regional plans

Will Ecowas intervene in Niger? Five key points to consider

By Jeanne Le Bihan

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Posted on August 2, 2023 11:50

A soldier of ECOWAS troops poses for a picture in Banjul, Gambia
A soldier of ECOWAS troops poses for a picture in Banjul, Gambia January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Ecowas is determined to intervene militarily in Niger if the junta that took power does not meet the requirements set out by the organisation at the end of the summit held in Abuja on Sunday 30 July: restoration of Mohamed Bazoum to power.

The chiefs of staff are due to meet on August 2 in the Nigerian capital. During the emergency meeting a military strategy will be developed in the event troops are sent to Niamey. Ecowas has rarely been so firm in tone. Does the organisation have the means to carry out its threats?

1. Is military intervention legally possible?

While the Ecowas’ special summit was underway in Abuja, those presenting themselves as Niger’s new masters accused the organisation of wanting to validate “an aggression plan” against Niger. The treaty prohibits “aggression between member states” but also calls for “maintaining regional peace, security and stability by promoting good neighbourly relations”. The military junta is leaning on the first point to condemn the “bellicose attitude” of its neighbours, while Ecowas is referring to the second to demand restoration of constitutional order.

“Ecowas will act as a last resort if it is sure the threat didn’t work,” says Dr Arthur Banga, an international relations expert. “The use of force is primarily deterrent – to show intervention capacity without using it, refine a plan and mobilise troops to cause fear.”

Ecowas has intervened militarily in West Africa in the past, most recently in 2017 in Gambia to enable elected President Adama Barrow to take office when Yahya Jammeh refused to step down. There too, Ecowas issued an ultimatum. Once the deadline passed, several thousand soldiers, mostly Senegalese, entered Gambian territory. Before that, Ecowas had already intervened in Liberia and elsewhere.

2. What military resources does Ecowas have?

“Nigeria will take the lead,” says Banga. With around 215,000 personnel and heavyweight military equipment, Nigeria seems best placed geographically and in terms of numbers to provide the bulk of the troops under the Ecowas banner. Abuja has already signaled readiness to intervene as soon as Ecowas gives the order.

Chad could also provide interesting support for Ecowas. President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno went to Niamey on Sunday and met with both the junta leader and Bazoum. “Depending on available troops, we’ll see if other countries can provide backup,” says Banga.

In the event of military intervention, Niamey’s Diori Hamani airport would be key for troop deployment and control of the capital – this is the focus of the plan being prepared. Ecowas could also try to obtain the support of army elements still loyal to Bazoum. But Niger’s army chief of staff rallied behind the junta on 27 July. The new rulers have also arrested several Bazoum government figures, including the interior minister.

3. How far will the France and US support go?

While France says it will support Ecowas in any decisions, its role is unclear. By evacuating citizens by air, France boosts the credibility of possible force. The US has also expressed concern but its Niger-based troops have remained quiet. Logistical support from Paris could be decisive if military intervention occurs, given France’s air base near Niamey airport. Since redeploying Sahel forces, France has made Niger its main military ally in the region and the air base is central to West Africa operations.

UN support could also lend legitimacy to Ecowas intervention, as when it backed Ecowas troops in Gambia in 2017.

4. What are the main risks?

High civilian casualties during potential Niamey fighting pose a major obstacle. Residents largely back the opposition and seem to support the junta, in contrast to initial pro-Bazoum protests. Entering the presidential palace where Bazoum is held presents risks for him and detained ministers. Refusing to resign, Bazoum remains with family in the compound. The whereabouts of other arrested officials remain unclear.

5. How might junta reactions weigh in?

The Mali and Burkina Faso juntas back Niger’s coup and accuse Ecowas of imposing burdensome sanctions. They threaten to quit Ecowas if it intervenes militarily and say intervention will be seen as a declaration of war.

Guinea’s junta also opposes Ecowas intervention in a statement praising Niger’s patriotism and republican spirit. Ecowas seems determined to show firmness despite this emerging pro-junta front. On 1 August, the Guinea-Bissau president, Mokhtar Embaló, wrote to Niger’s Bazoum affirming his legitimacy, calling the Niger junta “thugs”.

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