It’s been over three weeks since the military junta led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani sacked the administration of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger Republic – our next door neighbor – on July 26. During the period, leaders and heads of governments in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have held two extra-ordinary summits in Abuja to agree on what to do next, especially defending democracy in the sub-region.
Bazoum and his family have been under house arrest since the Presidential Guard launched the coup. No one is sure of Bazoum’s fate but it has been reported that he is held under inhumane conditions. Bazoum’s daughter, Zazia, 34, who was on holiday in France when her father was overthrown, told The Guardian of London that electricity supply to the presidential residence was cut off. They also don’t have clean water, and their gas oven is running out of fuel, she said.
If anything, the military junta is likely to infringe on Bazoum’s human rights. For the avoidance of doubt, military coups in the region have not helped anyone; instead, they are a bloody waste of time and plundering of resources. They inflict more pain on the people, retard their progress and increase multi-dimensional poverty.
This explains why the international community condemned the coup in Niger. ECOWAS, the United States, the European Union, the UN and the Africa Union have all spoken with one voice: this coup is unacceptable.
But observers are not surprised neither are they impressed that Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea declared support for the Nigerien junta – they are birds of the same feather. The Interim President of Mali, Colonel Assimi Goita, has been in charge since the night of May 24, 2021. Elections that were supposed to hold last year were suspended by Goita. Who can challenge the military strongman after announcing that the transition to democracy will be delayed for two years?
In the case of Burkina Faso, the story is not different. On September 30, 2022, a coup d’état that removed Interim President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba took place, and he was replaced by Captain Ibrahim Traore as the new interim leader. Damiba who was also the beneficiary of a military takeover eight months earlier, was sacked over his alleged inability to deal with the “security situation” in the country.
President Alpha Conde of Guinea was captured in the capital Conakry by the country’s armed forces in a military coup on September 5, 2021. Special Forces commander, Mamady Doumbouya, released a broadcast on television announcing the dissolution of the constitution and government.
Even in Sierra Leone, a coup attempt was foiled recently. If we look at the evolving playbook of instability and military takeovers in the West African sub-region, Chad will not be exempted for its own self-inflicted wounds ranging from repression of dissent, food insecurity, humanitarian crisis, corruption, violence and endemic poverty.
The seed of instability was planted by Chadian President Idriss Deby who died on April 20, 2021 in a military action while commanding troops in the Northern Chad offensive. He was both politician and military officer, and he became president of the country in 1990. He was succeeded by his son, Mahamat, a four-star general.
On the UNDP’s Human Development Index, Chad is ranked miserably at 187th out of 189 countries. This is a country that links central and western Africa with Sudan and the Maghreb. Isn’t it a shame that most countries on the west coast of Africa do not appreciate what they have in terms of strategic locations and the resources that they are endowed with?
Suddenly, ECOWAS believes the disturbing pattern of coups must end, but how does the regional body intend to go about it? Interestingly, all the so-called interim leaders in the Francophone coup-prone countries with outdated one-way allegiance to France cite the same reasons for staging coup d’états: widespread insecurity, electoral malpractices, corruption and bad governance.
As the Chairman of ECOWAS, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is wearing two caps, and he must have experienced awkward moments in deciding the course of action with his colleagues. The seven states in Northern Nigeria bordering Niger whom he hosted in Aso Villa are opposed to any act of aggression.
This position is similarly canvassed by opinion leaders and other stakeholders from that section of the country. They see Nigeriens as their kith and kin with whom they have shared a common ancestry and heritage over several decades.
The other matter is that the Nigerian Senate turned down President Tinubu’s request to use military force in Niger. It is evident that the optics do not favour war that could escalate, in spite of the bluff from the military junta in Niamey.
The dilemma of ECOWAS is that the initial ultimatum for the military junta in Niger to restore constitutional order and bring back Bazoum as the country’s leader within seven days was hasty and wrong-headed; it was not a strategic decision.
With the military leaders in Niger digging in and forming a government, they have sent a strong message to ECOWAS that they mean business.
At the second ECOWAS meeting in Abuja after the ultimatum lapsed, President Bola Tinubu explained that the regional body would explore all diplomatic means to engage the Nigerien junta, adding that the use of force should not be ruled out.
However, military intervention in Niger by ECOWAS has been trailed by unpopular sentiments in Nigeria and Niger. Some analysts believe it is a face-saving gesture by ECOWAS leaders. But the military junta is over-reaching itself by snubbing emissaries from Nigeria. It is certainly not a good idea and it is in their best interest to embrace dialogue and discuss a democratic order.
But who will pay for the military confrontation in Niger? Wars cost money and Nigeria is not in a position economically to play any “big-brother” role in the sub-region. In terms of military might, Nigeria is way ahead of Niger and other countries in the sub-region but it is important to note that it is ECOWAS – not Nigeria – that has a dog in the fight.
Why is Alassane Quattara, the President of Cote d’Ivoire, asking for the use of force against Niger instead of pushing for a diplomatic resolution? Quattara has been in office since December 4, 2010 and if he did not engineer a constitutional amendment in 2016 that paved the way for his third term, his two-term limit of five years each would have ended three years ago.
Quattara described those behind the coup in Niger as “terrorists,” but he has no moral authority to speak on the crisis in Niger. Coup plotters point to sit-tight leaders like him as the reason for their military interventions.
As we have seen in the last three years, such military actions instigate political violence and armed conflict in the sub-region. The Ivorian president must admit that he abused constitutional democracy in his country and apologise to his people.
Going forward, ECOWAS should be clear about their next line of action. Are they pursuing dialogue and diplomacy or the use of force? What is the “standby force” all about? While I concede that ECOWAS should continue to defend democracy and promote peaceful resolutions as much as possible where there are conflicts, the body should avoid war and continue to apply sanctions on Niger and force the junta to the negotiation table.
The mere fact that the USA, Russia and France have boots on the ground in Niger is a clear indication that a “proxy” war is inevitable. These countries, as always, would protect their strategic interests in Niger and other countries where they have presence.
If coup d’états are becoming fashionable in West Africa with “interim presidents” that refuse to leave office, shouldn’t we be worried about the coup in Niger that is in our backyard? Is that why ECOWAS is considering a military option? Is President Tinubu also inclined to go to war to teach the military junta a lesson?
As we search for answers to these questions, there are useful lessons that we can learn from the Russia-Ukraine war that has dragged on for 18 months with significant casualties on both sides and avoidable humanitarian crisis before we embark on a military action in Niger.