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Niger coup: why an Ecowas-led military intervention is unlikely

Men in military uniform wave at a large crowd in a stadium
Niger’s coup leaders waving at a crowd of supporters in Niamey on August 6, 2023. Balima Boureima/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hopes are fading for a quick resolution of Niger’s coup or the potential use of force by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to free Nigerien president Mohammed Bazoum and restore him to power.

Ecowas leaders gave the Nigerien military junta an ultimatum to cede power within seven days of 30 July or face a military intervention.

The deadline of 6 August came and went, and the putschists remained. Ecowas meets again on 10 August to discuss the situation in Niger. However, hopes of a Nigeria-led Ecowas military intervention in Niger now appears dim.

The first indication that it would be difficult to immediately restore democracy in the country surfaced when demonstrations in support of the coup started.

An attack on the French embassy in Niamey was followed by a daily protest in support of the coup. The size of the protest increased daily.

Anti-France sentiments also increased, with more people supporting the junta.

Niger shares a border with seven countries in the region, four of which are members of Ecowas. Of those four, Mali and Burkina Faso have been suspended due to similar coups d'etat.

Both countries have threatened to support Niger if Ecowas tries to use force. The remaining two countries in the bloc bordering Niger are Nigeria and Benin. Outside Ecowas, Chad and Algeria have both ruled out participating in any military action and Libya has its own challenges.

The likelihood of a military intervention further diminished when Nigerian legislators rejected the idea. They argued for the use of “other means” than force. Nigeria is the largest country in the Ecowas bloc and principal financier of the bloc.

It will be difficult for Ecowas to carry out military intervention without the full support of Nigeria. As a scholar of politics and international relations I have researched the implications of foreign military bases in Niger. I have also previously analysed the role Nigeria plays in regional organisations such as Ecowas and the Multinational Joint Taskforce in the region.

My view is that the unwillingness of Nigeria’s politicians to support military intervention, coupled with growing local support for the junta in Niger, will make the use of force almost impossible. This leaves Ecowas with little or no option than to pursue a diplomatic resolution.

Why military intervention is unlikely

There are three main reasons why the use of force is becoming more unlikely.

First, the increasing popularity of the putschists in the country is a cause for concern. The growth of protests in support of the coup is an indication of a wider acceptance than previously envisaged.

Hundreds of youths joined military personnel to stand guard at the entrance to Niamey. Some of these youths vowed to join the military to fight any incursion.

Second, politicians in Nigeria and Ghana fear that any military intervention would result in human catastrophe, which would further destabilise the region. Politicians from Nigeria argue that any war in Niger will have a serious impact on northern Nigeria, a region that is already strained by insurgency.

Apart from Islamist terror organisation, Boko Haram, which has ravaged the north-eastern part of the country, clashes between farmers and pastoralists have also destabilised other parts of northern Nigeria.

Seven Nigerian states share borders with Niger. An attack on Niger would lead to a large influx of refugees into Nigeria. This has created anxiety in northern Nigeria. President Bola Tinubu, who took office only recently, will find it difficult to ignore the senators from the region who rejected any military intervention.

Third, Niger has fought terrorism in the region and has been a reliable partner. The country is a member of the Multinational Joint Task Force and the G5 Sahel, two key organisations tasked with countering terrorism and fighting trafficking in the region.

A military intervention in Niger which could result in a full blown war would embolden terrorist groups. It will also result in soldiers previously fighting side by side against terrorist groups now fighting against each other.

With Islamic State West Africa Province, an Isis affiliate, already operating in the region, an attack on Niger could create a situation similar to what happened in Syria. Isis took advantage of the fighting in Syria to establish a caliphate in 2014.

Way forward

Since military intervention to restore democracy in Niger is unlikely, diplomacy remains the only solution.

The de facto leader General Abdourahamane Tiani was on the verge of being removed as leader of the presidential guard before the coup d'etat. Many high-ranking military officers in the country are involved in the mutiny and it is almost impossible they will be able to work with Bazoum again. They could be tried for treason, which is punishable by death in Niger.

As I have explained elsewhere, the mutiny was partly a result of the large presence of foreign military troops in the country. It has further weakened the relationship between the Nigerien military and France.

The military junta has cancelled military cooperation with France.

If Bazoum is released and restored as president, he will have to remove several military leaders who participated in the coup or renegotiate Niger’s military alliance with France. Both options are fraught with difficulties.

The most likely diplomatic option is for Ecowas to negotiate a short transition window with the military junta. This will include a quick return to democratic rule.

This will calm the tension and give some assurance to partners within and outside the region. With the level of support the junta has received from the Nigerien public and outside the country, Ecowas negotiators must be open to making concessions.

Third party countries with lower stakes in Niger must lead these negotiations and France must be willing to change its relationship with the country to one of mutual benefit. At the moment, Nigeriens see France as an exploiter and are keen to end their long-held relationship.

In all, there’s no easy solution to the impasse in Niger.

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