Military intervention in Niger could lead to wider conflict, analysts say

Ecowas's threat of force to remove coup leaders and restore Mohamed Bazoum as president has divided opinion in Africa

Supporters of the junta protest in Niamey against military intervention proposed by Ecowas. EPA
Powered by automated translation

African countries are divided over the threat issued by the Economic Community of West African States to intervene militarily in Niger to restore President Mohamed Bazoum's civilian government, following a coup in July.

Some states continue to urge the parties involved to seek a diplomatic resolution, saying that military action by the economic and security bloc would have unpredictable consequences across Africa.

Niger's military rulers on Friday gave the French, German, Nigerian and US ambassadors 48 hours to leave the country.

A coup on July 26, led by Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani, toppled Mr Bazoum, who took office in 2021 after winning the presidential election.

He has been held under house arrest and may face charges of treason.

International parties have condemned the coup, including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the US, which expressed its “unflagging” support for Mr Bazoum.

France, formerly a colonial power in Niger, joined calls by the African Union and Ecowas to reverse the coup and “restore the country’s democratic institutions”.

France said Niger's “putschists have no authority” to expel its ambassador. Paris has said it would support whatever course of action Ecowas takes on Niger.

However, as 11 out of 15 member states of Ecowas are mulling military intervention, many countries – including Niger's northern neighbour Algeria – said that the use of force might worsen the already unstable region and lead to war.

Ecowas on Friday told Niger's coup leaders it was “not too late” to reconsider their position.

A regional war on the horizon

Algerian security and conflict resolution analyst Ahmed Mizab said Niger is a fragile country, with four main issues that make any military intervention fraught with problems.

“Niger is classified among the 15 poorest countries in the world,” said Mr Mizab.

“This, together with the impact of its colonial legacy, ethnic tensions and terrorism, making any further collapse of the situation in Niger a fertile ground for a comprehensive crisis in the entire region.”

Mr Mizab said that instability in Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad and Mali may make the crisis in Niger the straw broke the camel’s back.

He said it could lead to the expansion of Boko Haram, an Al Qaeda-linked extremist group that has for years wreaked havoc in northern Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, into other territories.

Meanwhile, Algeria's Foreign Ministry said that resorting to a “violent” solutions in Niger might lead to “a cycle of violence with unpredictable consequences” for West Africa.

Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune assigned Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf to visit Niger's neighbours Nigeria, Benin and Chad, to discuss the crisis and the need for a political solution.

Algerian Foreign Ministry Secretary General Lounes Magramane met members of Niger's military-appointed government, including Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine, on Thursday.

Mr Magramane stressed the importance of negotiations.

“An intervention in Niger will naturally have disastrous consequences not only for Niger but for all the countries in the region”, he told Niger's national radio station, Voice of the Sahel.

Mr Mizab said pledges by Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea to support Niger's coup leaders made intervention more risky.

“Algeria's call for a peaceful solution stems from its conviction that any resort to military intervention [in Niger] would lead to the explosion of the situation and collapse of the entire security equation in the region, as it would open confrontations on more than one front,” Mr Mizab said.

He said military intervention “would turn into a regional war as several countries expressed their willingness to back up Niger's ruling junta to counter Ecowas”.

The use of force to resolve the crisis would feed into problems such as ethnic tension and terrorism, which would expand in the context of conflict, said Mr Mizab.

French interests at stake in Niger?

Mr Mizab highlighted France's role in Niger, and the wider region.

France has between 1,000 and 1,500 soldiers in Niger, under an agreement to help fight extremists. At least 1,000 US personnel are also present.

French troops were told to leave Mali and Burkina Faso following military coups there.

“France is looking at the [Niger] crisis from a narrow angle, as it has already received several slaps from other countries in the region and we are well aware of the importance of the Sahel to France,” said Mr Mizab.

Paris considers Niger an area of influence and with great strategic importance, and – given its colonial history in the region – would consider making an intervention, according to Mr Mizab.

Mr Bazoum gave France the authorisation for its troops to be stationed in his country to assist with counter-terrorism field, but this was revoked by the junta.

The current political status quo would mean that once again, French troops would have to retreat to another country or leave the Sahel region once and for all.

On Tuesday, the French Army denied reports that it had asked Algeria to use its airspace for a military operation in Niger.

Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembele said the Niger coup has been in the making for some time, as Mr Bazoum refused to let the military co-operate with armed forces in Burkina Faso and Mali to establish a common security strategy.

French influence made that impossible, he said.

“Public opinion has always been overwhelmingly against France's presence in Niger. There were protests last year against it, even at the national assembly as MPs called for the closure of the French military bases,” said Mr Dembele.

Military frustration over an abortive security alliance with Niger's western neighbours and widespread popular disapproval of the French presence led to the coup, said Mr Dembele.

France’s perceived influence on the economies of Niger and other West African countries – including the CFA franc currency – plus its privileged access to Niger's uranium and other natural resources has fuelled anti-French sentiment.

Niger is the world's seventh biggest producer of uranium. The fuel is vital for nuclear power with a quarter of it going to Europe, mainly France.

EU nuclear agency Euratom said in 2022 Niger delivered 2,975 tonnes of natural uranium – or 25.4 per cent of the bloc's supplies.

The production of West African CFA franc notes and coins has been carried out by the Bank of France since the currency's creation in 1945.

In 2021, Ecowas announced that it would attempting to launch a common currency, called the Eco, in West Africa replacing the CFA by 2027.

“There is a sentiment here that is against French colonialism, not only here [in West Africa] but also in central African countries … For that reason, the threat by Ecowas is something that is backed up by France,” Mr Dembele explained.

“The risk is just too high for France,” he added.

The end of Ecowas?

While Ecowas seems determined to intervene militarily in Niger, if necessary, observers say such a decision might lead to a crisis between its member states.

“The whole region would fall into turmoil and then Ecowas as we know will be over, because Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea will get out of it,” Mr Dembele told The National.

According to Mr Dembele, Ecowas has little support among ordinary people, who perceive the bloc as a gatekeeper for rulers' interest instead for caring for citizens' struggles.

Fragile democratic institutions and the lack of popular support to civilian governments in West Africa has put these countries at risk of a military takeover.

“There is no democracy in Cote d’Ivoire, there is no democracy in Benin or even here in Senegal, when they say they are going to restore democracy it’s only a facade for us,” Mr Dembele said.

“Elections alone do not necessarily mean democracy.”

In recent years, civil governments that have failed to install sustainable democratic institutions and garner public support have been toppled down in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad.

However, despite the relative popularity of these military governments, living conditions remain dire for residents, especially as sanctions against ruling regimes add to existing economic woes.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 1:34 PM