Niger Coup: Time to Give Strategic Diplomacy a Chance

By Paul Ejime

As expected, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has rejected the unreasonable 3-year political time-table proposed by the Nigerien junta leaders for a return to constitutional order following the 26th of July coup that deposed elected president Mohamed Bazoum.

Dr Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security calls the plan “unilateral, provocative and a smokescreen” by the junta to cling to power after what appeared to be a positive movement following the retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar-led ECOWAS delegation to Niamey. The delegation met with the junta leader Brig.-Gen, Abdourahmane Tchiani, his colleagues and detained Bazoum, whose state of health had generated much public interest.

The initial faulty steps and brinkmanship that preceded that ice breaking visit had heightened tension with the junta literally inciting the public against ECOWAS, which has also been accused of being teleguided by France and the U.S., which are defending their defence and economic interests in Niger.

The ECOWAS leaders’ decisions to slam sanctions and the 7-day ultimatum given the junta to reinstate Bazoum and restore constitutional order or risk the use of military force were considered precipitate and unprecedented.

Under provisions of the 2001 regional Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which prescribed zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of government, the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government is vested with unlimited powers to authorise whatever measure it deems fit to restore constitutional rule.

The protocol also has provisions for checkmating abuse of political power and violation of human rights, but the fixation had always been on military coups.

The Niger putsch is the fourth successful army take-over of government in four of ECOWAS’ 15-member states. It was roundly condemned internationally, and rightly too.

The only point of disagreement appears to be ECOWAS’ threat to use military force in Niger, after having failed to rein in similar coup makers in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, all former French colonies in West Africa.

Neighbouring Chad too, a non-ECOWAS member is also under military rule.

Ironically, Chad’s military dictator, Gen. Mahamat Kaka Idriss Derby, who seized power after the assassination of his father by Chadian rebels in 2021, is among initial envoys dispatched to canvas restoration of constitutional order in Niger, while blatantly delaying the same process in his own country.

With a new management at the ECOWAS Commission, the regional bloc needed to take some drastic measures to put an end to coups in the politically restive region wracked by insecurity, characterised by deadly strikes by Islamic terrorists and other armed groups, such as Al-Qaida, ISSI and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Traditionally, ECOWAS uses conflict management tools such as the Mediation and Security Council from Ambassadorial to Ministerial and Heads of State levels, the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff, the Council of the Wise, if necessary, before escalation to the Authority of Heads of State and Government.

This could vary. But having issued an ultimatum, which passed without any military intervention, ECOWAS needed to redeem itself by staying on the message but at the same time allowing back-channel diplomacy for the peaceful resolution of the Niger impasse.

But the Niger junta had also not covered itself in glory, by restricting ECOWAS’ initial delegation led by Gen Abubakar to the Niamey airport, citing security concerns, and also refusing to receive a joint ECOWAS-African Union-UN joint Mission to Niger.

This annoyed ECOWAS leaders and informed their activation of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in Niger at their second summit on Niger on 10th August.

Following that marching order, the ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff at their second emergency meeting in Accra, Ghana on 18th August, announced that an undisclosed “D-Day” had been decided for possible military intervention in Niger.

Fast forward to the second Niamey visit by the Abubakar-led ECOWAS delegation.

The three-year transition programme announced by the junta must be part of an attempt to consolidate its hold on power and as a negotiation strategy.

Opposition to the use of military force does not mean support for the military coup, neither does the dubious turnout by youths seeking to join Niger armed forces. Rather, the latter is a manifestation of the failed governance system, characterised by pervasive youth unemployment, economic hardships, insecurity and lack unleased by successive administrations from which the military cannot exonerate itself.

Even with the conscription of Niger’s estimated 26 million impoverished and long-suffering population into the national armed forces plus the ill-advised support from the armed forces of the Mali and Burkina Faso troops, the Niger junta cannot withstand an ECOWAS joint military force under normal circumstances.

The junta must therefore climb down its arrogant high horse and make diplomatic initiatives a priority for quick return to constitutional order in Niger.

Also, to whip wayward member State into line, ECOWAS should be more strategic, admit where mistakes have been made and make amends, especially on the governance failures by some of its leaders now pretending to be born-again democrats, contrary to their track records.

Commissioner Musah says the ECOWAS plan for possible use of force is a decision conceived by and would be entirely funded by the organisation, explaining that the less than satisfactory responses to the coups in other member States should not an excuse to condone subsequent bad behaviours.

“A time comes when you have to draw a line in the sand and say, no more to military coups in the ECOWAS region,” Dr Musah said, adding that experience had also shown that “soldiers are not the messiahs for solutions to Africa’s myriad problems, some of which are global.”

But apart from the fact that using military force to restore constitutional order cannot be described entirely as democratic, and the fear that kinetic option is a high-risk venture that could result in unintended catastrophe and humanitarian disaster, the involvement of powerful external interests have further complicated the already bad situation in Niger, an otherwise mineral-rich but impoverished nation.

France and America have military bases and an estimated combined 2,500-armed forces in Niger. What will be their role if ECOWAS were to follow through with military intervention?

Furthermore, what can be deduced from the recent arrival in Niamey of America’s new Ambassador to Niger?

Another sticking point is how to unpack the growing anti-French sentiment in its former colonies, especially in the coup countries in West Africa, from the opportunism behind the Tchiani-led coup?

More importantly, foreign governments have evacuated their nationals from Niger, and the coup leaders have also moved their families to safety. As usual, World attention is on the important figures, but where is the interest of ordinary Nigeriens, who are victims of decades of bad governance, and the crippling sanctions in the ongoing geopolitical game?

ECOWAS must seize the initiative and control the narrative by asserting its independence, to eliminate any perception that it is acting as a proxy to foreign interests in Niger.

Soldiers are not primed to govern. ECOWAS must therefore guide, accompany and redirect its drifting member States on the path of constitutional order, with leaders showing examples.

ECOWAS should deploy its conflict management and resolution tools to ensure that a short transition programme of 12-18 months is strictly implemented in Niger with a damage control strategy to spare the organisation further reputational damage.

Niger, and other African countries must be governed for the overall benefit, protection, wellbeing and with equal opportunities for all citizens, not for the selfish interests of the corrupt and compromised political class and their external collaborators.

Bazoum and France might end up as the greatest losers in the Niger equation. His reinstatement seems unlikely, going by the domestic political temperature and as citizens appear determined to take back their countries from decades of suffocating French overbearing influence.

Also, as Russia, China and other external interests wait in the wings, Africans and particularly, their political leaders, must realise that switching alliance or allegiance among foreign powers/interests is not a solution to the governance and development challenges bedevilling the continent.

Africa’s rich human and natural resources must be harnessed by visionary and dynamic leaderships at national, regional, and continental levels for the benefit of the continent’s estimated 1.4 billion population.

After more than three decades of independence African leaders cannot continue to use colonialism or foreign interference as plausible excuses for unpardonable governance failures.