The coup in Niger has the potential to further destabilise the whole of West Africa.
W hen the Nigerian president, Bola Tinubu, was elected as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) on July 10, he asserted that the organisation would no longer be a “toothless bulldog”.
Tinubu insisted that Ecowas would work collectively to combat terrorism and promote democracy in West Africa, explaining:
“We must stand firm on democracy. There is no governance, freedom and rule of law without democracy. We will not accept coup after coup in west Africa again. Democracy is very difficult to manage but it is the best form of government.”
Within a month, however, the democratically elected leader of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown by his own palace guard.
As Tinubu noted when taking on the leadership of Ecowas, coups and counter-coups have become commonplace within the region in recent years. Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso (twice in eight months) have all experienced military takeovers that have ousted their elected governments. Now the same fate has befallen Niger, where the election of Bazoum in April 2021 was considered to be a rare case of successful and democratic transition of power in West Africa.
The coup – which installed the former leader of the presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, as leader – has been roundly condemned by the US, France, the EU and the United Nations. The US, which has had troops in Niger for more than a decade advising the country’s military on counter-terrorism, said it would “take measures” to restore democratic government in the country.
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On July 30, Ecowas issued a seven-day ultimatum vowing to use force to dislodge the junta should they not restore Bazoum to the presidency.
Ecowas has also closed its countries’ borders with Niger, instituted a no-fly zone, and frozen the country’s assets and those of those involved in the coup and their families. In addition, Nigeria has discontinued electricity supplies to Niger, leading to blackouts in its major cities. But the junta has pledged not to back down despite these “inhumane sanctions”.
What is Ecowas?
Ecowas, a 15-member regional group formed in 1975 and comprising mainly former British and French colonies, aims to “promote cooperation and integration” among members in the form of an economic union. Over the years, it has expanded its remit to include a security role.
Ecowas: a community of west African nations. | CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA/SCANTYZER1, CC BY-NC-SA
In 1990, the group’s military wing, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (Ecomog), was deployed in a peacekeeping role in the civil war in Liberia, enjoying initial success but ultimately failing to prevent the outbreak of further hostilities that lasted through most of the 1990s – only ending with the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005.
In neighbouring Sierra Leone, Johnny Paul Koroma, an army major, led a military coup on May 25 1997, overthrowing the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Ecomog troops stationed in Liberia were deployed to restore peace and democracy there, but were unable to prevent a bitter civil war breaking out, requiring intervention from UN peacekeepers and British troops.
In both Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire, Ecowas has again intervened to ensure the democratic transition of power when it appeared that the incumbent leaders would not respect election results.
Stretching military capacity
It remains to be seen whether Ecowas will follow through with its pledge to intervene if Bazoum is not restored to office in Niger. But conditions are very different in the region now from when the organisation successfully led the interventions described above.
West Africa is riddled with violence associated with jihadi terrorism involving Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Boko Haram. There are also regular outbreaks of violence between herders and farmers over land in the face of droughts and scarcity of resources. These issues have stretched the military capacity of Ecowas member states, many of whom have their own problems to deal with.
And then there’s the prospect of the involvement of the Wagner Group. The coup junta is reported to be engaged in discussions with this Russia-backed mercenary army, which has been active across the region. Several countries where the Wagner Group is involved have declared their backing for the coup, rejected the Ecowas sanctions, and pledged support for the coup leaders if Ecowas intervenes militarily.
As in Burkina Faso and Mali, there is also growing anti-French sentiment on the streets of Niger. This is being fuelled by the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has hailed the coup as a blow against colonialism – a message which resonates with many in Niger, where France maintains a 1,500-strong peacekeeping force to combat jihadist terrorism.
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Much has been made by Bazoum’s opponents of his membership of a minority ethnic Arab group, which led to him being dubbed as “foreign” during Niger’s election campaign. His election was also condemned in some quarters as cronyism, as he was the handpicked successor of the outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou. Bazoum’s decision to ban members of his government from having more than one wife has also ruffled powerful feathers.
All these factors will complicate any decision by Ecowas to use force to restore Bazoum to power. But Nigeria, under the leadership of Tinubu, appears determined to take this opportunity to prove that Ecowas still wields muscle in the region.
His chief of staff, General Christopher Musa, has assembled Ecowas defence ministers for a two-day summit in Abuja. Representatives from Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Cote D’Ivoire, Cabo Verde, and Senegal attended, while Niger, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau were not represented.
Meanwhile, Russia and the West – which harbours fears about Moscow’s intentions in the region – are both watching closely to see whether yet another West African country will descend into the pit of instability and violence.