A Coup Too Far, Niger and ECOWAS

A Coup Too Far, Niger and ECOWAS
08 August 2023

On July 26th, the presidential guard of Niger, surrounded the presidential palace and ministries of the government in the capital Niamey, within hours they had declared that they had seized power. Though a defacto prisoner within the presidential palace, President Mohamed Bazoum refused to hand over power and threatened the coup plotter with military action if they did not back down. However, no such military action occurred, with the military leadership of Nigerien Army the next day siding against the president and declaring their allegiance to the coup leaders. 

A Region With a History of Coups 

The coup of Niger follows a long list of coups throughout the Sahel region and marks a particularly dark chapter in a region marked by poverty, worsening climate change, and increased terrorism attacks. The coup in Niger is especially tragic, as it was a bright spot in an otherwise volatile region, with the election in 2021 of President Bazoum being the first democratic transfer of power in the country since its independence from France in 1960. Under President Bazoum, Niger saw economic growth, a calming of ethnic tensions, and peace negotiations with jihadists leaders. Progress was being made, with President Baoum aligning himself with the United States and France providing the country with foreign aid and security support. 

With the economic and security situation in the country improving, why then did General Tchiani launch the coup? Though General Tchiani and his co-conspirators claim that their coup was launched to address the worsening security situation (a falsehood according to experts) and to reverse the policies of the government towards jihadist groups (which included amnesty for demobilization). The shambolic nature of the coup, the lack of a clear leader, alongside the military taking a day of negotiations to support the coup, hint that this coup was more out of desperation by General Tchiani as it was rumored that he was going to be fired by President Baoum. The fact that President Baoum is still able to talk to foreign leaders and post on social media also hints to the fact that the coup was done quickly, with little long-term planning on what to do after capturing the president. This lack of planning can be seen in part by the response of the international community to the coup and the seizing of anti-French sentiment by the coup leaders to legitimize their rule. 

The International Response

To the international community, this coup appears to be a coup too far, with many countries drawing red lines against the coup plotters and demanding the release of President Bazoum and a return to democracy. The French and EU response have been particularly strong, with the EU suspending all budgetary support to Niger, while threatening sanctions and evacuating EU citizens from the country. The United States has condemned the coup and demanded the reinstatement of President Bazoum, while stopping short of calling it a coup; as classifying it as a coup would force the US to stop its security assistance and allow for greater instability and Russian influence in the region. 

But perhaps the strongest reaction came from ECOWAS, West Africa’s most powerful regional grouping which represents 15 countries which applied sanctions and threatened military action if the democratic government of President Bazoum is not released. ECOWAS is led by president Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, who along with several ECOWAS leaders have taken the coup personally and feel that it is time for ECOWAS to stop being a toothless bulldog within the region. The threat of ECOWAS intervention is not empty, with ECOWAS forces having intervened in Gambia in 2017 to prevent president Yahya Jammeh from overturning an election that he had lost. However, Gambia is one of the smallest nations in West Africa, while Niger is the size of France with an army trained by US and French special forces. Additionally, the military-backed governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have threatened to go to war against ECOWAS if the organization were to intervene in Niger. The potential for this crisis to escalate into a conflict is thus serious, albeit uncertain as while the military leadership of ECOWAS has drawn up military plans to intervene in Niger, as of writing they have not taken action even though the deadline has passed. However, it is likely that ECOWAS will continue to escalate its sanctions on Niger, with Nigeria already having cut its supply of power to the country (which represents 70% of Niger’s energy supply).

In response to the unfolding crisis, Russia (which already has a presence in Mali and Burkina Faso) has called for urgent national dialogue in Niger and that threats of intervention will not help ease tensions or calm the domestic situation. However, these Russian words and offers by Prigozhin to have Wagner fighters support the regime reflect Russian opportunism and not a grand strategy. Though Russia is attempting to increase its influence and improve its relationship in Africa, these actions have had limited success and should be seen in the context of an increasingly isolated Russia due to the Russo-Ukraine War.



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