Socio-economic ties apply handbrakes on ECOWAS move in Niger

Niger Coup

This video frame grab image obtained by AFP from ORTN - Télé Sahel on July 28, 2023, shows General Abdourahamane Tchiani, Niger’s new strongman.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

On the day the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to activate its standby force as a last resort to restore constitutional order in Niger, the junta in Niamey formed a new government.

That wasn't the only act of defiance since Niger fell to the coup plotters.  It has since appointed Mr Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as prime minister, who has appointed military generals to key positions in his cabinet within the new ruling National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), a sign that the military have established themselves as the new sheriffs in town.

This may have come as a slap in the face to ECOWAS, which has traditionally acted swiftly and decisively against illegal power grabs in a region where they are commonplace.

But Nigerian President Ahmed Tinubu's warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears. This week, the African Union weighed in on the issue. A communiqué from the African Union's Peace and Security Council, of which Nigeria is a member, said it would first study the implications of such an intervention before endorsing it.

The Council said it "takes note of the decision by ECOWAS to deploy a standby force and requests the AU Commission to undertake an assessment of the economic, social and security implications of the deployment of a standby force in Niger and to report back to the Council".

Chaired by Burundi, the 15-member Council also includes Cameroon, Djibouti, Morocco, Namibia, Congo-Brazzaville, Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

But it is Nigeria, the current chair of ECOWAS, that has made the biggest threats. Tinubu was sworn in in May this year, and from his inaugural speech in Abuja, he has breathed fire on any coup plotters.

In Niger, however, ECOWAS sanctions, a one-week deadline to return to constitutional order and an order to release President Mohamed Bazoum have all been defied in Niamey. This week, Tinubu suggested that diplomacy could resolve the issue, an apparent climb-down from his earlier tough stance. The AU also appeared to back down, calling for Bazoum's release rather than insisting on his return to power. However, the Council said that the military should have no role in civilian government.

But there may be other undercurrents driving this slowdown. ECOWAS said that alongside the plan to deploy the force, the regional bloc would continue to advocate diplomacy and dialogue, as well as serious discussions with all parties involved to restore constitutional rule in Niger.

"In reaffirming our unwavering commitment to democracy, human rights and the well-being of the people of Niger, it is crucial that we prioritise diplomatic negotiations and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach," said Omar Alieu Touray, President of ECOWAS.

"It is our duty to exhaust all avenues of engagement to ensure a speedy return to constitutional governance in Niger... More specifically, as leaders of our respective nations, we must recognise that the political crisis in Niger not only poses a threat to the stability of the nation, but also has far-reaching implications for the entire West African region.

But an earlier ECOWAS delegation returned empty-handed. Then Nigeria sent a group of religious scholars who managed to get the junta's side of the story. They were due to return this Friday.

Nigeria, the largest contributor to the ECOWAS budget, and Niger share a long border, some 1300 kilometres. Their people share a language, culture and religion, and the capital, Niamey, is closer to Nigeria than even the remotest parts of the country. This proximity could act as a brake on any military intervention.

The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) has called on ECOWAS to drop its tough stance against Niger. The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar III, returned on 9 August from Niamey, where he had met with the junta and issued the advisory.

He argued that Nigerians and Nigeriens share a common history and borders, and warned that tightening sanctions against Niger would have negative socio-economic consequences for Nigerians.

"It is well known that such economic sanctions are counterproductive and eventually end in futility. 

Nigerian Muslim leaders, led by Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, also met with Tinubu at the State House, Abuja, to plead for an amicable solution to the political crisis.

Sheikh Bala Lau said the Muslims would find a lasting and peaceful solution in neighbouring Niger Republic.

Meanwhile, Niger's junta is consolidating its legitimacy. As well as dozens of civilian demonstrations in support, the junta in the French-speaking West African country with a long history of coups has received the blessing of its fellow military governments in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea, now colloquially known as the Rogue Three.

The junta may also have secured the backing of other external entities, including Russia's Wagner mercenaries, said Karim Manuel, Middle East and Africa analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Mr Manuel said sanctions against Niger should be reduced as they are not only hurting Niger but also ECOWAS member states due to regional linkages and interdependencies.

Some of the sanctions being enforced are the closure of land and air borders, the seizure of Niger's assets and property in ECOWAS financial institutions, and the recent directive to sanction citizens who support the coup.

Prof Akin Olofin, convener of the People's Redemption Organisation, a Nigerian NGO, said the junta's threats and formation of a government may not have prompted ECOWAS to back down. Instead, it was a concern for peace in the neighbouring countries.

"Although ECOWAS has a history of violent interventions to restore peace in some member countries, the case of Niger cannot be treated in isolation from recent events in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea".

ECOWAS often deploys the military through the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), an intervention force as defined in Article 21 of the protocol.

The bloc intervened in Mali in 1990 following a coup. It intervened in Sierra Leone in 1997, in Guinea-Bissau in 1998 after an attempted coup, in Côte d'Ivoire in 2003 to complement UN and French troops, and in 2013 sent 3,500 troops to restore peace in Liberia. It intervened to prevent a coup in Mali in 2012 and helped force Yahya Jammeh to concede defeat in Gambia in 2017 after losing to Adama Barrow. Nigerian troops have been an integral part of all these missions.