International Politics of the 2023 Coup d’État in Niger Republic: Consequences of a Weakened ECOWAS


Bola A. Akinterinwa 

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is killing itself softly with its decision to use military force to restore the ousted President of Niger, Mr Mohammed Bazoum on Saturday, 26th July, 2023. The ECOWAS has resolved to fight tooth and nail any unconstitutional change of government in the West African region, but consciously or otherwise completely ignoring the domestic dynamics of the unconstitutional changes. Several countries are opposed to the ECOWAS decision. Mali, Burkina Faso, Burkina Faso and Guinea (Conakry) were not carried along in the intervention decision processes. They complained of not having been informed about political developments in Niger Republic and have indicated that any attack on the coupists in Niger are also an attack on them.

In fact, the Nigériens have said that they are prepared to defend their sovereignty as they now see Nigeria as unfriendly. This partly explains the reason for inclusion of Nigeria on the list of countries with which Niger has strained diplomatic ties. Others are Togo, France, and the United States. This makes difficult the lines of communications with the unconstitutional government of Niger Republic.

In Nigeria, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT), as ECOWAS Chairperson and President of Nigeria, has announced some sanctions, including military intervention, against the coupists. However, the opposition to the use of military force to restore President Bazoum is stiff. The Senate rejected PBAT’s request of Friday, 4th August, 2023 for approval to deploy Nigerian troops to Niger. The Northern Senators Forum has vehemently also opposed the use of military force in addressing the problem. Popular opinion has it that it is always better to jaw-jaw than war-war. What will PBAT do? Should he listen to Nigerians over whom he is presiding or to the ECOWAS? Should he listen to the advice of the great powers who have also advised PBAT to deploy military troops to Niger in the strong belief that it is the only option that can bring about the restoration of the Bazoum administration? Many European countries want military intervention but the Community citizens of the ECOWAS are against. Can international politics dictate the direction of the crisis in Niger Republic?

International Politics

To begin at the ECOWAS regional level, the community is seriously divided against itself regionally and internationally. The ECOWAS is comprised of fifteen members. Nine of the fifteen members are Francophone. Of these nine, three of them, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea (Conakry) support the coupists in Niger. Others have either kept quiet or expressed support for the ECOWAS. One major proponent of ECOWAS military intervention in Niger is the Côte d’Ivoire. President, Alassane Ouattara reportedly spearheaded the efforts that led to the appointment of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria as ECOWAS chairman. 

The issue of recent coups after coups in West and Central Africa is peculiar to Francophone Africa, and particularly Francophone West Africa. Francophone West Africa has played host to five coups recorded in the past two years of which two occurred in Mali, in 2020 and 2021. The other two occurred in Burkina Faso and Guinea (Conakry) in 2021. The latest coup is the July 26, 2023 case of Niger Republic which is currently destabilising the region. The sixth coup, but which is hardly so acknowledged, is the Chadian unconstitutional change of Government in 2022. President Idris Deby died in the war front and his son, Mahamat, was installed by the military as the successor president contrarily to Chad’s constitutional provisions.

In this regard, countries which have a sort of friendlier relationship with France, have taken side with France, and by implication, supporting the ECOWAS. Chad, though not part of the ECOWAS, supports immediate return to constitutional order. With the exception of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau, all other Francophone West African States can be said to be in support of the ECOWAS. However, this support has been seriously challenged by ECOWAS military weakness, and increasing opposition to the use of force to return Niger to constitutional order.

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) wants the ECOWAS to use force, not only to restore President Bazoum but particularly to prevent the Wagner mercenaries from taking advantage of the coup to strengthen themselves and Russian presence in Niger. As put by Mr Chris Kwaja, the USIP country manager, ‘we’ve seen the communiqué issued by ECOWAS a few days ago… So we are waiting to see what ECOWAS will do at the end of the ultimatum…[I]f ECOWAS is able to garner the political muscles  to bite hard at this time, it will be sending a very strong signal to whoever is outside the country that is supporting and masterminding what we are seeing.’  More importantly, Mr Chris Kwaja says ‘the ECOWAS communiqué that was released drew attention to the fact that the region does not welcome private military and security contractors. But unfortunately, we don’t have a regional framework for dealing with that and that is a major gap. 

