At a Crossroads: The Delicacy of the Niger situation and its implications for the West African Sub-region
By Imran Darboe
On the 26th of July 2023, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of Niger’s Presidential Guards, orchestrated his country’s fifth military coup since independence in 1960. He detained and later deposed elected president Mohamed Bazoum. The timing of the coup, in light of current political dynamics in the subregion, will certainly have far-reaching consequences beyond the country’s borders.
Niger, up until the coup, had allied with France and the United States, hosting military bases of both nations. However, General Tchiani chose to follow the recent precedent set by the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso by evicting foreign forces, and looks to be shifting allegiance towards Russia, particularly through the mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group.
ECOWAS has issued an ultimatum to the coup leaders to restore former President Bazoum to power or face military action. This stance is not unanimous, however. Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso do not support military intervention in Niger. In fact, Mali and Burkina Faso have pronounced support for Niger, stating that they will consider any attack on Niger as an Act of War.
The coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have all castigated France’s exploitative relationship with their respective countries and claim to have taken the first steps to put a stop to it and other western exploitation.
The Unfolding Drama
The coup means that about a quarter of ECOWAS member states (4 out of 15) are now under military rule, this has influenced the bloc’s urgency in demanding the restoration of President Bazoum. As a countermeasure, economic sanctions have been imposed on Niger by ECOWAS, while western powers have cut aid to the country. The dynamics of the situation since the coup is influence by diverse factors and players, making it a complex situation whose resolution will depend on the interaction of diverse stakeholders involved and diverse interests at stake.
Both the US and France, as well as the African Union support ECOWAS’s stance. This is unsurprising, given the undeniable vested interest the western powers have in safeguarding their strategic interests in the country and sub-region, and the AU’s role in promoting peace, security, and good governance on the continent.
However, the military Juntas in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso have all opposed ECOWAS’s threat of military intervention while internally, there has been widespread support for the coup from Nigeriens. The latest news reports show young Nigeriens have been queuing up to volunteer to support the armed forces in response to the call for civilian auxiliaries in support of the armed forces.
The Regional Effect
Like all their predecessors, there is no doubt that Niger’s coup leaders will prioritize maintaining control and legitimizing their regime. Despite their initial refusal to engage with ECOWAS representatives, they will certainly want to avoid external military intervention while seeking external support (seemingly from Russia) to bolster their position. Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso, given their opposition to ECOWAS threat of force, are also potential sources of support. After all, these countries do not want to set a precedent for ECOWAS intervention after a coup when they themselves are in that position.
Forming alliances with Russia and gaining kindred support from its two neighbours (Mali and Burkina Faso) may be a strategy to stall and split the opposition to their regime and gain it the needed legitimacy to negotiate on strong terms.
However, the likelihood of tangible military support from either neighbouring countries or Russia, given their own challenges, seems improbable. Niger’s three military-led neighbouring countries are facing their own challenges and sanctions which will likely limit their support to vocal denunciations without necessarily committing to military support. Russia is likewise embroiled in its own protracted war with Ukraine and subjected to international sanctions. It is difficult to see (despite its efforts to extract itself from the constriction of sanctions and establish alternative international connections), how Russia will commit to military support to Niger, except perhaps with the role of the Wagner group, which is unlikely to be a game changer.
According to some analysts, ECOWAS’s quick threat of military intervention appears hasty and precarious. Military intervention is both costly, resource wise, and risky in terms of its implications for sub-regional stability. Although ECOWAS may expect logistical and other forms of indirect support from France and the US, this still does not alleviate the risk of sub-regional stability. Thus, the best course of action for the bloc is to continue economic sanctions and international pressure, which may produce enough internal pressure within Niger to weaken the popular support for the Junta and force them to restore constitutional governance.
Thus, given the stakes involved, such pressure leading to a negotiated (and perhaps protracted settlement is more likely. The recent surge of popular support from the Nigerien populace provides the coup leaders with internal legitimacy and in the most recent shift, the Junta has met with an ECOWAS delegation and has announced a three-year transition plan, suggesting a willingness to compromise and an intention to chart a path back to democratic governance, albeit on their terms. These recent overtures towards ECOWAS, combined with the popular backing, complicate potential intervention by external forces. It is crucial for ECOWAS to re-evaluate the merits of military action, factoring in human costs, regional stability, and taking a course that will be perceived as externally dictated.
