Nigeria’s dilemma as ECOWAS threatens war against Niger’s junta

By Gift Habib

GIFT HABIB examines ECOWAS threats and sanctions on Niger Republic after the military takeover of the government and Nigeria’s dilemma of fighting a neighbouring country

Since 2020, armed forces have shortened democratically elected governments in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan without severe outcomes. The coup in Niger Republic has raised serious concerns about regional stability and democratic principles in West Africa. Niger brings the number of unconstitutional regimes to six on the continent.

Four of the affected countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and the Niger Republic – fall within the Economic Community of West African States, a bloc of 15 sovereign states created in 1975.

Niger, a significant uranium producer and a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants in West Africa’s Sahel region, was thrown into a coup on July 26, 2023, when the democratically elected President Mohammed Bazoum was detained by some military officers, led by Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani.

The military takeover is the fifth successful coup in the West African nation’s history since it gained independence from France in 1960, with other unsuccessful attempts in between. Many supporters of the coup chanted pro-Russian slogans. Thousands of people took to the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, in a peaceful solidarity walk, backing the coup.

In a television broadcast, 10 officers, led by Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, said the National Council of the State Guard of Niger Republic decided to “put an end to the regime you are familiar with.” He claimed the military seized power because of insecurity and the mismanagement of the country’s economy.

This development drew condemnation from the international community, particularly the United Nations, the African Union, and ECOWAS. On July 30, the ECOWAS Chairman, President Bola Tinubu, slammed a battery of sanctions against the junta and gave them a week’s ultimatum to restore Bazoum to office or face military action. ECOWAS also closed all land and air borders between member countries and Niger and suspended all commercial and financial transactions with the junta.

According to a 2023 Nigeria Security Report by Beacon Consulting, a security risk management and intelligence consulting company, the coup brought to the fore the issue of maladministration and its consequences, including military interventions in West Africa. The firm said the development also triggered a discourse on the international relations principle of non-interference in internal matters of sovereign countries and the defence of democracy.

The report further noted that the “political situation in Niger engendered tension within the broader west-African region. Given the ongoing standoff between ECOWAS leadership and the Nigerien military government, there is a realistic possibility of an armed confrontation breaking out in Niger. There are also risks of a humanitarian crisis in Niger, which may impact neighbouring countries.”

On August 3, ECOWAS sent a three-man delegation to the country, which left the following day, failing to secure the return to power of Niger’s elected government. The delegation was led by a former Nigerian Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was scheduled to meet the coup leader, Abdourahamane Tchani, aka Omar, to present the bloc’s demands.

However, the coup leaders on August 3 announced that they were ending the mandates of ambassadors to four countries, as they faced international pressure to restore Bazoum.

On August 4, Nigeria urged the international community to remain resolute in its support for the ECOWAS stance to return the country to democratic rule. The Federal Government expressed concern that the success of the coup in Niger would significantly dampen ECOWAS’ reputation, especially if the country joined the ranks of others that were governed by unconstitutional leaders.

President Tinubu on August 4 wrote to lawmakers in Nigeria, seeking their support for the sanctions and military action. His letter included a reference to a “military build-up and deployment of personnel”.

Meanwhile, Bazoum appealed for an end to the coup, stressing that it reversed the security and prosperity his administration worked hard to achieve since he was elected in 2021. Describing himself as a “hostage” at the time of writing the letter, Bazoum warned of the expansion of military rule in the Sahel region if Niger was to follow in Mali and Burkina Faso’s footsteps.

Beyond Africa, Germany urged continued “mediation efforts”, with a foreign ministry spokesman expressing hopes that such mediation would lead to a “political solution.”

The US then decided that it would halt some of its aid programs in Niger. In a statement, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said, “The US government is pausing certain foreign assistance programmes benefiting the government of Niger.”

On August 7, the junta similarly denied the Acting United States Deputy Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, access to the coup leader and Bazoum, who was being held in the presidential palace.

Also, plans by a joint UN, AU, and ECOWAS delegation to visit Niamey on August 8 were aborted after the coup leaders said they were unavailable to meet with the mission.

