ECOWAS must look beyond the use of force in Niger

Reports that the coup was triggered by rivalries and personal interests offer room for political manoeuvre and constructive dialogue.

The military coup on 26 July that deposed Niger’s elected president Mohamed Bazoum is not the country’s first. It follows a failed attempt after Bazoum’s 2021 election and is the fifth overthrow since Niger’s 1960 independence.

Under coup leader General Abdourrahmane Tchiani, the Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie (CNSP) has assumed power, while Bazoum, who refused to resign, is still being held by the CNSP.

ECOWAS member states, West Africa

ECOWAS member states, West Africa

Source: ISS
(click on the map for the full size image)

On 29 July, the African Union (AU) issued a 15-day ultimatum to the CNSP to ‘restore constitutional authority.’ The next day, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted severe economic and financial sanctions against Niger. It called for the immediate release and reinstatement of Bazoum and gave the CNSP a week to meet its demands, failing which further measures would be taken, including the possible use of force.

ECOWAS’ swift and tough response is commensurate with its zero-tolerance policy on unconstitutional changes of government. Following the recent double coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, and one in Guinea, the overthrow of Niger’s elected government marks the sixth coup in West Africa since 2020. Failure to curtail this latest military takeover may irretrievably damage ECOWAS’ ability to uphold its policy and guide member states towards political stability.

Niger’s coup differs from those in Burkina Faso and Mali, which could also explain ECOWAS’ reaction. The coup leaders linked their actions to ‘the continued deterioration of the security situation, and poor economic and social governance.’ However, security in Niger has been better managed than in the country’s central Sahel neighbours.

ECOWAS’ swift and tough response is commensurate with its zero-tolerance policy on coups

ECOWAS’s ultimatum expired on 6 August without making progress, and the CNSP hasn’t responded favourably to the regional body’s diplomatic overtures. When a high-level West African delegation travelled to Niamey on 2 August, Tchiani refused to receive them. On 7 August, the CNSP indefinitely postponed the visit of a tripartite AU-United Nations-ECOWAS delegation to Niamey, citing safety concerns arising from the widespread anger at economic sanctions.

The CNSP has, meanwhile, consolidated its position within the armed forces and expanded its popular support in urban areas, mostly due to economic sanctions and the threat of external military action. Anti-French sentiment has also driven demonstrations of support for the army.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Senate has called on President Bola Tinubu and ECOWAS heads of state to strengthen diplomatic efforts and lower expectations of Nigeria’s role in a potential military operation. Algeria, an AU heavyweight, condemned the coup but opposed using force, considering the threat this would pose for Niger’s northern neighbour. Chad also expressed its support for a diplomatic solution.

ECOWAS will reconvene on 10 August to decide on the next steps. As it weighs its options, the focus of any actions must be on restoring a stable and governable Niger, capable of tackling violent extremism and other insecurity.

Military intervention could split the defence and security forces, who didn’t all initially support the coup

Military intervention in Niger would be a high-risk endeavour. It could further split the defence and security forces, who didn’t all initially support the coup. The worst-case scenario of a clash between military units was narrowly averted after extensive consultations that led to the 27 July communique from the army general staff endorsing the military takeover.

Equally important is Niger’s ability to govern following a military intervention. The army should be subordinate to a civilian government, but Bazoum’s relationship with parts of the military, and his broader ability to govern, may be questioned if he is reinstated using outside military measures. In Niger and West Africa broadly, the perception that leaders are beholden to external forces is deeply ingrained in public sentiment and undermines government authority.

And, as occurred in The Gambia, an ‘in and out’ military operation appears unrealistic. Even if military action were to succeed, ECOWAS would need to maintain troops in Niger to ensure Bazoum’s safety and his government’s viability. This would fuel perceptions that the government is under external tutelage, and intensify popular hostility towards foreign military forces on Nigerien soil. With the possibility of sustained civilian resistance, the humanitarian consequences, including more refugees and migrant flows, must be factored in.

Even if military action were to succeed, ECOWAS would need to maintain troops in Niger

Meanwhile, Niger’s situation unfolds in a new regional and global political context. There is a growing fault line within ECOWAS, with a de facto coalition of transitional governments comprising Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali. All three rejected ECOWAS measures regarding Niger, with Burkina Faso and Mali warning that any armed action against Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them. Military operations would therefore not have the support that characterised previous ECOWAS interventions, notably in The Gambia.

Crucially, this dynamic is underpinned by a shift in these countries’ strategic alliances towards Russia, amid renewed global great power competition. Niger’s situation has strong geopolitical resonances, with the CNSP terminating the country’s military agreements with France and allegedly seeking Russian group Wagner’s support. Any regional action must avoid playing into these tensions that polarise and destabilise the Sahel and West Africa.

Achieving a stable and governable Niger requires a diplomatic approach that restores constitutional order through dialogue with the CNSP. Reports increasingly suggest the 26 July coup was triggered by political rivalries and personal interests. This may offer room for political manoeuvre and entry points for constructive dialogue.

Djiby Sow, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad

Image: © AFP

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