The recent military coup in mineral-rich Niger Republic is almost certainly destined to have a massive impact on peace and security , not just within its borders, but across the 15 member-countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
There was initial uncertainty in the wee hours of Wednesday, July 26, when the news broke that Niger’s Presidential Guard had detained the country’s elected President, Mohammed Bazoum. Shortly afterwards, Presidential Guard commander, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, proclaimed himself the leader of a new military junta.
Initially, the national army appeared reluctant to join in the coup, and had not made its position clear until two days later, when the army chief, flanked by 10 of his colleagues, went on national TV to announce the overthrow of President Bazoum, blaming rising insecurity and a lack of economic growth for his removal.
According to him, the intervention was necessary to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of Niger.
Besides, rumours had it that General Tchiani, a close confidante of the ousted president, had been on the verge of losing his position as head of the Presidential Guard – a role in which he had defended the government against numerous attempted coups during the tenures of both former President Mahamadou Issoufou and his successor, Bazoum.
In other words, the General was prompted to act before he was pushed, diplomatic sources have said.
Reactions to the coup
The coup has been met with dismay across the West African sub-region and beyond.
Understandably, Nigeria, the dominant economic and political power in ECOWAS, was the first to condemn the ousting of Niger’s democratically elected government.
In a message to the coupists in Niamey, President Bola Tinubu, who is also the chairman of ECOWAS, demanded that the coup leaders “reverse their unconstitutional action” and release President Bazoum.
Other countries and bodies soon followed Nigeria’s example, such as France, Niger’s former colonial ruler; the United States, which has a heavy economic and military presence in the region; Germany, another key stakeholder in the area; the African Union (AU), and European Union (EU).
On Sunday, July 30, ECOWAS leaders imposed trade and financial sanctions on the junta, giving them a week to reinstate Mr Bazoum or face the prospect of force.
However, in a message to the coup leaders on Wednesday, August 2, ECOWAS’ commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musa, said: “(The) military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality.”
On Thursday, August 3, Nigeria announced the cutting off of power supply to Niger republic, in an attempt to force the junta to stand down. The move is significant, given that Nigeria accounts for 70% of Niger’s electricity supply, according to the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN).
But despite mounting international pressure, the coup leaders have remained adamant, holding public rallies and issuing veiled threats against foreign governments.
Having said that, their “unconstitutional” removal of an elected government will surely have far-reaching ramifications for Niger and the entire Sahel region.
Analysts point to the rising insecurity within and around Niger, as well as its fast-dwindling economy, as some of the factors behind the latest coup in the impoverished West African nation. They argue that the coup, given the widespread sanctions and isolation it has attracted, will not only make Nigeriens weaker in their fight against Al Qaeda and Boko Haram insurgents, but will also decimate the economy of a country which, according to UN figures, ranks among the world’s poorest.
Also, Niger is a key ally of the West, especially France, the US and EU, in their fight against terrorism and illegal migration to Europe. Efforts to address these numbing issues will no doubt be undermined, because the Niger junta might use them as leverage in negotiations and force acceptance of their new regime.
What about the increasingly powerful and influential Wagner mercenary group from Russia, which coup leaders in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have openly and brazenly embraced? Crucially, and to the chagrin of many ECOWAS countries, the leader of the Russian group has sided with the Niger junta.
Unsurprisingly, the junta is cosying up to the mercenary army for support in fighting the country’s counter-insurgency war, despite the fact that Wagner has not been able to halt insurgency forays in Mali and Burkina Faso.
In addition, a successful military take-over in Niger can only mean one thing: namely, a massive setback for democracy in the sub-region and the wider continent. Analysts believe such a development will not only embolden military rulers in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, but may also encourage prospective coupists in other countries to test the waters.
Spanner in the works
A cross-section of political observers believe that ECOWAS may never find the political will to pursue a military solution in Niger, because, according to them, such a move could throw the entire sub-region into all-out war.
They argue that, by offering to come to Niger’s aid in the event of a military intervention by ECOWAS, Mali and Burkina Faso have thrown a spanner in the works.
On Wednesday, the two military-ruled nations said they would regard any military intervention in Niger as “a declaration of war” on them.
The way forward
As the sub-region’s number-one military and economic power, Nigeria, the current chair of ECOWAS, has vowed to firmly oppose coups that have inundated West Africa since 2020. Within that period of time, no less than seven coups have occurred, with three of them succeeding – in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali.
While some analysts believe Nigeria’s espoused stance is the way to go, others say it is untenable, because, according to them, elected African governments can successfully ward off coups only if they endeavour to provide their populations with good, transparent and benevolent leadership.
Similarly, negotiations between ECOWAS and General Tchiani’s hunta should continue, in keeping with the regional body’s leadership’s posture on a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Possibly, an extension of ECOWAS’ Sunday, August 6, deadline should also be considered.
While the use of force should remain the last resort, there is need for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the coup leaders in order to force them to return to the barracks.
To that end, the decision of the World Bank to suspend aid to Niger “other than private sector partnerships” is a welcome development.
However, in the event of a military intervention, where negotiations have failed, it would not be in ECOWAS’ best interest to go it alone. Since the days of ECOMOG in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D’voir, Guinea Bissau and SaoTome and Principe, the world has become a different place.
This time around, the AU, EU, UN, as well as other supporters of democratic governance around the world, would have to join in any enforcement mission in Niger.
Writing by Tony Okerafor