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Niger calls ECOWAS’ bluff. What next?

UN, ECOWAS partners kick-off Western Accord 2016
UN, ECOWAS partners kick-off Western Accord 2016

On 26 July, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed by the presidential guard. The trigger for the coup appears to be Bazoum’s plans to dismiss the coup leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, from his role as commander of the guard. What may have started as a personal vendetta, however, has been complicated by geopolitics. 

Niger occupies a strategic position, as the last democracy in the Sahel region, and a fulcrum for Western military intervention against Islamist insurgencies. Niger’s critical importance to regional security has resulted in the putschists being drawn into a standoff against the international community. Regional economic community ECOWAS issued a seven-day ultimatum on 30 July, threatening military action unless the junta acquiesced and reinstalled President Bazoum.  

The putschists, however, called ECOWAS’ bluff, while driving a wedge in the regional bloc by deepening cooperation with military-led regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. General Tchiani has subsequently battened down the hatches, closing Niger’s airspace to flights and projecting images of popular support for the junta. To understand what might come next, we need to consider why Niger remained resolute in the face of international pressure.

Why did Niger call ECOWAS’ bluff?

The response of the putschists can be understood as comprising three interconnected factors:

First, is an estimation as to whether ECOWAS would act as it had in the past. Niger, is the latest, and last domino in the Sahel, following a series of coups that have seen Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea all succumb to military rule. In these instances, ECOWAS adopted a soft stance, appearing either incapable or averse to military intervention, instead opting for economic sanctions and diplomatic engagement. 

The Nigeriens will also have taken into account changes at the top of the regional bloc. The newly-elected ECOWAS Chairman, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, used his inauguration speech to take a zero-tolerance approach to the coups that have plagued the region. However, Tinubu and his All Progressives Congress also have to account for domestic political realities. Traditional leaders from northern Nigeria opposed an intervention, warning of dire consequences for a region which has strong cultural, economic and familial ties with Niger. Moreover, on 6 August, the Nigerian Senate – which must approve the deployment of armed forces outside the country – rejected the prospect of a military intervention. 

Second, the expertise of General Tchiani may have enabled the junta to identify other structural and deeply entrenched impediments to military action, enabling the regime to see through ECOWAS’ hollow threat. Tchiani was trained in Senegal, and served as a battalion commander for ECOWAS peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire, gaining experience of multilateral security cooperation. His familiarity with the bloc’s military interventions mean that he will be well aware of their historic limitations. ECOWAS has previously made deployments in densely populated coastal states, but never attempted an intervention in the sparsely populated Sahel. Similarly, he will have intimate knowledge of ECOWAS’ approach to Niger’s coup in 2010, which saw him appointed to the presidential guard of the democratically-elected government that followed a military transition.

Third, the support of neighbouring states, Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as a belief in their own military abilities. This may incline the putschists to consider themselves better prepared to endure a conflict with ECOWAS forces than more stable democracies elsewhere in the region. The junta could be seeking to exploit this resolve strategically, aiming to establish a “no-win” scenario. In this situation all parties engaged in a military confrontation could both contribute to – and suffer from – a deteriorating regional security landscape as troops are tied up defending extensive borders, leaving insurgent groups greater freedom to operate.

ECOWAS reconsiders

When the ultimatum elapsed, ECOWAS heads of state and government announced the convening of an extraordinary summit on the political situation in Niger, which is due to be held in Abuja tomorrow (10 August). The bloc is likely to consider two options at the summit: the viability of a military intervention, and an alternative diplomatic route, supported by the economic sanctions.

Although Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire have committed troops to a putative mission, and President Tinubu appears determined to counter domestic opposition and secure a Nigerian deployment, military intervention remains fraught with risks for the bloc. An ECOWAS mission risks worsening the fragile security situation in the region, while also exacerbating political and cultural fault lines within the bloc, driving a wedge between the literal states and the hinterland. With all Niger’s landlocked neighbours rejecting a military solution, and Benin reportedly wavering in the wake of domestic opposition, Tinubu is unlikely to secure unanimity. While this is not a formal requirement, dissenting voices would undermine the legitimacy of the mission and ECOWAS’ ability to mobilise troop contributions and financing from international security partners. 

Failure to deliver on its ultimatum, however, will leave the bloc weakened, increasing the likelihood of ECOWAS turning its attention to securing cosmetic concessions from the Nigerien putschists, such as the liberation of deposed president Bazoum. ECOWAS may opt to work with international partners, US and France, behind the scenes, in the hope of exercising a degree of control over Niger. This may take the form of the threat of acute economic sanctions and travel bans, coupled with the carrot of financial assistance for an ECOWAS-endorsed transition to civilian rule. However, a plan is unlikely to materialise quickly enough for the bloc to save face at Abuja tomorrow.

Niger presses ahead

The junta, for its part, may be willing to offer some concessions, as long as it retains some hard-fought gains. First is ensuring that President Bazoum is not reinstalled. This should be achievable given that the first survey conducted since the coup found that 78% of respondents supported the actions of the Nigerien junta, with 73% backing its rule for an “extended period”.

Utilising his experience of Salou Djibo’s coup in 2010, Tchiani’s prize concession may be negotiating for a civil-military transition that sees his regime hold onto power in the interim and cultivate popular approval. On 2 August, Tchiani announced he intended to establish the conditions for a transition leading to elections in a “relatively short and reasonable time”. He later consolidated this move with the appointment of former Minister of Finance (2003-2010) Ali Mahamanze Lamine Zeine, as Prime Minister, indicating the imminent formation of a new government. 

A second important negotiating point for the junta is likely to be the removal of French troops from Niger, given the animosity of the junta leaders towards the former colonial power. This is likely to spur a pivot towards greater collaboration with partners such as China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. Niger will also become increasingly reliant on the axis of juntas across West Africa, with countries like Guinea becoming crucial for imports, as has become the case for Mali and Burkina Faso in light of ECOWAS embargoes. Niger will also retain access to trans-Saharan trade routes via Algeria, which has strongly opposed any use of force, and Chad, which has stated that it will not participate in ECOWAS’ military adventures. Such routes are closely associated with illicit activities including drug and people smuggling, which may generate the capital needed to sustain the junta’s rule.

Finally, as has been seen elsewhere in the region, the exodus of Western forces may well undermine efforts to combat the insurgency, forcing the Nigerien junta to consider other security partners, including Russian mercenaries from the controversial Wagner group. Although this is unlikely to be successful militarily, it would align with popular sentiment, according to the same opinion poll, which found that over 60% of Nigeriens surveyed trusted Russia. 

About the author

Lami Mabifa is an Associate Consultant at Africa Practice and works with various clients across the continent, conducting research, providing analysis and insights, and supporting stakeholder engagements. He can be reached at [email protected].

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