After Niger’s coup, the drums of war are getting louder
NASSIROU MAHAMADOU, a vegetable seller sitting on a stool in Niamey, the capital of Niger, does not look like a fighter. But when threats from Niger’s neighbors to use force to reinstate Mohamed Bazoum, the elected president ousted in a coup on July 26, were mentioned, he flared up with anger. “If they come here, we [civilians] going to war by the side of the army.” He is frustrated that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, is considering sending troops to fight the junta, even though it has done little to fight the jihadists it says are the biggest threat. “ECOWAS he has weapons to attack Niger but not kill the terrorists,” he says. “It’s a shame.”
The regional bloc had threatened to use force if Mr. Bazoum was not sent back by August 6. But as the clock ticked down to that date, the leaders of the cup did not show that they were giving up power. Instead they filled a stadium with cheering supporters (pictured), who rested their heads on a rooster painted in the colors of France, the former colonial power. As the deadline drew to a close, the junta closed Niger’s airspace completely, saying that two other African countries had been preparing troops to send to Niger. They said Niger’s armed forces were “ready to defend the integrity of our territory”. She later raised tensions by accusing France of violating her airspace and freeing terrorists, without providing evidence. France denied the allegations.
The rising tensions reflect two related, and worrying, trends in the region. The first is the rapid spread of jihadist extremism over the past decade as groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda have pushed into the impoverished Sahel. and savage south of the Sahara. Among the worst affected places are Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where more than 10,000 people were killed in armed conflict last year. The second movement is the withdrawal of civilian rule, as men in uniform have overthrown elected governments that were losing popular legitimacy because they failed to end jihadist terror. Since 2020 there have been coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali. In Burkina Faso and Mali the putsches have been followed by a downward spiral of security.
The leaders of the coup in Niger also said that they wanted to restore security. But Mr Bazoum’s government had been making progress against jihadists through talks, disarmament programs and the help of around 1,500 French soldiers in Niger. Deaths in conflict in the first six months of this year were lower than in any equivalent period since 2018. Instead, the coup appears to have been motivated by the personal ambitions of the generals.
Many leaders in the region hoped to put an end to this coup d’état, mainly because if left unchecked it might give ideas to ambitious generals of their own forces. Among the strongest is Bola Tinubu, the recently elected president of Nigeria who chairs ECOWAS. Because it was briefly held by a junta in 1994, it worries putschists. Others in the area tend to agree with him. “It’s one cup too many,” said Aissata Tall Sall, Senegal’s foreign minister.
After the deadline passed, hopes for Mr. Bazoum’s reinstatement through diplomacy suffered another blow. Victoria Nuland, a senior American diplomat, met with members of the junta in Niger but said the talks were “difficult”. She was barred from meeting Mr. Bazoum or General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who was fired. On August 8 a mediation team arrived from ECOWASthe UN and the African Union was denied entry into the country.
The snub came after defense chiefs from ECOWAS they said they had completed plans to deploy a force. Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal all said they would contribute (see map). But the junta in Niger has its own friends. The military rulers of Burkina Faso and Mali said they would consider any intervention in Niger a declaration of war on their own countries. Members of Niger’s junta have also traveled to Mali. There, according to Wassim Nasr, a journalist and researcher, they asked for the help of Wagner, a Russian mercenary group that has been working in Mali since 2021.
ECOWAS, having drawn a line in the sand, it may be difficult to accept anything less than a full reinstatement of Mr. Bazoum. Instead the junta named 21 ministers in a cabinet headed by Ali Lamine Zeine, an economist, shortly before ECOWAS a summit was expected to be held on August 10 to decide on the bloc’s next steps. even if ECOWAS willing to accept this government, he might still want to free Mr. Bazoum. But General Tchiani may see keeping it as his best defense against another coup, or counter-coup, argues Nina Wilén of Lund University.
Still, the ECOWAS attack is not inevitable. War is “the last resort”, said a high-level government official involved in the debates in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The Economist after the deadline has passed. The junta “has reached out to the Nigerian authorities through back channels”, the official said. In addition, he said the Nigerian government was concerned about opposing military intervention “especially in the north of Nigeria with imams preaching against it”.
After a closed door meeting of the Nigerian Senate, the president of the group, Godswill Akpabio advised. ECOWAS “to strengthen their political and diplomatic options”. Several reports suggest that a majority of senators at the meeting were against the deployment of troops. Under the constitution, Nigeria cannot send forces abroad without the approval of the Senate unless there is a “threat or imminent danger” to national security.
ECOWAS has also struggled to win the support of other regional powers that share borders with Niger. Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Algeria’s president, said he was “intrinsically against any military intervention”, which would be considered a “direct threat to Algeria”. Chad also opposes the use of force.
Measuring the feeling
A key consideration for ECOWAS must surely be whether Nigeriens themselves would welcome foreign troops or oppose them. On August 8, Rhissa Ag Boula, who was a rebel and was then a minister under Mr. Bazoum, announced that an “opposition council” had been created to reinstate the president. He says he supports ECOWAS military intervention. “We are going to move across the country to denounce it [the junta]”, said Mr Ag Boula The Economist.
It is not clear whether it will be supported. Canvassing by Premise Data, a polling company, for The Economist the first survey carried out since the coup found that 79% of respondents support the actions of the junta, and that 78% believe that it should remain in power “for an extended period of time” or “until new elections are held” (see chart). A slim majority of 57% said they did not favor intervention by regional or international organizations. Of those who support foreign intervention, an alarming 53% said they would prefer it to be with Russia, apparently because they believe it would support the putschists, as Wagner did in Mali. Just 13% chose America, 11% the African Union and a paltry 6%. ECOWAS. These findings do not necessarily represent opinion across the country as the poll was conducted quickly, with a small sample, made up mostly of men in the capital. Nevertheless, it gives an indication of the feeling.
There are other major obstacles facing the ECOWAS force One is cost. “Nigeria is too broke to do this work, so it needs funding,” said Cheta Nwanze of SBM Intelligence, a research firm in Lagos. France has said it supports efforts by ECOWAS to reinstate Mr. Bazoum but has not said whether the armed forces would support him ECOWAS intervention or whether his finances would help fund the work.
In addition, the ECOWAS would be a far more complex and dangerous mission than the bloc has undertaken in decades. In 2017 a Senegalese-led force moved against Gambia’s long-time president, Yahya Jammeh, after he refused to accept the result of an election he lost. He married as soon as soldiers pressed in. But Niger is more than 100 times the size of The Gambia and has a Western-trained army that appears to support the junta, which holds its legitimate president hostage.
Perhaps the closest parallel is Sierra Leone, where a group of soldiers ousted the elected president in a civil war in 1997. Eight months later, after the putschists associated with gang-rape rebels, ECOWAS forces went in and drove the president back. Although the mission was successful, despite being against a ragtag army, the Nigerian-led force was accused of human rights abuses and the bombing of civilian targets.
Mr. Tinubu may be hoping that large parts of Niger’s army will refuse to fight if so ECOWAS soldiers crossing the border. But if they resist, the region’s troops may find themselves embroiled in a three-way fight between the junta’s forces and the jihadists. Even if an intervention succeeded in rehabilitating Mr. Bazoum, he could be seen as a puppet of foreign forces. “I pray to God that Bazoum comes out of this alive,” said a former advisor to the presidency. But he even advises against it ECOWAS sending in troops. “It will destroy people’s lives for nothing and plunge our country into war.” ■