The defence chiefs from the ECOWAS countries excluding Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Niger, gather for their extraordinary meeting in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the situation in Niger (photo: AP)
Military leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have rejected a proposal by Niger’s military junta to hold elections within three years, extending a political impasse in the country.
“Release [President Mohamed] Bazoum without preconditions, restore constitutional order without further delay,” ECOWAS Commissioner Abdel-Fatau Musah said via WhatsApp in response to a query about the proposed election delay.
Junta leader General Abdourahman Tiani said over the weekend that the military government that seized power on 26 July would launch a national dialogue to consult on a transition back to democracy that “should last no longer than three years”.
Meeting in the Ghanaian capital of Accra on 18 August, ECOWAS had in fact agreed on a “D-day” for a possible military intervention in Niger if diplomatic means fail to restore the country’s democratically elected president. They did not disclose a specific date, but said the intervention would be quick and aimed at restoring the constitutional order in the shortest possible time.
The urgency surrounding the situation in Niger reflects that country’s significance to regional and international powers as a key to security arrangements in the Sahel region. Situated in the very heart of the Sahel, it has long served as a strategic hub for primarily French and US forces fighting insurgent groups and movements affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). It is a major source of uranium ore on which nuclear energy production, in France in particular, depends.
On 26 July 2023, the Nigerian Presidential Guard arrested President Mohamed Bazoum while its commander, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, announced that the Armed Forces had joined the presidential guard to support the creation of a transitional government that would draw up a new constitution for the country.
France strongly supports a military intervention led by ECOWAS forces to restore Bazoum to power. To a great extent this position stems from Paris’s sense that its options, especially compared to previous scenarios of this sort in the area, are dwindling as it watches its influence and image in West Africa fade. Niger is following in the footsteps of Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, which expelled French forces amidst the mounting popular sentiment in the region that France is primarily responsible for perpetuating the deeply entrenched abject poverty and underdevelopment in its former colonies as it continues to plunder their resources.
Some of the ECOWAS countries, such as Nigeria and Senegal, share the French hard-line stance. In Abuja, President Bola Tinubu, who had just been sworn in May, is keen to look strong at home and to reaffirm Abuja’s status as a regional leader. A military intervention in Niger would be an opportunity to demonstrate Nigeria’s military strength and for the president to project an image as a champion of democracy in the region. In Senegal, President Maki Sall is keen to strengthen his position with respect to the oppositional PASTEF Party and its leader Ousmane Sonko. Sonko, who was arrested in late July before his party was banned, opposes French presence in Senegal and West Africa. Tinabu’s and Sall’s positions align with Western support for Bazoum and his reinstatement, which helps generate a climate conducive to military intervention.
European powers are fearful of the prospect of new waves of illegal immigration from Africa in the event of further deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel. Niger is a strategic staging point for African migrants headed to destinations in North Africa in preparation for the dangerous crossing to southern European shores. France, Germany, and Italy have military bases in Niger and they, too, are adamant on Bazoum’s speedy return to power.
Another factor strongly propelling a military intervention is the concern among ECOWAS members as well as among Western powers that the overthrow of Bazoum could precipitate a domino effect. The socio-political situation is fragile in most West African states, and they fear further destabilising influences.
On the other hand, many factors compel against a military intervention. Firstly, there is a lack of consensus among ECOWAS members over the military option. Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Cape Verde strongly oppose a military solution to the crisis. Indeed, Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend Niger against a potential military offensive on the part of ECOWAS. On 17 August the army chiefs of staff from Ouagadougou and Bamako met with their counterpart in Niamey to determine “concrete measures” should ECOWAS escalate. Then the following day, Burkina Faso and Mali deployed fighter jets and helicopters and military forces in Niger.
Other ECOWAS states, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, are wavering in their support for military action. The ECOWAS parliament, itself, is sharply divided with most members favouring a new diplomatic push.
Quite a few voices in ECOWAS and elsewhere urge caution and warn of the potential detrimental impact of a military intervention on the security and stability of the entire Sahel region and beyond. The poverty-stricken region is already rife with destabilising factors especially in those countries that have been fighting local insurgencies for nearly a decade. A military intervention, especially if it spirals into a broader conflict, would also be an invitation to a resurgence in terrorist activity. Boko Haram, IS and their ilk, which thrive in unstable and volatile environments, would leap at the opportunity to stage attacks against national armies and expand their realms of influence and control, especially in the more impoverished and marginalised fringes. New waves of terrorism would add to the disintegrative forces that jeopardise already fragile and weak states.
The mounting division in Niger itself could pose an obstacle to military intervention. Despite the huge outpouring of grassroots support for the new regime in Niamey, especially among anti-French and anti-Western political forces, other portions of the population support Bazoum and are pressing for his return, as could be seen in recent pro-Bazoum demonstrations.
At another level, there is Washington’s position to reckon with. Washington has expressed its support for Bazoum, urged his reinstatement and reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the diplomatic efforts to this end and protecting the democratic process in Niger. However, it has refrained from using the term “coup”.
Russia, which has not come out in support of the coup, has warned that military intervention in Niger could spiral into an endless confrontation that could destabilise the entire Sahel. Some media have reported that the military council that has assumed power in Niamey has asked for help from the Wagner forces.
The situation surrounding the Niger crisis is still in flux. It is a crisis that reflects instability in the Sahel and West Africa as a whole, which is all the more reason to believe that the inclination to a military response within ECOWAS may not only fail to resolve the problem but, instead, further complicate and aggravate it.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly