Niger coup: Divisions as ECOWAS military threat fails to play out

As a deadline to restore Niger’s democratic government passes, strong initial ECOWAS reaction to Niger coup d’etat now appears divided.

All eyes are on the next move by West African leaders who vowed to attack coup leaders in Niger if they failed to free the detained president and revert back to a democratically elected government.

The deadline for the threat of force involving troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was Sunday. By late evening, no sign of a military intervention in Niger was apparent.

While some observers say the bloc’s hardline stance was prompted by Western allies – the United States and France in particular – ECOWAS’s moves reflect a different approach of its new chairman, Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, and they crystallise the fear of member-state leaders who do not want their militaries getting their own ideas, analysts say.

“Coups are rarely carried out in isolation, especially when there are similar experiences, structures and institutions in neighbouring countries,” said Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, an Abuja-based political analyst.

“Militaries in the region exchange intelligence so democratic administrations are likely worried about the possibility of their soldiers engaging in similar acts.”

But ECOWAS’s combative response to Niger’s coup also reveals unusual cracks in the alliance of its 15 member states.

As the threat of a regional war dangles palpably in the air, countries have scrambled to pick a side in what is shaping up to be a major showdown – with wealthier coastal economies on the one side and their landlocked, military-led counterparts on the other.

Niger’s neighbours to the west have risen to the defence of the General Abdourahmane Tchiani-led military government that has dug its heels in and shunned peace talks.

The military governments in Mali and Burkina Faso called ECOWAS’s bluff, saying an armed intervention in Niger would be met with force. Guinea also sided with the putschist leaders. All three countries plus Niger are suspended from ECOWAS, and form part of a military-led belt spanning Africa’s Sahel from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east.

Led by Nigeria, richer, coastal states are also uniting as an alarming insecurity trend stemming from their northern neighbours threatens their stability. In recent years, Gulf of Guinea countries previously spared armed-group violence ravaging the Sahel have experienced attacks in locations bordering Mali and Burkina Faso.

Silhouettes of members of the regional ECOWAS force are seen
Silhouettes of members of the regional ECOWAS force are seen at the Denton Bridge checkpoint in Banjul, Gambia [File: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters]

Fears of a violent spillover

In the semi-arid Sahel that separates coastal Africa and the Sahara, armed groups are swarming like ants on sugar, pulled by a mixture of weak states, bleak economic prospects, burgeoning populations and a punishing climate.

Conflict trackers say Africa – the Sahel in particular – has experienced quadrupled levels of violence in the past decade, and the past year has seen fatalities peak. Almost 10,000 deaths from attacks have been recorded, mostly in Mali and Burkina Faso, according to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

But in recent years, the armed groups have begun to expand their reach, pushing down towards littoral states that have historically struggled to battle piracy in the Atlantic Ocean.

In June 2022, Togo declared a state of emergency in response to an attack that killed eight soldiers. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group based in Mali, claimed responsibility, marking the first such attack in the country.

Benin recorded eight times more violent incidents last year than in 2021. Recent attacks in Cote d’Ivoire are raising suspicions that sleeper cells are already operating in the country. And Ghana, which has not suffered a direct assault, is bracing itself, pushing the Accra Alliance – an initiative to halt a violent spillover from the Sahel – to act preemptively.

Coups in Mali and Burkina Faso have coincided with spikes in violence, analysts say.

Both military governments seized power between 2020 and 2022, respectively, promising to end insecurity. They have expelled thousands of French and United Nations troops as perceptions that their presence did not improve security grew.

Soldiers from the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary force, are now present in both countries. The private military group has been accused of human rights abuses against local communities.

West African leaders have linked the rise of military regimes to the escalating violence by armed groups as well. Oumar Touray, president of the ECOWAS Commission, said in July that the barrage of coups in the region “run parallel to insecurity that West Africa and the Sahel have been facing for some time now”.

Meanwhile, Niger – the last ally of France and the US in the Sahel – saw attack-related deaths reduced by more than 50 percent in recent years. Dialogue with armed groups, engagement with conflict-affected communities, and collaboration with French and US troops helped the situation, said James Barnett of the Hudson Institute, a US-based think-tank.

But the new military leadership appears poised to move away from that approach.

“It has already announced the termination of its defence agreement with France,” said Barnett. “It’s unclear if Wagner will enter the fray, but it is certainly a risk if ECOWAS goes ahead with an intervention, and the junta in Niamey is desperate for external support.”

How will the crisis affect ECOWAS?

ECOWAS is not new to military interventions to restore order. Regional force ECOMOG was crucial to ending the Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars in the 1990s. In 2017, the alliance helped usher out former Gambian autocrat Yahya Jammeh, who refused to hand over power after losing elections.

But Niger presents ECOWAS’s greatest challenge in 30 years, analysts say.

“There are hard regional divisions at play now,” said Barnett. “This would be a messy conflict.”

Niger’s western neighbour Chad – which is not officially part of the regional bloc but has played a mediating role – might provide inroads for a land invasion, but has not committed to military action.

Defence chiefs have said an invasion would be a last resort, but there is a chance the bloc will continue to take a hardline approach. President Tinubu of Nigeria, the ECOWAS chief, harbours personal ambitions to make Nigeria a regional superpower again, Barnett noted, and France has signalled it will back the bloc’s threat.

Nigeria’s military, however, is already stretched with internal crises and a war could disrupt joint counterterrorism operations in the region. Niger also sits directly atop Nigeria, sharing a 1,600km (1,000 mile) border that could see fighting spill over into neighbouring nations.

As tensions escalate, analysts are split over how the bloc will weather the crisis.

“There is a question about the future utility of ECOWAS,” said Adekaiyaoja. “It has failed to stop four coups now. The question of its continued relevance in the region needs to be raised.”

But Barnett disagreed, pointing out that the bloc has been around for 50 turbulent years.

“I don’t think we can say yet that this will be the end of ECOWAS. Regimes come and go in West Africa so the juntas defying ECOWAS today might not have much longevity. But this is a serious test of the bloc’s effectiveness, no doubt about it,” he said.

Nigerien security forces prepare to disperse pro-junta demonstrators gathered outside the French embassy, in Niamey, the capital city of Niger.
Nigerien security forces prepare to disperse demonstrators who support the military government and who are gathered outside the French embassy in Niamey [File: Souleymane Ag Anara/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera