Niger became the last of the three central Sahel states on July 26 to join the forays of military coups in West Africa, after Mali faced an overthrow in 2020 and 2021, and Burkina Faso faced two coups in 2022. The recent coup was the fifth in Niger’s history since independence from France in 1960 and the sixth in West Africa since 2020. As the fourth victim of military insurrection in three years, the coup has brought the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to a crossroads. The regional bloc responded swiftly and demanded the “immediate release and reinstatement” of President Mohamed Bazoum by the military junta led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani. It further imposed barrage of sanctions and gave the military regime a one-week ultimatum (from July 30) to reinstate the ousted president and threatened the use of force if the putschists fail to comply. Expectedly, the military junta defied the order, but later proposed a three-year transition period which was repudiated by ECOWAS. The imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions have also largely failed to pressurize the putschists to reinstate President Bazoum.
Under the circumstances, ECOWAS has been faced with two main response options: either a military intervention by the ECOWAS standby force with all its elements or pursuing a diplomatic solution to end the crisis. The posture of ECOWAS since the coup however seems to be leaning more towards the use of military intervention with ECOWAS Chiefs of Staff agreeing on a possible date for intervention. As the military junta’s becomes more entrenched, is military action the most desirable option to end the crisis and what could possibly be the implications of such an approach? Or should international diplomacy facilitated by ECOWAS be prioritized? I outline the possible implications of any military intervention and argue that ECOWAS should rather pursue diplomatic solutions.
Why Niger would be different from past ECOWAS interventions
ECOWAS is not new to military interventions to restore order. The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was crucial to ending the Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars in the 1990s. In 1998 for instance, ECOMOG stormed Freetown and returned President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to power after a 9-month seizure of power by the military regime led by Major Johnny-Paul Koroma from 25 May 1997 to February 13, 1998. Similarly, in 2017 ECOWAS forces helped to force Yahya Jammeh to cede power to Adama Barrow who had defeated him in the 2016 elections in The Gambia. However, the situation in Niger differs significantly from the context of the past interventions partly due to the element of terrorism and violent extremism. Therefore an military action in Niger could be politically disastrous, operationally risky, and regionally, self-destructive.
Intervention could exacerbate an already existing security crisis in Niger
The fallout of any military action by ECOWAS may exacerbate the existing array of complex challenges, including violent extremism, terrorism, banditry, local conflicts, transnational organised crimes, and possibly give rise to new threats that will affect the entire region. In addition, military intervention may worsen the complex humanitarian situation with mass influx of refugees and migration inflows into the seven countries bordering Niger. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons may also increase and find their way into the hands of non-state actors. The ensuing security situation will affect the consolidation of the short-term gains from counterterrorism operations in 2022, when Niger recorded 80 percent decrease in terrorist casualties. The regional counterterrorism operations by the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Taskforce (MNJTF) will also be hampered. Thus, apart from the possible withdrawal of Niger from these regional ad hoc coalitions, countries currently committed to the fight against armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic states will have their armies and resources diverted, weakening their operational capacity to counter the threat.
As the military junta wrestle with ECOWAS to consolidate their power base in the capital Niamey, the distractions from counter-terrorism efforts and the concomitant security vacuum will be exploited by violent extremist groups to increase their activities and expand to new jurisdictions. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) , Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM), Islamic States West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Boko Haram, bandits, and criminal networks in particular, will be the highest beneficiaries of any distractions or chaos occasioned by a military intervention. The situation could have devastating consequences for coastal West African states such as Benin, which has recorded major terrorist attacks in the Park W, a nature reserve that stretches across Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
Intervention could further divide ECOWAS states
Politically, the use of force in Niger can deepen the divisions in ECOWAS and weaken its capacity to enforce regional protocols and conventions. Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger’s neighbours, Algeria and Chad who are not part of ECOWAS have indicated their strong stance against military interventions. The military juntas in both Burkina Faso and Mali have said that any military intervention in their neighbour would be considered a “declaration of war” against their countries. They have accordingly signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter on September 16 and established the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) as an architecture of collective defence and mutual assistance for the benefit of their populations. The alliance is a combination of military and economic efforts to fight against terrorism in the three countries. Under the AES, “any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracting parties shall be considered as an aggression against the other parties and shall give rise to a duty of assistance including the use of armed force to restore and ensure security.” While the signing of the AES is a positive step towards the three countries ownership of security and development issues, its formation has been met with a mix of optimism and caution.
