Niger coup raises fears of long-term instability

Credibility of Ecowas, which has threatened military action, is on the line, analysts tell The National

Nigerien security forces prepare to disperse pro-junta demonstrators gathered outside the French embassy in Niamey. Reuters
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The July 26 military coup in Niger has caused fears of long-term instability that may benefit insurgent groups in the Sahel, as division in West Africa grows between democratically elected leaders and military dictatorships, analysts have told The National.

Niger’s southern neighbour, economic superpower and regional military heavyweight Nigeria, has so far led a firm response to the coup, a position that has been welcomed by western leaders.

Ecowas, an alliance of West African states currently headed by Nigeria, has issued sanctions, frozen Nigerien assets and closed land and air borders.

Nigeria has followed through with its warnings so far and on Wednesday, it cut electricity supplies to Niger, which depends on Abuja for 70 per cent of its electricity.

Ecowas’s 11 member states also threatened to dislodge Niger’s junta by force if its democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum is not reinstated by Sunday.

Analysts say that it seems likely that if the current Abuja-led mediation attempts fail, Ecowas will feel compelled to intervene militarily – or lose all credibility.

Member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea also witnessed successful military coups in the past two years.

Yet the consequences of such an intervention in a region racked by instability after years of fighting insurgent groups may be catastrophic for local populations. Niger is among the poorest countries in the world.

“Nothing can be ruled out,” said Lauriane Devoize, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Abdel-Fatau Musah, Ecowas Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, on Wednesday said that “the military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality”.

“There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite,” Mr Musah told reporters in Abuja.

Deteriorating security situation

There are fears that because of Niger's strategic role in fighting insurgent groups in the Sahel, instability in Niamey might fuel more recruitments as the security situation deteriorates.

“People forget that there are high-level security challenges and jihadist groups that are benefiting from potential destabilisation in Niger,” said Ms Devoize.

“The populations in the Sahel would suffer from this.”

Speaking to the Associated Press on Tuesday, a former member of the al Qaeda-linked JNIM group echoed such fears.

“Jihadis are very supportive of this coup that happened in Niger,” said Boubacar Moussa, who said he has operated in Mali.

The coup is widely seen as having been triggered by personal grievances among the military against Mr Bazoum and to have spiralled out of control.

Mediators must now strike a delicate balance to find a face-saving solution for all sides.

“Nobody really wants an intervention,” said Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica, a UK-based advisory firm.

“They just hope that the pressure will be so great that the junta will back down and there will be a peaceful reversion of power back to Bazoum.”

There has also been attempted mediation by Chadian leader Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, who visited Niamey on Monday and met the military junta and Mr Bazoum separately.

The deposed President is currently held hostage with his family by the presidential guard in the presidential palace.

Chad is not an Ecowas member and Mr Itno was criticised on social media for his mediation attempt because he became his country’s leader through unconstitutional means after his father’s death on the battlefield in April 2021.

Yet his role as mediator must not be overlooked, said Mr Powell.

“He has something to offer to the junta, which is possibly asylum and protection if they step down,” he told The National. “Chad may also intervene alongside Ecowas.”

Ecowas’s most recent intervention dates back to 2017 in The Gambia. It did not involve heavy fighting and paved the way for the negotiated exile of long-time President Yahya Jammeh, who had refused to hand over power to his successor.

A game of alliances

But The Gambia was a “low-hanging fruit”, said Mr Powell, a small country surrounded by Senegal with a very small army.

Niger has a western-equipped, western-trained army which is expected to put up a fight against foreign troops. The army has gained experience fighting ISIS-affiliated groups in the north and al Qaeda insurgents in the south.

So far, it can count on the support of Mali and Burkina Faso, which have said that an Ecowas intervention in Niger would be the equivalent to a declaration of war against them.

They have both been suspended from the alliance and struggle with their own insurgencies. Few believe that they would be able to provide decisive militarily support to Niamey against a Nigerian-led military attack.

Yet their statement alone points at “the emergence of a counter-bloc of military leaders in the region”, said Mr Powell.

“The hope they have is to be a counterweight to Ecowas.”

Ms Devoize added: “Military juntas like Mali and Burkina Faso are trying to create a dangerous game of alliances and powers in the region.”

Many questions remain as the deadline to Ecowas’s ultimatum approaches, including the level of support for coup leaders among the Nigerien army.

The coup plotters have arrested a number of perceived pro-Bazoum politicians, including Interior Minister Hama Amadou Souley and the son of former president Mahamadou Issoufou, Oil Minister Mahamane Sani Mahamadou.

Niger’s armed forces chief on Thursday endorsed the coup, saying he wanted to avoid a bloodshed.

With Mr Bazoum and his family under house arrest, their fate would be unclear if the security situation deteriorates.

Yet should Mr Bazoum be successfully reinstated following an Ecowas military intervention, he might also lose legitimacy among his own people and be viewed as a foreign-backed leader.

“There are no particularly happy outcomes. Choices are all bad,” said Mr Powell.

Adding a layer of complication, Nigerien civil society is divided over the coup, wrote Sebastien Elischer, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in an article published on Monday by Democracy in Africa.

The junta has encouraged and instrumentalised anti-Bazoum sentiment and protesters last week set ruling party headquarters on fire.

Russian flags have been displayed during the protests, including by mobs that attacked the French embassy in Niamey on Sunday, triggering an ongoing Paris-led evacuation effort.

But critics of Mr Bazoum such as the group Tournons La Page have also condemned the coup.

“The support for democracy might be much higher than prominent media images suggest,” said Mr Elischer.

Updated: August 03, 2023, 11:32 AM