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Analysis: Nigeria Scrambles to Save Face Over Coup in Niger

ECOWAS appears to have in front of them three very poor options

By Scott Morgan and Douglas Burton

One of the poorest, least understood and hottest nations in the Sahel has been in the hotseat of foreign-policy jibber jabber since July 26 – and for good reason. On that day the president of Niger’s own elite security – his own Praetorian guard—arrested him, and in one stroke took hostage the entire Western economic and security framework for West Africa. 

The coup of the Nigerien generals was the fourth in West African region in two years – Mali (May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January and September 2022). All of a sudden it was clear the neighborhood was going seriously down.  National Security experts quickly warned that it was a bad sign for the volatile Sahel region. “Until the recent power grab by a group of military leaders, Niger not only stood out as the “last bastion of democracy in the Sahel,” but was moreover considered the “last bulwark against jihadis and Russian influence” across the region,” intoned the International Centre for Counter Terrorism. https://www.icct.nl/publication/unravelling-niger-coup-and-its-implications-violent-extremism-sahel 

The 15 member economic trade group goes by the moniker of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) since 1975,  and for years ECOWAS prided itself on peace-making, improved living standards and democratization.  ECOWAS has intervened against, sanctioned, or condemned actions taken by most of its member states over the past two decades. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/03/19/regional-cooperation-on-democratization-and-conflict-management-in-africa-pub-75769

Dirt-poor but uranium-rich Niger is a member along with the biggest and richest nation in Africa: Nigeria. The other much-smaller nations include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.  All of these nations have strong trade relationships with the United States, while taking on  loans and trade agreements with the Peoples Republic of China, which promotes economic progress through centrally managed economies like China’s own.

Africa: the New Great Game

Like value shoppers everywhere, the 15 nations of ECOWAS are shopping for the best deals in development loans whether from former colonial powers such as the UK or France, or the United States or from the ambitious new investors in Africa with no track record of colonial possession nor of democracy: China and Russia.  All hands agree that the great game for power in Africa is on.

Shortly after President Mohamed Bazoum was removed from power on July 26, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria demanded that he be reinstated. The Junta steadfastly refused.  Crowds of coups supporters filled the streets of Niamey, the Niger capital. The Nigerian leadership in Abuja looked embarrassed and fumbled for a way to save face.  In the past ECOWAS tried to impose sanctions on Mali however that effort proved to be counter-productive.

A crucial anxiety surfaced regarding whether the West-leaning trade bloc could be preserved. Both Mali and Burkina Faso, both suspended from the bloc after military coups, stated that they will consider any military intervention against the junta in Niamey as an act of war.  Guinea, a bloc member,  has stated its opposition taking any action at all against Niger. Another factor that could influence a decision are reports of members of the Russian Wagner private military company  arriving on August 5th in Niger.  The United States maintains an 1,100 soldier drone base in Niger, which plays a key role in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the region. The US Department of Defense has not decided on a pullout of  US troops at this time. Doing so not only will create a vacuum that Wagner mercenaries would like to fill but also a transition that Islamist militants would seek to exploit.

Nigeria’s Choices

In general, options are listed in three groups according to sources consulted by TruthNigeria. There is the best case scenario, the worst case and a realistic option. What ECOWAS appears to have in front of them are three very poor options. First option is that they could accept the coup as a fait accompli change in government, The second choice is to  impose sanctions with the carrot of creating a transitional government that organizes elections or another option is to intervene and restore constitutional government. Not addressing the problem or accepting the coup will embolden others to take similar actions in other member states. However, the use of  military force to intervene and restore President Barzoum to power presents challenges including inciting a regional war. That is a costly option not only financially but also may cost civilian casualties. Accepting the change as it is will be the easy option. The military option is the most difficult. It should be realized that no matter what course is taken the region will become more unstable in the foreseeable future.

Tensions between giant Nigeria and the 14 surrounding dwarves has surfaced. A thought leader in Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress, Femi Fani Kayode, tweeted that support of using force against Niger is a fool’s errand:  “I do not support military Governments and I cannot abide or stomach the way in which Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have threatened, insulted and made mockery of our nation and people over the last few days but one thing is clear: the military regimes in all of those three countries are wildly popular and the hatred for France in each of them is palpable and irreversible.

“Why should we get involved in all this? This is not our fight and if we choose to stand on the side of the French imperialists, neo-colonialists and oppressors against the will of the people of these three sovereign nations it may well result in chaos, mutiny, rebellion and a revolution in our own country. This must be avoided at all costs,” according to Kayode.

“A military intervention will worsen the already volatile region,” texted David Otto,  a London-based military consultant who has done work for the Nigerian Defense Ministry. “ War will only benefit war merchants will only benefit war merchants within and outside the region. The only really viable solution is to pressure the military junta to establish a transitional government and hold fresh elections within a year.

 “The deposed president should be allowed to contest,” Otto went on to say. “Any plans to reinstate the ousted president by force will only divide the ECOWAS region. War is too costly to undertake in the region, and there is no popular support for it. As the Ukraine war has illustrated, it’s easier to start a war than to end one.  A military intervention by ECOWAS led by Nigeria is the worst option for Nigeria and the region,” according to Otto.

Scott Morgan is an independent security analyst and contributor to Militant Wire and is the Washington Editor of the Maghreb & Orient Courier. Douglas Burton is managing editor for TruthNigeria.com and a former State Department official in Iraq.

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