However, the motive for the formation of the AES was not based on instrumental and altruistic reasons as it was arguably inspired by ECOWAS’ threat to use force to restore constitutional order in Niger. The military juntas formed it based on self-centred reasons to help each other against possible external aggression by ECOWAS. The AES presents a major challenge for military intervention in Niger as any use of force can push West Africa into a protracted conventional warfare. The consequences will be major cracks in the alliance of the 15 member states of ECOWAS which can impact its legitimacy and credibility.
Niger could become a battleground for great power competition
Given the high geopolitical and geoeconomics stakes at play, Niger could also become a new flashpoint for great power competition between France and its allies and Russia. In Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, there is an existing public anger against France and its political, economic and security imperialist activities in the Francophone countries. Since the coups, the military juntas have shifted strategic alliance towards Russia. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have expelled French forces from their territories. In Mali, the Russia-backed private military contractor, Wagner Group was engaged to help fight terrorism. Similarly, Niger’s military junta has also terminated military agreements with France and suspended the export of gold and Uranium to the country. Prior to the coup, Niger accounted for 15 percent of France’s uranium needs and the fifth of the EU total imports. If the disruption in uranium supplies continues for long, it could affect the energy security of France and the EU. France and its Western allies see the ongoing developments in the Sahel as a major geostrategic setback while for Russia, it is seen as an opportunity to enlarge its sphere of influence in these resource-laden countries.
Military intervention could push Niger and the Sahel into Russia’s orbit
Given the great power rivalries playing out in the Sahel, there is a popular perception that ECOWAS is being pushed to take military action by France and its Western allies. Under the circumstances, if the regional body intervenes militarily, its forces will be seen as occupiers rather than liberators. Niger could look to Russia for support which has issued a warning against military intervention. The outcome will be an escalation of great power rivalries and exploitation of Niger’s strategic mineral resources. It is therefore incumbent on ECOWAS to act with caution, not to dance to the drumbeats of some Western powers to cause any protracted confrontation. The consequences of the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervention in Libya should serve as a lesson against military intervention to achieve a political objective in Niger.
Diplomatic negotiations will provide the most desirable solutions
Since the meeting of the ECOWAS delegation headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar with the military junta and the deposed president to facilitate a resolution to the crisis, not much has been achieved on the diplomatic front. Considering the complexities of the use of force, it is imperative for ECOWAS to pursue diplomatic solutions to the crisis. However, the successful outcome of any diplomatic engagements will largely depend on whether ECOWAS softens its stance on the reinstatement of President Bazoum. The initial resistance to diplomatic overtures from ECOWAS and other world powers was basically due to this staunch position. Therefore, instead of reinstatement, the regional body ought rather focus on negotiating for the release of Bazoum and his family. Typically, a coup where the plotters seize and maintain power for more than a week is considered as a “successful” coup d’état. Failing to recognise the authority of the new military junta who have seized power for more than a month will only impede diplomatic efforts and delay the transition to constitutional order. Admittedly, while this may dent the image of ECOWAS, it is the desirable and pragmatic thing to do based on the realities on the ground. Thus, the situation requires flexibility, pragmatism, and skilled diplomacy.
Instead of a combative response, ECOWAS should focus on negotiating a short transition period by using the proposed three-year transition as an entry point for inclusive dialogue and negotiations. A consistent and constructive engagement with the military authorities is necessary to set out a short, realistic, and acceptable transition plan to restore constitutional order. As the nature of crisis continues to evolve and the military authorities entrench themselves, a multi-stakeholder diplomatic engagement will be necessary to reach an agreement with the military junta. The multi-stakeholder approach will bring together the resources, knowledge, perspectives, skills, and constituencies of relevant stakeholders to mediate and resolve the crisis. In that regard, the ECOWAS diplomatic engagements must involve the political parties, civil society, traditional and religious authorities, women, youth, and relevant international partners including the African Union, United Nations, Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD), Russia, France, United States and neighboring Algeria, Libya, and Chad. This will ensure that there is cooperation, coordination, and a sense of ownership among the national stakeholders.
Furthermore, beside the main causes of the coup, the multi-stakeholder diplomatic engagements must cover issues around the reforms of a French colonial pact that is rooted in exploitative practices which has become a convenient alibi for all the coups in the Sahel. Failure to address the root causes of the deeply rooted anti-French sentiments will be a missed opportunity to change the tradition of French paternalism in the Sahel.
Dr. Festus Kofi Aubyn is the Regional Coordinator of Research and Capacity Building at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) Regional Office in Accra, Ghana.