The United States acting Deputy Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, met with Moussa Salaou and three of his colonels, who are the representatives of the junta, in Niamey, on Monday August 7, 2023. She made spirited efforts to convince military leader, Moussa Salaou and three of his colonels, to have permission for a tête-à-tête with Mohammed Bazoum and Abdourahmane Tchiani, on the need to return to constitutional order, but her requests were rejected and therefore to no avail. In the words of Victoria Nuland, the talks with the junta were ‘frank and difficult… [T]hey are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed, and it does not comport with the Constitution of Niger.’ 

Perhaps more interestingly, she not only said that the United States was well committed to a negotiated solution, but also that the United States would be prepared to help in this regard if the coupists would be willing to return to constitutional order. In this regard, there is nothing to suggest that the coupists are ready to dance to the tune of any foreign interventionists as at this time of writing. Even though the United States maintains two military bases in Niger, the use of force directly by them is unlikely. This is why there is much pressure on the ECOWAS to intervene.

Italy and Germany condemned the coup and have advised the ECOWAS to give a fresh ultimatum to the coupists. As hoped by the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, ‘the only path is a diplomatic one. I hope that the ultimatum of the ECOWAS, which expired last night at midnight, will be extended today (Monday 7th August, 2023). A solution must be found. It’s not set that there is no way other than war.

The position of Germany is not different: we support ECOWAS in its mediation efforts, which are still on-going…We hope that these mediation efforts will ultimately lead to success and that constitutional order will be restored in Niger.’ Explained differently, the expiry of the deadline does not imply automatic resort to use of force.   

The European Union has suspended all cooperation activities with Niger Republic: financial assistance, as well as civilian and security cooperation has been suspended. As explained by Peter Stano, the European Commission spokesperson, on Tuesday. August 8, 2023 at a news conference in Brussels, ‘we are not working together with the current illegitimate authorities in Niger… There will be no positive consequences if the military coup is allowed to proceed. We still believe that there is a space, there is a room for mediation efforts. So we will not go beyond and speculate.’ And perhaps more importantly, the ‘European Union is ready to support ECOWAS’s decisions, including the adoption of sanctions,’ Peter Stano also said. The pattern of policy attitude of most European and American countries is peace-keeping but showing support for whatever sanctions to be taken by the ECOWAS. In other words, international responsibility to resolve the crisis has been delegated to the ECOWAS in the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. 

Like the European Union, the United Kingdom has cut aid to Niger and supports the ECOWAS. And like the United States, the United Kingdom has evacuated its diplomatic personnel in Niger. While Nigeria has cut off electricity supply to Niger Republic, Algeria has offered electricity supply to the country at no cost. The implication is that Niger’s dependence on Nigeria for electricity supply will no longer be an issue, especially after the crisis of coup d’état in Niger. And true, Nigeria’s role will be seriously eroded. In fact, with the intervention of Algeria, one of Africa’s B-5 (Big Five), the punishment purportedly meant for the coupists, but which the civil population has to bear, especially in terms of power outage in schools, hospitals, homes, public institutions, has now been neutralised. This cannot but bring shame to an already divided ECOWAS. 

Russia has also given a serious warning to the ECOWAS not to attempt any military intervention in Niger. The coupists have added that, in the event of any military intervention, the ousted president would be immediately killed. Thus, the object of controversy is the ousted president. Will the West come up with a commando style à la Entebbe Raid in Uganda? Will the presidential palace or place of house arrest of the ousted president be monitored by satellite in such a way that President Bazoum can be taken out without military fight with the Nigérien army?