On August 8, Nigeria presidential spokesman, Ajuri Ngelale, told journalists in Abuja that more sanctions had been imposed on individuals and entities relating to the military junta.

The new sanctions imposed by the Central Bank of Nigeria will prevent Nigerien banks from carrying out financial transactions with their Nigerian counterparts. The Federal Government also closed Nigeria’s borders with Niger and prevented the transportation of goods from Nigerian ports to the country.

In their reaction, the coup leaders closed their country’s airspace until further notice, citing the threat of military intervention from their neighbours. On August 10, the West African bloc approved military intervention in Niger “as soon as possible” to remove its military rulers.

This is not the first time ECOWAS would deploy military forces to restore democracy in its region. In 1989, former Liberian President Charles Taylor led a militia against the country’s government which led to the outbreak of a civil war. ECOWAS, through its Monitoring Group, made a move to intervene in 1990. The group moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1997 and restored the elected government of Ahmed Kabbah overthrown by Johnny Koroma in a military coup. A 2012 coup in Mali initiated the intervention of troops mostly from Nigeria and a host of other West African countries, including Ivory Coast, Niger and Burkina Faso. The most recent intervention was in 2017, led by Senegal in The Gambia to force out Yahya Jammel, who refused to concede defeat to Adama Barrow in the 2016 election.

After weeks of resisting diplomatic overtures from the United Nations, AU, ECOWAS and the United States, the junta finally agreed to talks with the regional body to resolve the political crisis in the Sahel country. The positive signal from the military leaders followed a meeting with a group of Nigerian Islamic clerics in Niamey on August 12.

The Ulammas, led by Sheik Bala Lau, met with the coup leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, for several hours where they deliberated on all the issues including the demand by ECOWAS leaders that Bazoum be reinstated. The junta expressed bitterness at sanctions imposed on Niger, saying the sub-regional leaders never bothered to hear from them.

The newly appointed Prime Minister, Ali Zeine, confirmed that the junta was ready for a dialogue, expressing hope that the talks with ECOWAS would take place in the next few days.

Zeine said, “We have agreed and the leader of our country has given the green light for dialogue. They will now go back and inform the Nigerian President what they have heard from us. We hope they (ECOWAS) will come to meet us in the coming days to discuss how the sanctions imposed against us will be lifted.”

Unfortunately, On August 12, the ECOWAS Parliament splintered over the steps to be taken to address the Niger conundrum. Twenty-two parliamentarians took part in a virtual extraordinary meeting to discuss the political crisis in the country. While some of the parliament spoke in support of dialogue and diplomacy, others called for actions that would stem the rise in military government within the region.

Furthermore, ECOWAS learnt of the attempts to bring charges of high treason against Bazoum. It condemned the move as it represented yet another form of provocation and contradicted the reported willingness of the junta to restore constitutional order through peaceful means.

On August 17, ECOWAS troops pledged readiness to participate in a standby force that could restore civil rule in Niger should diplomatic efforts to reverse the coup failed. All member states, except those under military rule and Cape Verde, pledged to participate in the standby force at a meeting in Accra, Ghana’s capital.

This did not go well with the military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, as they called ECOWAS’s bluff, saying an armed intervention in Niger would be met with force. Guinea also sided with the putschists. All three countries plus Niger are suspended from ECOWAS and form part of a military-led belt spanning Africa’s Sahel from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east.

On August 19, Burkina Faso and Mali deployed warplanes in Niger Republic following ECOWAS’ possible armed intervention to restore democracy in the Niger Republic. The same day, the ECOWAS-led delegation embarked on another trip to Niamey. The delegation met with Prime Minister Zeine who received them at the airport and led them to the presidential palace. They met with Tchiani, and his team for about 90 minutes and later Bazoum.

After the ECOWAS delegation meeting, the head of the military junta, Tiani, said he would relinquish power within three years and warned that any intervention by foreign forces would not be a walk in the park. Responding, ECOWAS rejected the Niger junta’s three-year power transition plan.

Furthermore, on August 21, the AU suspended Niger from all its activities. In a communiqué, the union noted that the decision followed the failure of the junta to hand over power to Bazoum.

