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The Danger of Red Lines: ECOWAS's Future And Democracy in Niger

Henry Choisser

The tentative progress of democracy in Niger has stalled since the July 26th coup by General Abdourahamane Tchiani toppled the government of President Mohamed Bazoum. It marks the 4th coup faced by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) members within the last 3 years (and 5th across the Sahel region) and creates a nearly unbroken line of authoritarian putschist states stretching from Guinea on the Atlantic to Sudan and the Red Sea. However, for some regional leaders, like Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the incident served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. On July 30th ECOWAS gave an ultimatum to the mutineers: step down and restore President Bazoum or face possible military intervention. 

The palace coup in Niamey (the capital of Niger) came at an inauspicious time for Nigeria’s Tinubu. He was just recently sworn in as President after a hotly contested election. And on July 9th, he was elected as the chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government committee where he inaugurated his tenure with a fiery speech condemning the recent rash of coups across the subregion. He proclaimed that although “democracy is very tough to manage, it is the best form of governance,” adding that ECOWAS cannot “sit back like a toothless bulldog” and promised that the bloc would “not allow coup after coup.” 

President Bola Timubu of Nigeria (2023)| Photo taken by Nosa Asemota| licensed under CCA 4.0

It was just two weeks after his well-lauded speech to other ECOWAS heads of state that Niger’s coup took place. According to Council of Foreign Relations fellow, Ebenezer Obadare, after such a strongly worded speech Tinubu likely “felt compelled to put his money where his mouth is.” As the chairman of ECOWAS and president of the single largest country and economy in the regional bloc, the August 7th ultimatum to restore Bazoum was largely seen as Tinubu’s personal decision. The 220 million strong population of Nigeria is greater than all 14 other ECOWAS members combined.     

The fraught history of his political career may also have been an influence on his decision to threaten (without much forethought) military intervention against the regime in Niger. After being previously jailed as a democratic activist by a Nigerian junta in the early 1990’s, and then going into exile until 1998 when that regime fell. For this reason, his personal animosity towards military regimes is somewhat understandable.  

Likewise, ECOWAS has a history of restoring democracy through interventionist policies. Since the 90’s, their multinational peacekeeping forces have intervened to help quell rebellions, maintain cease-fires and oust dictators. The most recent mission was in Gambia in 2017, where its soldiers helped stop former President Yahya Jammeh from overturning an election he had lost.

Still, analysts doubt that ECOWAS truly wants to go to war over Niger. Gambia, where the bloc last deployed, is the smallest country on mainland Africa and possesses a weak army. Contrariwise, Niger is the 6th largest country in Africa, and its battle-hardened troops (from a decade of counterinsurgency operations) have been trained by both American and European forces - 2,500 of which were stationed in the country before Tchiani’s coup-d'etat.                      

 Unfortunately, the choice to begin saber rattling has staked both Tinubu’s presidency, and the future legitimacy of ECOWAS, on the restoration of democracy in Niger. The invocation of a 7-day red-line for military intervention has set a difficult course for Nigeria and its allies. The timeframe of the dictum was simultaneously too long (in that it gave the putschists time to entrench themselves and garner nationalistic support vis-a-vis the threat of an invasion) and too short (because it was nowhere near enough time for ECOWAS or Nigeria to mobilize a sufficient invasion force).           

Furthermore, unlike the 2017 intervention in The Gambia in 2017, the already fraught region has become significantly less stable in the 6 years since then. The fall of ISIS affiliates in the Middle East and the diminished security operations in the West African countries that fell prey to military coups caused terrorist networks to relocate operations and personnel to the wider region. Violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram, and the Islamic State in the West African (ISWA) have bogged down the Nigerian army in counterterrorism operations across two-thirds of its provinces.  Already overstretched, the task of assembling a decisive invasion force was a tall order to begin with.  

However, unlike the recent intervention against The Gambia, Niger will not be alone in the fight. The neighboring juntas of Mali and Burkina Faso have declared that any invasion of Niger would also be a declaration of war against their countries.They have authorized the movement of Malian and Burkinabe troops into Niger’s territory in preparation for any forthcoming deployment of ECOWAS forces.

