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Can the Niger army stand up to ECOWAS?

By Manon Laplace, Manon Laplace

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Posted on August 11, 2023 11:49

File photo: A convoy of Nigerien soldiers patrol outside the town of Ouallam, Niger in 2021. (REUTERS/Media Coulibaly)
File photo: A convoy of Nigerien soldiers patrol outside the town of Ouallam, Niger in 2021.(REUTERS/Media Coulibaly)

On 10 August the West African bloc agreed to deploy a ‘standby force’ to restore constitutional order in Niger. What is the capacity of the Nigerien army, which is already engaged on several fronts?

The deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has passed. The negotiations led by former Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou have failed. And attempts at mediation by the international community have had no success.

At its meeting in Abuja on Thursday, 10 August, the West African bloc voted to deploy a “standby force” to “restore constitutional order”.

ECOWAS president Omar Touray said the force would be prepared for “immediate activation” but gave no further details.

Following the meeting, Côte d’Ivoire president Alassane Ouattara said his country would supply 850-1,100 men, and that Nigeria and Benin would take part. Nigerian president Bola Tinubu insisted that the force would only be used as a “last resort”.

The possibility of an ECOWAS armed intervention in Niger is therefore very real and raises many questions.

Foremost among them, the capacity of the Nigerien army, already heavily engaged in the war against jihadist groups, to face a potential outside intervention.

A facade of unity?

The answer is far from obvious, as the mobilisable forces on both sides remain uncertain.

In Abuja, senators have called on President Bola Tinubu to favour the diplomatic path. Mali and Burkina Faso – suspended from ECOWAS since their own coups d’états – have said that any military intervention would be seen as a “declaration of war” in their countries. Guinea also opposes any ECOWAS armed action, although it has not said it would provide military assistance to the Nigerien coup leaders.

Positions are no clearer within the ranks of the Niger armed forces, at a time when the coup is not yet fully complete – Mohamed Bazoum not yet having signed his resignation.

In the night of July 26-27, just hours after the start of the coup, commanders of several army corps, including the land forces and special forces, appeared alongside the coup leaders from the presidential guard during their first televised address.

Not enough to prevent many observers from doubting the superficial unity displayed by the army. “None of the chiefs appearing with the coup leaders can be sure that all their men are following them, with the exception of General Abdourahamane Tiani of the presidential guard,” says a former West African military officer in constant contact with Nigerien soldiers.

According to him, many of the approximately 40,000 soldiers that make up Niger’s army “have been presented with a fait accompli and do not subscribe to recent events, even if they follow orders”.

A loyalist National Guard?

Would they be willing to refuse to take up arms in the event of an ECOWAS armed intervention?

“The junta’s speeches increasingly emphasise Niger’s sovereignty,” the source says. “A way to prepare Nigerien public opinion to defend the coup leaders from any foreign intervention in the name of patriotism and to reinforce the idea that any intervention would be an aggression against Niger, even among soldiers still loyal to Mohamed Bazoum.”

Within the defence and security forces, the National Guard – in which Bazoum had placed his trust – is being closely watched.

This unit, which reportedly has around 13,000 men according to consistent sources, is a component of the domestic security forces under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. “The elements of the National Guard do not belong to the army, but they have been trained within military structures, often with army officers. They also have significant military equipment,” says Nina Wilén, Africa Programne director at the Egmont Institute in Brussels.

In the early hours of the coup, several National Guard units were brought back from Tillaberi, Ouallam and Diffa to Niamey to guard several strategic sites, including the premises of the national broadcaster.

As sign of the conflicting loyalties within this paramilitary unit, its commander, Colonel Midou Guirey, was arrested and replaced by his deputy, Ahmed Sidian, who supports the coup leaders.

The junta has also placed several military governors and a police inspector at the head of eight regions, which could strengthen its support within the army ranks.

“The Nigerien army is not the Gambian army”

In the event of an ECOWAS armed intervention “the coup leaders would need all the country’s units”, says the former officer cited above.

“The loyalty of the domestic security forces, the National Guard and others could make a big difference,” Wilén agrees.

The Nigerien armed forces have for several years been deployed across the country to deal with the jihadist threat that has metastasised across the Sahel. With seven borders and nine military intervention zones, thousands of soldiers are already at war in Niger. “But Nigerien soldiers know how to fight and will fight. If a force entered Niger, there would be significant casualties on both sides. The Nigerien army is not the Gambian or Sierra Leonean army,” warns the former officer, referring to previous ECOWAS armed interventions in Gambia (2017) and Sierra Leone (1998).

In Niamey, the military received particular attention under both Mahamadou Issoufou (2011-2021) and Bazoum. Over the past five years, the special intervention battalions have greatly strengthened their equipment and benefited from training by Niger’s partners such as the United States, France and Germany. With the aim of increasing military personnel to 50,000 by 2025 and 100,000 by 2030, the budget for the Nigerien army increased significantly.

Putschist alliance

In the event of armed conflict with ECOWAS forces, could Niamey also count on the support of Bamako and Ouagadougou? The Malian and Burkinabè armies are also mobilised against radical groups. But these Sahelian neighbours benefit from foreign allies. Since the advent of the junta in Mali in 2021 (the year of the “coup within a coup” that brought Assimi Goïta to power), Bamako has greatly strengthened its military equipment thanks to Moscow’s support.

Russia has above all provided Mali with the support of hundreds of mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary group. This has not been the case in Burkina Faso, despite obvious Russian overtures to the Russophile Ibrahim Traoré.

According to several sources, contact will have been made between the Nigerien junta and Wagner via the Malian authorities. In addition, the Malian minister of defence Sadio Camara, a major architect of the Wagner troops’ arrival in Bamako, was in Niamey on 7 August to talk with General Tiani and his men.

In early August, the Nigerien army chief of staff, who has since been replaced, sent a letter to his Malian counterpart asking for material support. According to the letter, which journalists at our sister publication Jeune Afrique have authenticated, Niger asked for drone ammunition and rockets in particular, which would be used to ‘face any potential internal or external threat in the context of defending the territorial integrity of Niger’.

While it is not possible to predict the alliances and means that would be made available in the event of conflict, two camps are emerging in the subregion. That of the military regimes, who are unwavering supporters of Niger’s Conseil National pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie junta. And that of the elected presidents, which is itself divided: the one hand are the interventionists, and on the other those who, like Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé and Algeria’s President Tebboune, still want to believe that mediation is possible.

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