As ECOWAS considers more stringent sanctions, including military intervention against the junta, there have been widespread calls on the regional body to tread with caution. Stakeholders urged President Tinubu to explore more diplomatic options.

A group of Concern Citizens in an open letter to Tinubu lamented that the sanctions on Niger by ECOWAS could paint Nigeria in a negative light as an agent of France and the United States. The group, consisting of a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega, and 12 prominent Nigerians, noted that the cutting off of electricity supply to Niger, breaking longstanding treaty obligation, might ultimately harm the country’s national interest, especially from the perspective of the Kandadji dam currently under construction by the Nigerien government.

They also explained that “the current security challenges around the Boko Haram insurgency, farmer-herder conflicts, banditry and mass kidnapping might all be exacerbated as the flow of arms, violent extremism and armed banditry spread and deepen in our sub-region.

“Nigeria has a serious humanitarian crisis, with millions of internally displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of refugees including in Niger. It is important to prevent the worsening of the humanitarian crisis.”

Speaking with Saturday PUNCH, a retired Nigerian Ambassador, Rasheed Akinkuolie, noted that ECOWAS had already declared war on Niger with the sanctions.

Akinkuolie said, “ECOWAS has already declared economic war on the military junta in Niger Republic by closing the border and cutting electricity supply to the country. There are now over 1000 heavy-duty trucks at the border with perishable and other goods that cannot enter or leave Niger.

“The junta will not be able to pay soldiers and civil servants, with the freezing of the accounts of the government. The severe effects of these and other sanctions are already being felt in Niamey. The junta has described the sanctions as humiliating and inhuman. This may have influenced their desire to dialogue with ECOWAS.”

The retired diplomat stated that other stringent measures might need to be imposed on the junta if the talks did not meet the demands of ECOWAS.

On why the Niger President should not be removed, he said, “The attacks by Tuaregs, Arabs and Berber tribes reduced when President Bazoum, who is from the minority Arab tribe, was elected and now with his forcible removal, the terror attacks have resumed again.

“An army base was attacked with casualties a few days ago after a former rebel leader and Minister of Tourism in Niger, Rhissa AG Boula, threatened to resume fighting to restore Bazoum to power.

“The objective should be the removal of the junta from power by several means, other than the use of the military. Another palace military coup may be instigated to remove the junta and restore constitutional order. There was such precedent in 1999 when Bare Mainassara was killed by his guards to restore constitutional order to the country.”

A former Nigerian Ambassador to Angola, Folorunsho Otukoya, said leaders who dragged their nations into unnecessary war exposed themselves to a condition threatening their political power retention.

Otukoya stated, “The way Tinubu is handling the coup matter is very terrible. He is forgetting the pipeline passing through Niger to Morocco. He is also forgetting the high number of refugees. He needs to have a rethink.”

Exploring the security implications, a security expert, Chidi Omeje, said it was multidimensional.

Omeje explained, “The consequences are multi-dimensional. ECOWAS will terrorise the territorial integrity of Niger Republic because it is an independent country and they have the right to determine how to redeem themselves from the pain of bad governance and poor leadership.

“ECOWAS has to tell the world whether they have the powers to tell the Nigeriens how to live their lives because the concept of democracy is really alien to them. The man that ECOWAS is trying to protect has led the people of Niger astray.

“ECOWAS is made up of countries and Nigeria, being the leader in the sub-region, at the end of the day will bear the brunt of ECOWAS efforts. Nigeria will contribute most of the troops and bear the cost of the war that will eventually erupt. If ECOWAS attacks the Nigerien territory, the junta will have no other option than to react and don’t forget that ECOWAS will be going to that exercise as a divided house as Burkina Faso and Mali have opted to be on the side of the coupists.

“Any military intervention in Niger will lead to a serious humanitarian crisis along that corridor.  Nigeria has about six to seven states bordering Niger Republic and Nigeria will find it difficult to contain the influx of refugees that will troop from Niger to Nigeria. War is a costly venture and at the end of the day, the cost will be passed to Nigeria.”

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