Leaders of ECOWAS countries are set to meet on Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria, following the end of the ultimatum issued to the coup leaders in Niger. However, with a fragile legal framework, the fear of regional escalation, and a deeply divided West African bloc, an armed intervention faces numerous obstacles.
After the ultimatum ended for the coup leaders in Niamey, ECOWAS is facing a crucial decision. The Nigerien military, refusing to comply with the demands of the West African bloc and the West, announced on Monday, August 7, the closure of the country’s airspace “in the face of the imminent threat of intervention from neighboring countries”.
“There are currently no signs of an imminent attack after the ultimatum expired,” says Serge Daniel, correspondent in West Africa, noting that “the junta communicates and seeks to mobilize the population.”
According to an official statement, ECOWAS leaders are scheduled to meet on Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria.
On Monday morning, Niamey awoke calmly following a show of force by nearly 30,000 supporters of the military who gathered at the largest stadium in the capital.
Last week, the heads of the ECOWAS armed forces announced that they had developed a plan for a possible military intervention in Niger if President Mohamed Bazoum, who claims to be held hostage, was not reinstated by Sunday.
“ECOWAS is playing its credibility here because it has been relatively weak in the face of the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, it can no longer afford to be,” said General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the United Nations, on .
According to Le Monde, nearly 50,000 soldiers could be mobilized within the ECOWAS countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Benin.
“The countries in the region remain divided. While Senegal and Ivory Coast have said they are in favor of a military intervention, we have not heard much from other ECOWAS members. What, for example, does a country like Ghana think, which is nevertheless a major player in the sub-region?” asks Stéphane Ballong, ‘s Africa editor.
In addition, Chad, an important African military power and a neighboring country of Niger, has already indicated that it will not participate in any intervention.
N’Djamena “will never intervene militarily. We have always advocated for dialogue. Chad is a facilitator,” said Daoud Yaya Brahim, the Defense Minister of the country that is not an ECOWAS member, on Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, the coup leaders in Niamey have promised an “immediate response” to “any aggression”. However, direct assistance from their counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso, allies of the new junta in Niger, seems unlikely, according to General Trinquand.
“Mali and Burkina Faso have enough to deal with regarding jihadists and do not have forces to dedicate to Niger,” the expert said. “The balance of power therefore strongly favors the West African organization.”
Nevertheless, the Malian army announced on Monday the sending of a joint official delegation to Niamey by Mali and Burkina Faso in “solidarity” with Niger.
The military option currently faces strong resistance from several neighboring countries of Niamey. Algeria, which shares nearly 1,000 km of borders with Niger, has expressed reservations about an intervention. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune assured public television that the use of force would be “a direct threat” to his country. “There will be no solution without us (Algeria),” he added, fearing that “the entire Sahel will ignite” in the event of intervention.
“We must prevent the catastrophic scenario of a war,” warned a collective of researchers and Sahel specialists in an article published on Saturday in the French daily Libération. “Another war in the Sahel will only have one winner: jihadist movements that have been building their territorial expansion on the failure of states for years,” they wrote.
Even in Nigeria, the largest military power in ECOWAS with 200,000 troops and the potential leader of a military intervention in Niger, voices are rising to criticize President Bola Tinubu’s warlike intentions.
On Friday evening, senators from the northern part of the country, faced with the violence of Boko Haram and various armed groups, expressed concern about Nigeria’s involvement, before the largest opposition coalition condemned the project as “not only useless but irresponsible”.
“In recent days, calls from the political class have multiplied, asking ECOWAS to prioritize negotiations. Despite having a majority at his disposal, President Tinubu knows he will have a tough time getting Senate approval to deploy Nigerian soldiers in an intervention force in Niger,” analyzes Moïse Gomis, correspondent in Abuja.
Nevertheless, even if ECOWAS manages to gather the necessary forces to intervene in Niger, the question of the legal framework for such an intervention would remain. Due to the Russian veto, it seems impossible for West African countries to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council that would enhance the legitimacy of a military operation, as was the case in Gambia in 2017.
Niger, one of the largest countries in the region with an area of 1.3 million square kilometers and a population of 25 million, presents a logistical challenge that is fundamentally different from the modest Gambia with its 2.6 million inhabitants.
While the possibility of a military intervention remains relevant, it still appears as a risky option of last resort. “We must delay the war option as much as possible,” said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani in an interview published by La Stampa newspaper on Monday, emphasizing that “the only solution is diplomatic.”
“At this stage, we can say that all options are on the table, including the diplomatic option that has not yet been exhausted. It should be noted that while brandishing the threat of a military intervention, ECOWAS has always insisted that everything would be done to find a diplomatic solution,” Stéphane Ballong reminds us.
Beyond continuing negotiations with the coup leaders, a third option would be “to destabilize the junta, which does not have the approval of everyone in Niger,” suggests General Trinquand.
“The coup leaders do not hold Niamey in terms of the support of the various armed forces: the presidential guard, the national guard, and the army,” says Jérôme Pigné. “We recently saw the coup leaders wanting to secure their families. This means they feel threatened.”
Reuters and AFP