Perhaps what is more interesting to know is why France and the United States are vigorously pushing the ECOWAS, and particularly President Tinubu, to go to war while they are not willing to do the battle. They are only prepared to fund it. Will funding be sufficient in light of the fact that the ECOWAS is militarily weak presently? To what extent will a hurriedly put in place standby force be able to challenge a Niger solidly supported by its people? What about the Russian and Wagner mercenary fighters? Russia is ready to confront the United States and the NATO in Niger. This is what the ECOWAS and Tinubu’s Nigeria have to face but have refused to acknowledge. 

Consequences of a Weakened ECOWAS

It takes few seconds to make a fundamental error, especially by not making haste slowly, by not learning lessons from history, and by playing host to holier-than-thou attitudes in ECOWAS regional politics. But it can take more than days, weeks, months, years, not to say more than decades, to correct the impacts of a fundamental error. In other words, in the event of any military intervention in the Republic of Niger, the ECOWAS, by force of situational necessity, can be weakened to the extent that life can also be taken out of the regional organisation. Consequently, the dynamics of coup-making must first of all be identified and addressed beyond the considerations of unconstitutionality of changes of government.

For instance, how do we explain the fact that it was the Commander of Niger’s Presidential Guard, General Abdou Rahamane Tchian, who led the coup and declared himself the head of the transitional government after ousting President Mohammed Bazoum? Reports have it that General Rahamane Tchian was scheduled to be relieved of his responsibility as Commander of the Presidential Guard on July 27, 2023 and the coup occurred on July 26. Can it not be argued that the coup was in reaction to the intended removal of General Rahamane Tchian? If not, how do we explain palace coups? How do we explain commanders of presidential brigades being used to oust a president that is required to be protected by them? Is it possible to ever have a trusted bodyguard? Can there ever be a bodyguard who is also not interested in becoming a Head of State?  

The unending coups-making in West Africa is a reflection of institutional weakness of the ECOWAS: inability to ensure good governance in Member States; inability to control foreign interferences in the governance of Member States; inability to understand the wishes and complaints of community citizens in the various Member States; inability to apply the African Union’s peer review philosophy to moderate the excesses of elected governments in the region; inability to grow and develop without excessive dependence on the development partners, inability to develop respectable self-identity and personality, etc.

Apart from the cases of use of presidential guards to change elected governments, what about the cases of close confidants to elected presidents? It was Blaise Campaore, a close confidant of Thomas Sankara, who led the coup that killed him on 15 October, 1987 in Burkina Faso. The situation is not different in Egypt. President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by his benefactor and his Chief of Army Staff, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in July 2013. General al-Sisi suspended the constitution, installed himself as the new military leader and then later proclaimed himself the elected ruler of Egypt in May 2014. In the words of Professor Chidi Odinkalu, ‘the African Union, which had previously decided that coup plotters should not use the benefit of their incumbency to confer democratic legitimacy on themselves, quickly embraced General al-Sisi, even making him Chair of their Assembly of Heads of State. With this in mind, can the African Union be said to be serious about the challenges of unconstitutional changes of government? Is this not a more terrible expression of self-indictment and weakness?

Whatever might have been the case, one Yoruba proverbial idiom has it that the enemy is outside and not inside. The problem, the worry, the headache, is within. The enemy outside the house is not as dangerous as the enemy or problem within. It is precisely the elected presidents within the ECOWAS, and the unconstitutional, rigged elections that are fuelling bad governance and, by implication, that are also driving the people to oppose the government. This is a major source of the disputes between the government and the governed and this has naturally and seriously been weakening the ECOWAS. This is one major problem that must now be promptly given attention. There is the need to first identify the internal threats to democratic rule to be able to nip in the bud coup-making in the long run.

