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Why military intervention in Niger could be catastrophic for everyone

August 10, 2023 at 8:02 am

Coup supporters gather to stage a demonstration to protest the decision of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries to sanction Niger and to support the army, in Niamey, Niger on August 3, 2023 [Balima Boureima/Anadolu Agency]

The 26 July military takeover in Niger appears to be part of a trend sweeping through the African Sahel that started a few years ago in Mali before spreading through the region. What is unique about it is the speedy response of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Instead of giving diplomacy a chance to solve the problem, the organisation miscalculated and took a hardline approach by issuing an ultimatum to the new military leaders in Niger to immediately restore the President Mohamed Bazoum or face military intervention to return him to power by force.

Most observers believe ECOWAS, unwisely, jumped into the unknown and put itself in a difficult position which might not even be negotiable on its merits since it offers nothing to the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP).

Many believe ECOWAS took such a position, among other reasons, because its current head happened to be President of Nigeria Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Tinubu appeared to have rushed into action with little consideration for the consequences. He has recently done the same when, in his inaugural speech last May, he announced the end of fuel subsidies in a country where millions of people cannot afford the cost of unsubsidised fuel. His decision caused shockwaves to millions of people as prices of almost everything immediately shot up.

However, rushing to action in Niger, could prove a long term costly decision. It might restore the deposed president but will certainly have detrimental outcomes for Niger and the entire Sahel region which already lacks stability and faces serious security challenges.

Burkina Faso and Mali, two of Niger’s neighbours and ECOWAS members, rejected the organisation’s threats, aligning themselves with the newly formed CNSP in Niamey and threatening the very unity of the group. Algeria and Chad, which are not ECOWAS members but remain important regional countries, have already rejected any military intervention in Niger.

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Nigeria, the biggest country in ECOWAS with the most resourceful military establishment, is expected to furnish the bulk of any military action in Niger including manpower. However, for President Tinubu to deploy troops into his northern neighbour, he needs legislative backing. On 6 August, his Senate rejected the move with its leader, Godswill Akpabio, throwing the hot potato back into ECOWAS’ parliament asking it to find a solution to “resolve this logjam as soon as possible”. ECOWAS parliamentarians are yet to meet to debate the matter and it is very unlikely they will do so any time soon. Also, each individual Member State will also require some kind of legislation to participate in any military action. None have done so yet, making the one week deadline, which has already passed, unrealistic.

The legality of any military intervention, under international law, is also questionable. While the United Nations chief has condemned the coup in Niger, it does not mean all member states agree with him. If the UN is to authorise the use of force; such authorisation will have to come from the Security Council where permanent members Russia and China are likely to veto such a resolution.

President Tinubu as well as ECOWAS have both goofed on this one. Northern Nigeria’s influential Muslim clerics accused the president of acting at the “behest of global politicking.” The clerics are clearly referring to the Western-Russian competition in Africa as both sides are vying for influence in light of the war in Ukraine. Russia’s Wagner group is already operating in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya. Marching on Niger will make Wagner, now under full Moscow control, an attractive partner for the new authorities in Niger as manifested by the appearance of Russian flags in mass rallies supporting CNSP in Niamey.

The prospect of Russia gaining a foothold in Niger is terrifying to the West which, partly, explains why the Europeans and Americans are rallying behind ECOWAS’ confrontational position.

Niger is not just any neighbour to Nigeria, it is considered an extension of its northern region which is facing its own unrest and terror threats. Nigeria’s Kanem Bomu, Adamawa, Bauchi and Sardauna regions share ethnicity, religion and deep cultural ties with Niger to the north. Any military action across the borders will certainly backfire within Nigeria itself with potentials for far reaching repercussions in the wider region while sanctions, for example, will hurt the common man and help  increase smuggling.

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Landlocked Niger is situated almost in the middle of the Sahel region neighbouring already unstable Libya, Mali and Burkina Faso. Any military action there will lead to further disturbances in those countries and likely create across border mass migration of civilians fueling people trafficking towards Libya as a gateway to Europe. Such an environment is perfect for terror organisations already active in the Sahel including Daesh and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Many Sahel countries still blame the Western intervention in Libya in 2011 that killed their long time ally the late Colonel Gaddafi, plunging Libya into chaos and making it a weapons smuggling hub and safe haven for terrorists. Mali faced its first armed conflict, eventually leading to the military coup of 2012, as a direct consequence of what happened in Libya.

The Europeans in general, and France in particular, as well as the United States all seem to support ECOWAS out of fear of a greater Russian presence in the area despite camouflaging that support as a matter of principle in support of democracy in Africa—remember that intervention in Libya was also disguised as support for democracy.

Military coups in Africa, historically, have never been reversed but are removed by counter coups which do not always guarantee the return of deposed presidents nor smooth transition to an honest constitutional based multi party system open to fair competition; Niger will not be the exception.

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ECOWAS is to meet in Nigeria today but disagreements exist, making any consensus less likely. The US, too, appears to be softening its language after its envoy, Victoria Nuland, visited Niger but failed to convince CNSP to give up power. She told reporters that the leaders in Niamey are adamant in proceeding with their plans and restoring former President Buazom is out of the question. Her boss, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reiterated his, now, classical line about the situation by saying that the US will suspend all financial assistance while his spokesman said that a “window” of opportunity is still open to reverse the situation.

Any military action in Niger will be counterproductive and will cause more harm than good. Military coups in Africa are certainly a problem but reversing them by force is more problematic.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.