECOWAS as envisioned by its creators was to provide economic opportunity for its citizens, provide economic stability for members countries, promote mutual understanding between members countries, and create the conditions for sustained development. Despite very mixed results, ECOWAS is still a vehicle for dialogue in the furtherance of mutually agreed goals that can promote and sustain good governance and economic growth.  With ECOWAS out of the picture, could the African Union (AU) fill this void?  The answer is probably no.  It is therefore imperative the ECOWAS remains intact.

A history of ECOWAS intervention in the Liberian civil war       

Proponents of an ECOWAS military intervention in Niger have mentioned that this would not be the first time that the organization deployed a fighting force to a member country to restore order.  On Christmas Eve, 1989, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia launched and insurgency into Liberia from Côte d’Ivoire.  As the fighting raged on with unparalleled brutality committed against civilians by both the Armed Forces of Liberia and insurgents, additionally, the disruption to regional commerce, that the conflict created, ECOWAS established the Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in July 1990 to deescalate and bring an end the war.  On August 23, 1990, ECOMOG was deployed to Liberia as a peacekeeping force.  The initial force of 3,500 soldiers comprised troops from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia, and Nigeria.  Once in Liberia, ECOMOG took complete control of Monrovia, in the process establishing a temporary cease-fire.  NPFL rebel leader Charles Taylor rejected ECOMOG’s mandate which he viewed as an encroachment on Liberia’s sovereignty.  As a result, he declared war on ECOMOG directing his NPFL fighters to attack ECOMOG soldiers.  This transformed ECOMOG from a peacekeeping force to a combatant as it now had to defend itself. The force was thus dragged into the First Liberia Civil war on the side of the Liberian government although there was no formal agreement of cooperation between them.  Both now had a common enemy: the NPFL.

Indeed, thanks to ECOMOG, despite the NPFL’s vicious assaults and attempts to capture Monrovia and install Taylor into power, they never succeeded.  Additionally, ECOMOG took on the task of protecting members of the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNIMIL), which would after the war evolve into one of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions. Just as ECOMOG’s mission was evolving beyond its humanitarian mandate, so were the political realities and the conflict itself.  From one insurgent group, the NPFL, in 1989, by 1995, there were six including the NPFL.  The additional insurgent groups were the breakaway Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), United Liberation Movement for Democracy-J (ULIMO-J), United Liberation Movement for Democracy-K (ULIMO-K), Liberia Peace Council, Lofa Defense Force, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia-Central Revolutionary Council (NPFL-CRC). That stated, ECOMOG’s presence prevented any of the groups from capturing the state.  ECOWAS members were finally able to hold peace talks and establish a cease fire between the warring parties in 1996.

In total, ECOMOG coordinated the demobilization of 24,000 fighters and assisted with brokering multiple peace agreements. That stated, ECOMOG soldiers were also accused of committing human rights abuses. It is estimated that the war claimed the lives of 200,000 Liberians and displaced millions. Many ECOMOG soldiers also lost their lives in the conflict.  From the outset, any comparison between ECOWAS’ military intervention in Liberia to end the First Liberian Civil War and a possible future ECOWAS military action in Niger to restore President Bazoum to power is futile.  In Liberia, ECOWAS was responding to a brutal civil war that had ramifications far beyond Liberia’s borders, disrupting regional commerce and creating refuges as Liberians fled by the thousands to neighboring countries.  The indiscriminate killing of civilians was an important factor to the intervention as well, as the body count rose exponentially creating heretofore unimaginable fields of death in Liberia.

The situation with Niger is completely different.  There is no civil war in progress, no displacement of the civilian population internally or to neighboring countries.  In fact, there is no need for humanitarian assistance caused by war.  The issue pertains to a very small segment of society involving men in political conflict at the highest echelons of power.  An ECOWAS military intervention in Niger would not be a humanitarian affair but rather a political one aimed as protecting a political system that protects ECOWAS leaders who remain in power through constitutional coups.  As its experience in Liberia has demonstrated, there is no way to know how long the military engagement will last.  Significantly, this would be direct hostile military action to remove the junta and replace it with the overthrown president, presently under house imprisonment guarded by junta soldiers.  The ECOWAS army could also be met by a Nigerien citizenry ready to take up arms to protect the junta.  Furthermore, with the signing of the security agreement, Mali and Burkina Faso are compelled to enter the conflict to support the junta and expel the invading army.

Furthermore, even if ECOWAS was to succeed militarily, its force in Niger would then have to occupy the country for an undetermined time to ensure the survivability of the restored government.  Would ECOWAS citizens support such military action? The answer is probably no.  An ECOWAS military intervention to rescue President Bazoum and install him back into power would be a catastrophe, creating a regional conflict lasting years and damaging ECOWAS cohesion for years to come.

Jacien Carr is a historian who earned his doctoral degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is also a senior fellow at the Liberia-based Ducor Institute.

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