However, there may also be costs to reneging on its ultimatum and appearing lenient or all bark and no bite, which might embolden other potential coup orchestrators. Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso will see this as an affirmation of their own unconstitutional changes of government and solidify the view among militaries in other ECOWAS countries who have grievances against their governments. This risk of contagion (i.e., the spread of coups as a means to address grievances) will increase if ECOWAS’s stance is perceived as weak. Some experts have suggested that the most at-risk countries to this, given their current socio-economic circumstances, are Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.
Given the coup contagion risk, ECOWAS faces a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it genuinely needs to dissuade military coups in its member states, signalling that coups are not a viable or accepted mechanism for power transfer. On the other hand, an aggressive stance against Niger, given the popular support for the coup there, could be counterproductive, giving credence to the allegations that ECOWAS is acting as a stooge, on the agenda and interests of the US and France, thus inspiring nationalist or anti-ECOWAS sentiments in the other states of the bloc.
Thus, the most viable option is for ECOWAS to opt for a middle-ground approach by maintaining economic pressure but acknowledging the proposed transition in Niger and push for conditions that asserts an authoritative tone and assures a return to democracy. For instance, the bloc could stipulate international oversight, guarantees of a free press, and other democratic checks as non-negotiable terms for throughout the transition phase, thereby establishing the approach as a model for handling such situations.
The need to address root causes as a long term solution
While the immediate situation demands a compromised resolution, it’s imperative to recognize the deeper governance issues that pave the way for the common occurrences of unconstitutional power transfer in the first place. While both the AU and ECOWAS have expressed strong opposition to undemocratic changes of government, years of bad governance, unchecked power, and flouting the rule of law have been the de facto modus of the state parties and political leaders who propound lead these regional institutions. Undoubtedly, the governments of the states suggested as at risk (Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia) are closely watching the situation, and each might bolster its internal security measures. While publicly supporting the ECOWAS stance to discourage similar actions in their territories, behind closed doors, each government is probably seeking assurances or sowing seeds of patronage with potential dissenting groups to mitigate the risk of coups. It should be clear that these age-old short-term tactics are not sustainable and cannot curb grievances beyond a certain point. The real solution is thus radical reforms to the political dynamics on the continent.
In West Africa, post-colonial statehood has largely been marred by coups and political instability for various reasons. While each country has its unique context, the cyclical nature of coups in the subregion points to issues of governance, prolonged rule, and disregard for rule of law as significant factors in triggering them. While factors such as the colonial legacy, ethnic and religious tensions, external interference, and economic dependencies also influence political stability to a certain degree, the root to addressing the effects of all these must start the political systems. If the sub-region is to truly address unconstitutional change of government, constitutionally elected governments must start with addressing the following three epidemics:
- Self-perpetuating Rule
Elected leaders must desist from clinging to power beyond their mandated terms or manipulating electoral processes, to ensure their continued rule does not undermine democratic institutions. Clinging to power has led to democratic backsliding in many African countries, where even if elections continue to occur, they lack genuine competition or fairness. The obsession with self-perpetuating rule has often led to suppression of the opposition and thereby, a lack of political pluralism and avenues for legitimate dissent. While self-perpetuation is usually upheld by systems of patronage that ensure military support for long-standing leaders, over time, as factions develop or priorities shift, it is elements within these military who force a change (case in point Niger), believing that a coup is the only way to enact change.
- Bad Governance
Not only must African leaders desist from the obsession for self-perpetuating rule, one of the most consistent mischiefs of African leaderships has been economic Mismanagement and outright corruption. Most countries in the sub-region have, for the longest time since independence, contended with economic downturns, rising poverty, and escalating unemployment. The recurrent inability to meet fundamental public needs, such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure, is exacerbated by endemic corruption. This combination erodes public confidence, provoking demands for a regime shift. If these demands are not realized through democratic avenues, they eventually manifest through more forceful means such as coups or revolutions like the Arab Spring.
- Disregard for the Rule of Law
Another persistent trend of African leadership that must change, is the eroding of avenues for justice which stems from a chronic disregard for the rule of law. When legal systems appear skewed in favour of the elites and their sycophants, the state’s credibility declines amongst its citizens. African Leaders, in their bid for power retention, often employ tactics such as unlawful detentions, acts of torture and stifling of free speech as tactics, thereby sowing seeds for potential civil unrest or even prompting military interventions under the guise of national duty and saving the public interest.
Consequently, regardless of ECOWAS’s stance in the Niger situation, or the outcome of the entire saga, for West Africa to see a decline in coups, it’s imperative that governments and leaders sincerely tackle these three above-mentioned issues, setting the foundation for a more just and equitable society.
About the Author: Imran Darboe is a Gambian Lawyer and Transitional Justice practitioner. He has previously worked at the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Justice and is currently an Advocacy Specialist working for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).