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ECOWAS poised to scrap plan to initiate military action against Niger

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on August 9, 2023 15:59

Silhouettes of members of the regional ECOWAS force are seen at the Denton Bridge check point in Banjul, Gambia January 22, 2017.
Silhouettes of members of the regional ECOWAS force are seen at the Denton Bridge check point in Banjul, Gambia January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Neither Nigeria nor ECOWAS member states are likely to push for war against Niger for multiple reasons, sources say.

Ahead of the ECOWAS heads of state meeting on Thursday, multiple sources within the Nigerian presidency tell The Africa Report that the West African bloc will not be sanctioning military intervention into the Republic of Niger, which last month witnessed a coup.

Pressure from Nigeria’s influential northern Muslim establishment, as well as the country’s political class, all but rules out the possibility of military action following the toppling of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum.

“Based on the pressure from within the country, President Bola Tinubu will not be pushing for an invasion into Niger,” says a top adviser to the president.

“Rather, the immediate release of President Bazoum will be restated while other sanctions will be discussed along with the need for dialogue and diplomacy,” the source says, adding that the final decision will be left to the West African bloc.

Opportunity cost

The Africa Report has learnt that the current stance is mostly based on a resolution by the Nigerian parliament, which was against any plan to invade Niger, and insisted that dialogue must continue.

Similarly, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), led by the influential Sultan of Sokoto, said in a statement that the Nigerian government must not forget that thousands of its refugees remain in Nigerien camps.

The group also pushed against imposing further sanctions on Niger, adding that such a step would be counter-productive. “The council therefore, calls on ECOWAS and in particular, the Nigerian government, to retrace their steps in this regard to avoid correcting wrong with another,” the statement read.

The NSCIA said Nigeria, which has been battling with Islamist insurgents for over 12 years, should not exacerbate its problems by going to war with a friendly neighbouring country that has consistently remained supportive in the fight against terrorism.

Northern Nigeria shares cultural and religious ties with Niger. A top military official tells The Africa Report that there were also fears of possible sabotage within the military in the event that Nigeria went to war with its northern neighbour.

Financial implications

The West African bloc, led by Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, had imposed some sanctions on the landlocked nation following the coup.

Nigeria, which accounts for 70% of Niger’s electricity, cut off power supply to its northern neighbour and also shut its borders to the country.

The move angered Niger’s military junta led by Gen Abdourahamane Tiani, which expelled ambassadors from Nigeria, the US and Togo.

The junta also refused to meet with representatives of the West African bloc, the African Union and the US, insisting that there would be no dialogue until sanctions were lifted.

Niger also shut its airspace, a move which experts say will increase airfares in Nigeria.

Government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, stress that Nigeria, whose economy has been critically deteriorating, can hardly afford a war with Niger.

“Nigeria will bear the financial burden of ECOWAS if the bloc decides to go to war. We spent about $12bn in military missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 90s. We cannot afford that today,” says one source.

“Besides, our military is currently engaged in a war against insurgency unlike in the 90s when they were idle.”

Meanwhile, another source says: “The timing is just bad and we have advised the president accordingly. From all indications, we will not be invading Niger anytime soon.”

A spokesman for President Tinubu did not respond to a request for comment.

Niger’s junta has appointed economist Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine as the transitional prime minister, in a move that may suggest that the junta is already making plans to transition back to a democratic government.

However, no timeline has been announced as regards to when the junta will leave power.

‘Lesser evil’

The Tinubu-led grouping is not expected to declare war on Niger in Thursday’s meeting, says David Aworawo, who served as a consultant to the West African bloc and the Frederich Ebert Foundation on the Conflict in Guinea-Bissau in 2018.

“What I see happening is that ECOWAS will realise that the absolute good it seeks is not realisable and will settle for the lesser evil, which is releasing President Bazoum and a return to civilian rule on an agreed date which they have always done in the past,” says the author of the award-winning doctoral thesis titled: ‘Diplomacy and the Development of Equatorial Guinea, 1900-1990’.

Aworawo says Nigeria and ECOWAS, by extension, should not have threatened Niger with military invasion when it knew that doing so could attract unintended consequences.

The crisis took a different turn when Western powers began taking sides with the West African bloc while Russia and other West African nations led by military juntas came to Niger’s defence, says Aworawo, a lecturer at the Department of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos.

According to him, previous sanctions against the military juntas in Mali and Guinea forced them to agree to a transition timetable and this same approach ought to have sufficed in the case of Niger rather than a threat of military invasion.

“It is safe to say that a military invasion in Niger is now off the table because such a decision will split ECOWAS,” Aworawo says, adding that the possibility of Nigerian refugees in Niger being used as human shields should discourage any military intervention.

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