By Thierno Diallo

On July 26, Niger found itself in a state of profound uncertainty following what may be described as the most significant political crisis in recent years within the volatile Sahel region.

The legitimately elected President of the Republic, Mohamed Bazoum, who assumed office in April 2021, was apprehended by members of his own security detail.

General Abdourahamane Tchiani, their leader, declared himself the “President of the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP)” and assumed the role of Head of State two days thereafter.

Bazoum detention

Since that moment, Bazoum, who perceives himself as held captive by certain factions of the Nigerien military, has remained confined within his Niamey palace.

The military junta, which orchestrated the coup, justified their actions by citing the “deterioration of the security situation” in the nation, which has been beleaguered by sustained terrorist attacks.

In the immediate aftermath of this “attempted” coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) swiftly denounced the act and called upon the perpetrators to release President Mohamed Bazoum without delay or precondition.

They underscored his accession to power through a legitimate democratic process. Unlike its past responses to similar seizures of power, ECOWAS has displayed a more proactive involvement in the Niger case.

From the outset of the crisis, ECOWAS embarked upon diplomatic endeavours to find a peaceful resolution. On the same day, the President of Nigeria and the current Chair of the ECOWAS Conference of Heads of State and Government, Bola Tinubu, held discussions with Benin’s President Patrice Talon in Abuja, addressing the Nigerien situation.

Talon was entrusted with the role of mediator between the insurgent presidential guard and President Mohamed Bazoum, with the primary objective of swiftly reconciling the two parties and salvaging democratic institutions.

However, logistical challenges obstructed President Talon’s journey to the Nigerien capital. Various accounts circulate regarding whether ECOWAS cancelled the mission at the eleventh hour or if the new ruling authorities in Niamey denied entry to the Beninese president on their sovereign soil. Notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that President Talon has yet to engage with the CNSP members.

Signs of regional instability

While Niger had once stood as an exemplar of democratic transition—marked by the smooth transfer of power from the outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou (2011-2021) to his successor Mohamed Bazoum—this military intervention in the political spectrum has cast a shadow over not only West Africa but also the broader Sahel region.

This recent coup compounds a series of power takeovers in the sub-region over the past three years: Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), Burkina Faso (January 2022 and October 2022), and now Niger (July 2023).

Furthermore, this particular coup has swiftly garnered the label of being a “coup d’état too far,” a designation resonating even with ECOWAS leaders.

Nigeria’s President, speaking on behalf of his peer counterparts, delivered a stern admonition to the Nigerien junta, affirming that the sub-regional entity will not countenance any action obstructing the rightful authority of Niger or any portion of the broader West African landscape.

This resolute stance was reaffirmed during an extraordinary summit of ECOWAS Heads of State convened on July 30 in Abuja, Nigeria—a gathering that culminated in the imposition of rigorous sanctions by the organization and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) upon the coup orchestrators in Niger, who are detaining President Bazoum in his official residence.

Military intervention option

While ECOWAS initially hewed to diplomatic avenues throughout the crisis, the spectre of military intervention now looms over the new administrators of Niamey. Commanders of West African armed forces recently concluded discussions in Nigeria’s capital, delineating the parameters of a conceivable military intervention.

Nevertheless, despite the diplomatic overtures undertaken thus far by the sub-regional organization, underscored by the primacy of a military solution only as a last resort, these endeavours have hitherto yielded no discernible progress.

The ECOWAS ultimatum, setting a deadline for the military to release President Bazoum and reinstate him in his role, approaches its expiry.

The potential ramifications of military intervention for stability across West Africa loom large. ECOWAS Heads of State are acutely conscious of the repercussions such a manoeuvre might have across the entire sub-region.

The hope pervades that the junta may reconsider its position and restore constitutional order, reinstalling President Bazoum without resorting to conflict. Present indications, however, suggest a different trajectory—unless the CNSP alters its stance upon perceiving the resolve of leaders like President Bola Tinubu.

At present, General Abdourahamane Tchiani and his confederates proceed with their actions as if no substantive shift has transpired. The junta has released over twenty communiqués through the national television channel Télé Sahel.

In these, they denounce the sanctions from ECOWAS and WAEMU as “illegitimate, unjust, inhumane, and unprecedented.” Furthermore, they castigate the defence accords between Niger and France, potentially laying the groundwork for the withdrawal of French troops stationed in the nation. Nevertheless, Paris unequivocally recognizes Mohamed Bazoum as Niger’s sole legitimate president.

Buoyed by segments of Niger’s populace who reject ties with France and view ECOWAS as a Western puppet organization, the military junta led by General-President Tchiani may well extend resistance to ECOWAS forces should circumstances necessitate.

The junta has warned that any military intervention in Niger would elicit an immediate response against ECOWAS member states, with the exception of those already under suspension, which they deem as “friendly nations.”

In the event of an escalation, the spectre of instability looms large across the sub-region, especially given Niger’s geographical location within the Sahel—an area long plagued by the depredations of armed groups spanning a decade.

 Coalition of putschist regimes 

Niger, once hailed as an exemplar in the Sahel’s counterterrorism efforts, fostering cooperation with Western partners such as France and the United States, has now aligned itself with fellow coup leaders in Burkina Faso and Mali following the most recent coup.

In response to ECOWAS sanctions against Niger’s junta, Mali and Burkina Faso issued a joint communique, issuing a caution against military intervention in Niamey. These two governments affirmed that any military action targeting Niger would be construed as an act of war against Mali and Burkina Faso.

Likewise, Guinea, governed by a military junta, expressed solidarity with the people of Niger while simultaneously declaring its intent not to implement the ECOWAS sanctions.

Unlike Niger’s junta, Guinea appears less fervently aligned with the Niger coup, adopting a more nuanced stance. This differentiation arises from Guinea’s distinct context—one relatively insulated from terrorism compared to its Sahel counterparts.

While Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger contend with security imperatives, Guinea grapples with different concerns, such as economic challenges.

This divergence moulds their perspectives on foreign partnerships and influence, allowing Guinea to sustain relationships with diverse partners, including France, without evoking public resentment.

Common junta interests 

What binds the junta-led nations—Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—is their shared perspective on ECOWAS. These military regimes must coalesce not merely to confront imposed sanctions but also to envision their collective future trajectories.

They are apprehensive of an ECOWAS wherein member states are entirely under the aegis of military authority. This apprehension fuels the determination of Nigeria’s President and his counterparts to adopt stringent measures this time, thus severing the propagation of such occurrences.

Hence, ECOWAS deviates from its customary diplomatic methodology, opting for a path laden with inherent risks. The stakes are high.

Should Niger experience a failure of resolution, it will invariably amplify the influence of these junta-led regimes, who, akin to their elected counterparts, understand that the dénouement of the political turmoil gripping Niamey will inexorably shape their own fates.

Much like in Bamako and Ouagadougou, the military rulers in Conakry stand to gain significantly should the coup against Mohamed Bazoum succeed.

Nevertheless, to avoid inciting their Western partners, these leaders are judiciously treading the path of reticence concerning the Niger coup—a situation that has garnered unanimous condemnation from ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, and other global actors.

The author is a Guinean columnist based in Conakry.

This article was first produced in French. English translation done by Daniel Okoth.