Despite a unanimous resolution from the other 11 non-junta members of ECOWAS to assemble a multinational invasion force (and the supposed agreement upon a D-day for deployment to Niger). However, even in Nigeria, support for the invasion is scarce. Parliament has not yet approved the mobilization of forces - a requirement stipulated in Nigeria’s constitution. However, in 2017, then-Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari deployed troops to The Gambia without obtaining the legislature’s approval.

In the weeks since the expired red-line to reinstate Bazoum as Niger’s president, the junta has only further entrenched itself and rallied support. Although, the question of whether they have consolidated support across the military and political elite is unclear.  In contrast to hardening rhetoric by Niger's junta, the rhetoric of ECOWAS and its allies has softened. Reiterations that military action will be used only as a last result have been abundant,and a broad spectrum of official, as well as non-state actors have reinvigorated diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.  Fortunately for Tinubu, the recent slew of delegations have had moderate success in actually reaching the new leaders of Niger as well as visiting Bazoum in his presidential mansion (where he has been under house arrest). Despite little headway in the discussions, they are a marked improvement from the initial stonewalling that all previous delegations received.  

Given the lack of support for, and difficulty of a full scale invasion, the only viable route for Tinubu and ECOWAS to save face without setting off a regional conflict is through a negotiated settlement. The terms would have to give the appearance of extracting concessions from the junta while staying within their own red-lines. An apparent non-starter for the new rulers is the reinstatement of Bazoum - and they have threatened to kill him the moment any invasion occurs. However, he and his family may end up starving to death in the basement of the presidential palace well before any force ever gets mobilized.       

One possible demand that could give ECOWAS a partial win would be the release and exile of Bazoum, which would almost certainly require a formal resignation on his part. This is, however, something he has firmly refused to do (in contrast to the leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso). Moreover, the putschists have said they plan to have a 3 year transition period back to democracy.             

Even though this is unlikely to be genuine, it is an improvement from the declarations of the other juntas and could be an item of focus for negotiators. If Niger’s leaders can be pressed into developing a legitimate transition plan (regardless of the outcome 3 years from now), then the democratic bloc will look less impotent. Despite the rashness of Tinubu’s dictum, neither Nigeria nor ECOWAS members benefit from a regional conflict. Any such conflict will create opportunities for insurgencies to expand their territory, which will degrade nations’ abilities to provide for their own domestic security - a politically dangerous move, even for a righteous cause.

It was precisely the “degradation of the security situation,” that coup leaders cited in his address to the nation as his supposed rationale for overthrowing the civilian government. The reality is that Tichiani was merely looking out for his own skin. It was reported that President Bazoum had considered removing Tichiani from his position as the head of the Presidential Guard, which he had held for 12 years.           

Like the other putschist regimes of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, Niger has courted the Wagner mercenary group from Russia. However, the recent demise of the organization’s leader, and recent mutineer, Yevgeny Prigozhin (purportedly at the explosive end of a Russian anti-air missile near Moscow)throws some chaos into the mix for continued Wagner operations in Africa. Whether the formerly private army is folded into the Russian Ministry of Defense, retains some of its current independence, collapses, or defects, will all have dramatically different outcomes for the short term Russian influence campaigns that Wagner has been spearheading in West Africa.

The driving motif of this current situation is one of uncertainty. A variety of international and domestic factors across more than a dozen countries could all impact the direction of events. The overriding goal of ECOWAS and its Western allies at the moment is a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, which allows for the saving of face while still promoting the most democratic outcome possible. Meanwhile the coup leaders appear here to stay for the time being. Their long term motives and ambitions remain unclear, but the reins of power are often difficult to release - particularly when usurped. However, if the junta remains in place and no concessions can be extracted (and presuming no serious military intervention occurs), then the future break up of ECOWAS, or at least severe diminishment of the organization's influence and importance will be the likely outcome. Yet, until something akin to a resolution occurs to the crisis, the specter of regional conflict will loom over all of West Africa.

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