A second dynamic that can also weaken the ECOWAS is the issue of the Eurogendfor which is not generally known and hardly spoken of, but which is reported to be collaborating with terrorists in some Francophone African countries allegedly within the framework of maintenance of regional stability and security. The Eurogendfor has an operational concept that ‘police missions in the international crisis management are an essential tool for conflict prevention and enhancement of international stability.’ More important, the Eurogendfor is an ‘operational, pre-organised, robust and rapidly deployable asset, able to perform all police tasks. Eurogendfor can be put mainly at disposal of the EU, the UN, OSCE, NATO, and other international organisations or ad hoc coalitions.’

Most importantly, Eurogenderfor can be asked to restore public security and public order; train, monitor, mentor and advise; engage in security sector reform and humanitarian missions; as well as provide planning capacities. It can operate under a civilian chain of command and under a military chain of command but the circumstances are ‘defined and agreed on a case by case basis considering the scenario, the mission and the force to be deployed.’ In the context of the Niger coup, there are speculations that the Eurogenderfor is already in Niger Republic at the invitation of France. But will it operate as a military or civilian force? The presence of the Eurogenderfor necessarily cannot but weaken the ECOWAS.

A third dynamic is the aggravating impact of the coup in Niger in the West African region. For instance, the coup in Niger has prompted France to classify Mali as belonging to the Red Zone on the continuum of high regional tension. As a result of the classification, the French government has not only suspended the issuance of visas, but has also closed the visa centre and the Capago Call Centre. Besides, the French government advised French citizens that ‘in the current context of strong regional tensions, any trip to Mali are therefore called upon to be extremely vigilant.’ This is an advisory that may not be offensive in conception. Cautioning one’s citizens during cases of tension is common practice in international relations. In fact, the United Kingdom and the United States have so advised their citizens in Niger. But without doubt, cautioning can imply encouraging citizens to quickly avoid areas of possible attack by local people or by the cautioning authorities, hence it can be offensive and therefore not friendly taken by the countries concerned, like Mali.

  In the spirit of reciprocal treatment, the Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has expressed surprise that ‘the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs has classified Mali into the Red Zone on the grounds of supposed “strong regional tensions.” Consequently, Mali has taken the bad end of the stick, considering that France has considered the whole country as a red zone. Mali reciprocated by also suspending until further notice the issuance of visas to French nationals by the diplomatic and consular services of Mali in France.

What is important to also note here is that it is the deepening crisis in Niger Republic that prompted the classification of the whole of Mali into the red zone, and therefore to be avoided. It is also for the same Niger crisis that Mali has reciprocated. As Mali and some other countries have indicated that an attack on the coupists is synonymous with a declaration of war on them. Who will the ECOWAS really be targeting in this case? Will Niger not be a new battle ground for Russo-American politico-militari rivalry? Will all the pro-coupists not unite against the ECOWAS in Niger? The extension of the crisis in Niger to Mali cannot but be another weakening factor for the ECOWAS, meaning that the ECOWAS intervention force will have many and different battle fields to contend with.

At the level of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the consideration of the use of force in Niger as a last resort is a self-suicidal option. There cannot be any good justification for Nigeria to engage in any military intervention in Niger unless in the context of unprovoked aggression and legitimate self-defence. The critical reason is national security. Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari has explained within the framework of his foreign policy concentric circles theory that the innermost circle of Nigeria’s foreign policy should not be narrowly defined and limited to Nigeria. Nigeria’s national security is necessarily intertwined with that of the immediate neighbours and should be defined along with that of her immediate neighbours. Consequently, as our immediate neighbour to the north, any military intervention against Niger or any other Member State of the innermost circle is necessarily an expression of self-aggression that has the great potential to further generate and deepen insecurity in the sub-region. Secondly, military intervention can precipitate the demise of the ECOWAS as the body is not acting unanimously against Niger. It is the countries with vested interests in Niger that are coercing the ECOWAS to intervene. Why should the ECOWAS be coerced and Nigeria would accept to be coerced to undermine Nigeria’s political survival? Nigeria must opt out of any war in Niger. Let France and the United States both of which have military bases in the country do their battle without destroying or destabilising Nigeria.

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