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ECOWAS threatens 'use of force' against Niger junta

Cristina Krippahl
July 31, 2023

The West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, has given coup leaders in Niger one week to cede power and reinstate the country's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum — or face possible military intervention.

Supporters of Niger's junta rally in front of the National Assembly in Niamey, Niger
The bloc has also imposed sanctions on the junta, including suspending financial transactions between ECOWAS member states and NigerImage: AFP

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called on Sunday for the immediate release and reinstatement of Niger's president, Mohamed Bazoum, who was arrested during a coup on Wednesday.

"In the event the authorities' demands are not met within one week, [we will] take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger," Omar Alieu Touray, the ECOWAS Commission president, said following an emergency meeting in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.

The 15-nation bloc specifically threatened the military junta, led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, with the use of "force."

'A realistic option'?

"I don't think it's a realistic option," Ulf Laessing, director of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation's office in Mali's capital, Bamako, told DW. ECOWAS doesn't have the military means to launch an operation in Niger, he said. There is one precedent, in The Gambia in 2017, but that happened only because ECOWAS was invited in by the Banjul government.

Protesters cheer Nigerien troops as they gaher in front of the French Embassy in Niamey
Niger became the third Sahel country to be shaken by a coup in less than three years, following neighbors Mali and Burkina FasoImage: AFP/Getty Images

"The issue is that nobody in the army has come to the rescue of President Bazoum," Laessing told DW. "They have no support on the ground. If you flew in a couple of special forces now by plane to Niamey airport, they would have the whole army against them."

The threat could even backfire if the junta, secure in the knowledge that it has its army's support, ignored it and ECOWAS failed to follow up with a show of force.

The bloc has been losing credibility in the region after reacting inconsistently to several coups in the Sahel, according to Laessing. "In Mali they imposed economic sanctions. In the case of other countries, like Burkina Faso, they haven't done anything," he said.

Warnings from Burkina Faso and Mali 

Burkina Faso and Mali, which are also both run by military juntas following recent coups, strongly rebuked ECOWAS for weighing the option of using force against Niger.

On Monday they threw their support behind the newly installed junta in neighboring Niger and warned against any military intervention in the country's affairs.

"Any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali," the two countries said in a joint statement on Monday.

They said the "disastrous consequences of a military intervention in Niger ... could destabilize the entire region."

The two governments also "refuse to apply" the "illegal, illegitimate and inhumane sanctions against the people and authorities of Niger," the statement said.

Demonstrators gather in support of the putschist soldiers in the capital Niamey
Pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey have been warning against a military intervention by France or ECOWAS Image: Balima Boureima/REUTERS

In a separate statement, Guinea — another country ruled by a military junta that toppled an elected government — expressed its disagreement with the sanctions, including military intervention, urging the bloc to reconsider its position.

Pro-coup demonstrations

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators waving Russian flags gathered in Niamey, Niger's capital, to show support for the new military rulers.

But Russia sounded wary of the putschists, especially after the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, welcomed the coup and offered help.

The Wagner Group has extensive interests in Africa, where, before staging an attempted putsch in Russia, the mercenaries had been considered an extension of the Kremlin's security apparatus.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Russia's government was very concerned with developments in Niger.

"We are in favor of the speedy restoration of the rule of law in the country; we are in favor of restraint on all sides so that this does not lead to human casualties," Peskov said.

Rising concerns

Though some Nigeriens have vocally supported the coup, many are increasingly worried about the consequences, following suspension of aid by several international partners.

"The cost of living will go up. Prices of essential goods will go up. Traders will take advantage of this situation," Niamey resident Ibrahim Laouali told DW.

Germany announced Monday that it had halted financial aid and development cooperation. Berlin warned that further measures could follow. The move came the day after the European Union suspended financial support to Niamey.

"On top of that, ECOWAS is considering military intervention. So there is unrest in the country," Nigerien citizen Alhassane Mamane told DW.

Laessing said ECOWAS's unusually harsh reaction in the case of Niger could also be seen as an attempt to forestall the alliance's own irrelevance.

"If they don't stop this coup, people will start asking: Why do we need an ECOWAS if they can't impose their will?" Laessing said.

Supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger
ECOWAS says it could authorize force to reinstate Bazoum, who has been held by putschists since WednesdayImage: Fatahoulaye Hassane Midou/AP Photo/picture alliance

ECOWAS also threatened to suspend trade and financial transactions with Niger. The economic community called on the central banks of its members to freeze the assets of Nigerien state-owned companies as well as those of the military involved in the coup.

Researcher Bounty Diallo, from Niamey's Abdou Mounouni University, told DW that he doubts the sanctions will work.

"ECOWAS sanctioned Mali, but quickly lifted its sanctions," Diallo said. "The same happened in Burkina Faso. I don't think Niger is going to be any different."

Dire prospects for the region

"Right now, they are trying to maximize pressure," Laessing said. But ECOWAS itself is under pressure.

If the bloc uses force, analysts suggest that it could trigger violence between Niger and ECOWAS forces, as well as civilians who support the coup and those who oppose it. 

"While this remains to be a threat and unlikely action, the consequences on civilians of such an approach if putschists chose confrontation would be catastrophic," Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South think tank, told the AP news agency. 

But Laessing said that, if the junta in Niger were to get away with the coup, it might encourage others to stage coups, or incumbent presidents to stay longer in power than their constitutions allow.

That would add to instability in a region beset by violent conflict. The toppled government in Niamey had started to reach out to jihadist groups active in Africa's Sahel region to engage them in dialogue.

"They were actually making a bit of progress. Not enough for people to see it, but it was moving in the right direction," Laessing said.

West African bloc issues ultimatum to Niger coup leaders

The reconciliation efforts are unlikely to be continued by officers who are too busy staking their own claims to power.

"That means that the jihadists are probably going to gain territory again. And human traffickers will also benefit from rising instability in Niger," Laessing said.

These prospects are especially concerning to the European Union, which has been investing heavily in the Sahel region to stop the flow of migrants from the African continent. 

Abdoulkarim Mahamadou and Bob Barry contributed to this article

Edited by: Keith Walker

This article was updated on August 1, 2023 

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