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The west African leaders who gathered for an emergency summit last weekend amid the unfolding coup in Niger weighed their options over how to respond.
Condemn the plotters, impose sanctions, recall ambassadors and suspend the country from their Economic Community of West African States? All were on the table. Yet the Ecowas communiqué went much further.
If the demand that the coup leaders cede power was “not met within one week we will take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order”, it warned on Sunday. “Such measures may include the use of force.”
A community mostly concerned with free movement of goods and people does not usually issue such military threats. But having faced criticism for its failure to take a strong line with previous west African putsches, Ecowas — now led by heavyweight Nigeria — was eyeing a different approach, analysts claimed.
“After tough tactics confronting the Mali junta didn’t work, Ecowas played it softly with Burkina Faso and Guinea after the coups there and that was no more effective and those juntas were able to become entrenched,” said Paul Melly, a Sahel expert at the Chatham House think-tank.
“Ecowas is now reverting to the principle of a really tough approach with a difference that Nigeria’s new president is a much more vocally proactive figure on this issue,” he said, referring to Bola Tinubu, who became Ecowas chair in July a few weeks after becoming Nigeria’s president.
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development think-tank, said the coup was a “make or break moment for Ecowas and its ability to restrict unconstitutional transfers of power. Tinubu needs to be seen as the man who brought back democracy in Niger. It would augur well if Nigeria is seen as the strong authority in the region.”
A senior member of Tinubu’s party said the new Nigerian president had the chance to revive the muscular foreign policy he said had been lacking since former president Olusegun Obasanjo left office in 2007.
Obasanjo, who recently brokered a deal to end the Ethiopian civil war, helped shore up democracy in the region and personally escorted the deposed president of São Tomé and Principe back to his country after he was ousted in a coup by mutinous soldiers in 2003.
“He made Nigeria relevant on the continent and in the world — and we need to return to that,” the Tinubu ally said.
The coup in Niger last week toppled the democratically elected and pro-western president Mohamed Bazoum and installed a military junta led by Omar Tchiani, who previously ran the presidential guard. Bazoum, who allowed US and French forces to use Niger as bases from which to conduct anti-terror operations across the region, is under house arrest.
France’s embassy in the capital Niamey was attacked in the days after the coup by pro-junta demonstrators, some chanting pro-Russia slogans. Paris on Tuesday began evacuating citizens and those from other EU countries as the junta stepped up efforts to secure its grip by arresting politicians affiliated with the deposed government.
There are divisions in west Africa over how to handle Niger despite the strong Ecowas declaration. Burkina Faso and Mali, suspended members whose leaders came to power via coups, said they would consider military action in Niger a “declaration of war” while the junta in Guinea called the sanctions on Niger “illegitimate and inhumane”.
Yet Nigeria wields outsized influence in the west African community of nations. It accounts for 63 per cent of the bloc’s economic output, according to the Ecowas Bank for Investment and Development, more than the other 14 nations combined.
It also has the largest army in the region, with 223,000 soldiers and US, Chinese and German-made fighter jets. A Niger intervention would heavily rely on Abuja’s involvement.
Western powers and other African countries such as Algeria have condemned the Niger coup, but none have said if they supported military intervention.
One analyst who recently visited Niger said former colonial power France would not oppose an Ecowas intervention while being extremely wary of direct action. “France won’t want to be even suspected of being involved,” said the analyst. Paris on Sunday welcomed the Ecowas declaration and called for the “return to the constitutional order in Niger” under Bazoum.
Diplomacy remains Ecowas’s first choice to mediate, according to officials who point to a visit to Niamey this week by Chad president Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, where he met the putschists and held talks with Bazoum.
But Déby makes for an awkward interlocutor since he is essentially a coup leader who took over power when his father died. The African Union and western powers continue to embrace the Chadian leader despite a stalling of the promised transition to democracy.
But with the clock ticking on the deadline, Ecowas might have backed itself into a corner by putting a short timeline before threatening to exercise military options.
Yet a military threat has worked in the past, notably by convincing long-serving Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh to go into exile in 2017 after he initially refused to cede power following an election loss.
Others point out that Niger is different. Ulf Laessing, director of the Sahel programme at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, questioned the support for the deposed regime in the military, noting how “no army unit has come to the rescue of Bazoum”.
Another analyst working in Niger said of any possible intervention: “If there’s anything that would destroy popular support for Bazoum it would be that.”
The junta leaders, meanwhile, are talking tough, with spokesman Colonel Amadou Abdramane alleging this week that France was plotting an attack to rescue Bazoum. “We want to once more remind Ecowas — or any other adventurer — of our firm determination to defend our homeland,” he said.