A test of wills: Can ECOWAS reverse Niger coup and establish a new order?

The Niger coup presents a diplomatic dilemma for the West African bloc whose new leadership is keen to entrench a new democratic order.

Nigeria President Bola Tinubu, second from left, poses with other West Africa leaders after a meeting in Abuja Nigeria, July 30, 2023
Nigeria President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, second from left, poses for a group photograph with other West Africa leaders after a meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, July 30, 2023 [Chinedu Asadu/AP Photo]

Lagos, Nigeria – On July 9, when Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu was appointed chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), he was emphatic that the region which had witnessed five successful coups since 2020, would not tolerate any more.

“We must stand firm on democracy. There is no governance, freedom and rule of law without democracy,” he said.

The first test of that resolve has now come.

Just 15 days after that speech, members of Niger’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum and announced a change of government – the fourth West African country to do so in as many years.

Tinubu swiftly denounced the coup and dispatched a delegation headed by Benin President Patrice Talon to Niamey for mediation. The Nigerian president has also had separate calls on the matter with US Vice President Kamala Harris and other foreign leaders.

On Sunday, he chaired an emergency ECOWAS summit in Abuja that ended with the imposition of a number sanctions, including a no-fly zone over Niger. The bloc also issued a one-week ultimatum to the Abdourahmane Tchiani-led interim military government in Niger to restore constitutional order or risk the possible use of force.

Afterwards, Chadian leader Mahamat Deby was also sent as an envoy of the bloc to Niamey to meet principal actors there.

‘Nigeria is back’

Analysts say Tinubu’s prompt reaction has injected new energy into Nigeria’s geopolitical leadership in Africa after its conspicuous absence since Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure as president between 1999 and 2007.

“With Tinubu’s posture, we can see that Nigeria is back on stage,” Remi Ajibewa, former director of political affairs at the ECOWAS Commission who was also present at the summit, told Al Jazeera.

But ahead of the ECOWAS ultimatum, there are questions about whether Tinubu can stamp his authority like Obasanjo, a former general whose fierce anti-coup stance helped deter coup plotters in Africa.

Since 1990 till date, there have been 43 coups and 41 failed attempts in Africa, according to one count by Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory, SBM Intelligence. The fewest attempts, 13, came in the period between 2000 and 2009, compared with 36 attempts between 2010 and 2019 and then nine attempts since 2020 till date.

ECOWAS has also previously been criticised for not having a strong response to the coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali in recent years.

Within Nigeria, Tinubu’s assertiveness is being perceived as an intent to shore up popularity abroad while he is increasingly unpopular at home.

His victory in the February presidential election is being contested by the two largest opposition parties who cite widespread electoral malpractice and claim he was ineligible to run.

A string of early reforms – including the removal of a popular fuel subsidy – intended to overhaul Africa’s biggest economy has also led to spiralling costs of living.

Consequently, his tough stance as head of ECOWAS is being read as an attempt to bolster his international standing.

“I think he wants to shore up his international credentials and maybe even domestically by being seen to be taking a leading regional role on the Niger issue,” Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at geopolitical advisory Oxford Analytica, said.

There are also concerns about whether the regional bloc can match its threat with action.

Nigeria contributed the highest number of troops to a regional peacekeeping force that intervened in civil wars in the region for more than two decades. The peacekeeping force started with about 3,000 soldiers contributed by five countries before swelling to an estimated 10,000 personnel from six countries.

But internal conflicts within Nigeria’s borders have shrunk the external might of what was once considered one of Africa’s best militaries and by extension, could also affect any similar regional force.

A Nigerian-led intervention in Niger could prove a delicate balancing act for Tinubu, who is still without a cabinet.

“It is two sides: the ability of Tinubu to actually get something done in reality and the ability to seem like he is getting something done, the image management,” Powell said. “And he might be more successful on the image management side.”

The Nigerien transitional military government has already warned against any external intervention. On Wednesday, their counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso warned that they would treat any attempt to restore Bazoum to power militarily as a “declaration of war” against them and it would split ECOWAS.

Military interventions could also be unpopular in Nigeria and possibly lead to protests, warned Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“There is already criticism of the government being so concerned about an external problem when it is seen as slow in responding to the economic and security challenges within the country,” he said.

‘Worsening insurgency’

But there are also concerns that a lack of intervention in Niger may be just as bad.

This July, Omar Touray, head of the ECOWAS Commission told the United Nations that there have been 1,800 “terrorist attacks” in West Africa in the first half of 2023 alone, leading to 4,600 deaths and displacement of 4.5 million people. The situation, Touray added, was “a snippet of the horrendous impact of insecurity”.

In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, continued attacks by armed groups and rising anti-French sentiments have provided an opportunity for military regimes in these former French colonies to delay timelines for return to civilian leadership.

Experts say armed groups have gained more ground in Mali and Burkina Faso despite the coups there and predict a similar trajectory for Niger if the regime remains in place.

“One of Tchiani’s criticism of Bazoum’s approach is his holistic strategy for curtailing insurgency and his involvement in conflict resolution,” Powell told Al Jazeera. “What we are going to see is a more violent military response to the insurgency, which is going to make the insurgency worse.”

A ripple effect

Whatever Tinubu’s intentions, there are also other security considerations for the bloc.

Nigeria shares a 1,609km (1,000-mile) border with Niger which is critical to the security of both countries. In southeast Diffa, close to Nigeria’s northwest and northeast regions where armed groups have long been active, including Boko Haram, insecurity is still rampant. In Tchiani’s home region, the volatile Tillaberi in western Niger near the border with Burkina Faso, there has been an uptick in attacks by bandit gangs.

Further instability in Niger, which is the only buffer with crisis-laden Libya, could also lead to a ripple effect for Nigeria, experts say.

Niger is also a partner in the Nigeria-led joint force fighting armed groups in the Lake Chad region so a Nigeria-coordinated military response in Niger could also blunt the efficiency of that unit.

“That [confrontation] will reduce pressure on jihadists and bandits in the Lake Chad area and create room for the expansion of their operation. It is neither in the interest of either Nigeria or Niger to engage in that kind of military confrontation,” ICG’s Obasi said.

A defining test

ECOWAS’s last intervention in a member state was in 2016 when former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after an electoral loss. Today, there is a lingering nostalgia for the days of those missions.

For experts, Niger which has long been seen as relatively stable in the Sahel region since its first-ever democratic transition in 2021, could be a defining test for Tinubu and the bloc.

“The way ECOWAS leaders handle this [coup] will, to a considerable extent, determine not how the next coup plotters will handle it but politics across Africa as a whole … If they make a mistake again, it will backfire. They have to join forces and set an example.” Ajibewa said.

Source: Al Jazeera