Following the coup in Niger, ECOWAS has grappled with the dilemma of whether to intervene militarily. While it would not be the first of such interventions, the uniquely delicate situation of the Sahel means ECOWAS cannot easily justify intervening this time around.
As time passes, the question of whether there is more regional unrest on the horizon or not does not seem to be answered by any resolute action of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The third article of the revised 1993 ECOWAS treaty notes that the community’s aims are to promote cooperation and integration for the establishment of an economically unified West Africa and doesn’t devote any explicit words to physical interventions in member states. However, reading between the lines of the revised treaty reveals that there is plenty of room in the choice of wording that directs towards ‘necessary safeguard measures’ in case of ‘serious disturbances’.
Since the coup on 26 July 2023, Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, has been held prisoner in his presidential palace in Niamey under the accusation of ‘treason’. Presidential guard commander-general, Abdourahamane Tchiani, has since become the self-proclaimed leader of Niger’s military junta. In a strongly worded statement, ECOWAS Commission president, Omar Alieu Touray, said the community should ‘take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger.’ ECOWAS’ ambassador, Abdel-Fatau Musah, also said that ‘by all means available, constitutional order will be restored in the country’. Several meetings have taken place so far between both West African defence chiefs and ECOWAS’ delegations, and Niger’s junta leader without clear results. On 21 August, ECOWAS rejected the junta’s proposal for a ‘transition period’ of three years. ECOWAS leaders are considering taking steps for a military intervention, for which their stand-by forces are said to be ready. On one hand, that such intervention is within the scope of the ECOWAS’ policy purposes is fairly questionable. On the other hand, the current operational space in Niger has left room for exploitation by jihadi groups, which is not only an increasing risk and issue for Niger but also for the region encompassing Mali, northern Nigeria and Burkina Faso, as political and governing instability in the whole Sahel seems to become more fragile day by day.
One could argue that military intervention in one of the member states aligns with ECOWAS’ aims of promoting cooperation and integration amongst its member states. ECOWAS could certainly claim that such intervention would safeguard subjacent greater goals such as the ‘maintenance of regional peace’ and the ‘promotion and consolidation of a democratic system of governance’ as envisaged by the Declaration of Political Principles adopted in Abuja on 6 July 1991. Those looking at a military intervention by ECOWAS through such a lens will notice that intervening in Niger would not be the first time the regional leadership has adopted military intervention in one of the member states. In fact, the bloc has been militarily active in several member states on seven occasions already, all on different grounds. ECOWAS intervened in Liberia in 1990, in Sierra Leone in 1997, in Guinea Bissau in 1999, in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia in 2003, in Mali in 2013 and in the Gambia in 2017. All these interventions have taken place in a post-1990 timeframe, as ECOWAS formed its military department, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), in 1990. The last of these interventions was in the Gambia in 2017 under the codename ‘Operation Restore Democracy’. An international group of 7,000 troops from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal entered the Gambia to command the transfer of power from long-time president Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow, the democratically elected leader. In the Gambia, ECOMOG did not need to apply any force to reach the mission’s goal. In a similar vein, the current demand from ECOWAS has been to restore a Nigerien government with the elected president, to avoid military intervention. The bloc has put an American-backed label on the possibility of the intervention. The bloc has also claimed to be ready for an intervention on ‘D-Day’ (whenever that may be) while warning of its unwillingness to go into ‘endless dialogue’.
What makes the current situation in Niger so different and above all more fragile than the former interventions is the nexus of actors and interest groups in the Sahel. Currently, three of the 15 ECOWAS member states—Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea—are suspended due to their own ‘transitions of power’ in recent years. All three countries are former French colonies in which—nuancedly put—Western, and primarily French involvement is not appreciated. In former military interventions, ECOMOG has partly worked together with Western and French troops. Besides that, the presence and effort of the Wagner group, a private military force which is backed by the Russian state, to exacerbate Western fears of operational expansion in the region is not lowering the temperature of the situation. The military junta in Niger has also threatened to kill former president Bazoum if ECOWAS initiates a military intervention.
TO INTERVENE OR NOT?
Obviously, the answer to the question to intervene or not depends on a series of different reasons. Military capacity or financial backing of the intervention is certainly not part of this reasoning. Military intervention would largely lean on Nigeria, which has at least 223,000 soldiers available and also possesses helicopters and fighter jets. Even if the claims that Mali and Burkina Faso would support Niger when it comes to a military intervention turn out to be true, considering their capacity, ECOWAS could still best the much smaller armies of these three countries. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that the underdog turns out to have much sharper teeth, as was for example the case with the Persian battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC and more recently at the battle of Goose Green in the Falklands war in 1982. Far more reasonable but equally impactful means of intervention could be applied before proceeding with military measures. Niger’s main strategic disadvantage is its geographical location coupled with its reliance on the Niger River for electricity supply. Being a fully landlocked country, all electricity is generated and supplied by Nigeria through Kainji Dam. Recent economic sanctions have frozen the construction of Niger’s own hydroelectric dam in the Niger River, meaning Niger remains dependent on Nigeria, which is also the driving force behind ECOWAS and its consideration of military intervention.
West Africa’s geopolitical melting pot consists of Wagner’s activities, the presence of jihadist groups, growing anti-French and anti-Western sentiment, and lost migration-countering progress regarding Niger’s role in the European Union’s migration and asylum policy. (This policy emerged after cooperation with former president Bazoum and his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, and was designed to counter northbound illegal migration.) The diverse contents of the melting pot only add to the complexity of the dilemma around whether ECOWAS should enter Niger or not. Nevertheless, the regime change in Niger complicates but doesn’t provide any real justification to pursue Niger’s cooperation through military intervention. It only suggests that the coup in Niger might indeed qualify as a ‘serious disturbance’, as indicated in the ‘exceptions and safeguard clauses’ of the revised ECOWAS treaty⎈
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