On Thursday, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders will reconvene in Abuja, at the behest of President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria, who doubles as chairman of the sub-regional body, to discuss the crisis in Niger Republic.
The scheduled meeting is necessitated by the failure the Niger junta to hand back power to the deposed civilian president, Mohamed Bazoum, within the one week ultimatum given by the Tinubu-led body, which appears to have begun to retrace its steps.
In the meantime, the regional body, on Tuesday, resolved to impose financial sanctions on ‘individuals and entities’ believed to be supporting the military junta in the Francophone country.
A delegation of the ECOWAS, the United Nations and the African Union which attempted to meet with the junta was earlier turned down, as the coup leaders continue to call the regional body’s bluff, and more than one week on, there’s an emerging consensus that Tinubu and ECOWAS initially mishandled the situation.
The Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff (CDS) of ECOWAS, had after their three-day meeting in Abuja on Friday, agreed to explore negotiation and diplomatic options in resolving the coup situation, conceding for the first time, that military intervention should be the last option.
“Dialogue and negotiations should be at the forefront of our approach in resolving the crisis in the Republic of Niger,” said Gen. Christopher Musa, Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff and President of the committee at the end of the committee’s three-day meeting on Friday.
“We must engage the traditional authorities, civil society, organisation and all the key actors to foster an inclusive and peaceful transition process.”
On Saturday, Nigerian senators rejected a request by President Tinubu to approve troops deployment to the West African country, which may have very well put paid to the quest for military intervention.
The defence chiefs, though not entirely ruling out military option, have apparently come to the realisation that, as many analysts have said, a military intervention in Niger could have disastrous consequences in a region still reeling from the impact of similar intervention farther afield in Libya by the United States.
The proliferation of small arms from the destabilization of Libya has since led to heightened Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region, and perhaps even worse, intractable banditry in Nigeria’s north.
A similar intervention in Niger – which is now actively backed by Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea – all of which are now ruled by the military – many say, could cause an implosion, and perhaps lead to an all out regional war. Chad, Niger’s other neighbour, has also said it won’t take part in any military effort against the junta.
“ECOWAS is in a difficult situation here,” said William Lawrence, a U.S diplomat and analyst, who lived for 15 years in the Sahelian countries and North Africa. “ECOWAS intervention could lead to a regional war because Mali and Burkina Faso have said any of such intervention will be a declaration of war.”
When fortnight ago, in the immediate aftermath of Niger military coup – which saw Abdourahamane Tiani, the chief of the country’s powerful presidential guard seize power – ECOWAS leaders, issued a one-week ultimatum to the junta to return power to Bazoum, or face military intervention – many feared a military confrontation between Nigeria and Niger.
Tinubu, who prides himself as the ‘father of democrats’ had only recently assumed chairmanship of the regional body, and at the prompting of the West, particularly the United States, France and the larger European Union bloc, seemed determined to flaunt his leadership and democratic credential on the continent. War loomed, and ECOWAS defence chiefs held frantic deliberations in Abuja.
The one-week ultimatum has, however, come and gone. The Niger Junta has called ECOWAS bluff, insisting that it was ready for war, and would not bow to pressure from any external force, but will set its own timelines for transition back to civilian rule.
However, common sense appears to have returned, amid mounting opposition against military option, particularly from Nigeria’s beleaguered north, which shares wide border and kinship with Niger, and finally on Friday, regional defence chiefs agreed that diplomacy was the best option.
“Military option is the last option,” said Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Dr. Ibrahim Kana, at the meeting on Friday, “but the President has directed us, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces of Nigeria to come together with other ECOWAS members,” he said.
Regardless, Tinubu, who is enjoying the support of the West in the event, appears to favour of an intervention, despite opposition to it. On Friday, he wrote to the Nigerian senate seeking approval to deploy troops in Niger.
War, as often said, is economic. Niger supplies 15 percent of France’s uranium needs – 17,615 tonnes – and accounts for a fifth of the EU’s total uranium imports. Orano, a French firm controls mining of the natural resource in the country.
Yet, for the European nation, which has had coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso sack its forces and severe ties with it, Niger following similar route was one too many, and represents a pattern that has to be reversed.
The United States, which has also encouraged the Tinubu-led ECOWAS to do whatever it possible to return Bazoum to power, has military base in Niger, where nearly a thousand of its soldiers, and over a thousand five hundred French soldiers are stationed.
The base also hosts personnel from the EU countries for both military and civilian training missions, and operates a wide range of aircraft, including eight Mirage 2000D fighter jets, four MQ-9 Reaper armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a Boeing C-135FR refueling aircraft, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters, and The NHIndustries NH90 military helicopters.
The U.S also established an expansive drone base in Niger’s Agadez region, known as Niger Air Base 201.
Leased from the Nigerien government for a period of 10 years, Base 201 is regarded as the U.S’s largest and most expensive drone base, on which the country invested invested $110 million in construction and $30 million annually for maintenance.
The base functions as a primary intelligence and surveillance centre for the Sahel region, but its operation could be threatened with the junta in power. The U.S and France have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the regional body gets rid of the junta.
On Saturday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna met with Niger Prime Minister, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou and the Niger ambassador in Paris.
Earlier, Colonna said the coup leaders in Niamey had until Sunday to hand back power, otherwise a threat by member countries of ECOWAS to stage a military intervention had to be taken “very seriously.” The threat, she said on French public radio, is “very credible.”
Similarly, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), on Friday, advised ECOWAS to use force to depose the military leaders in Niger.
Chris Kwaja, the USIP country manager, said in a statement, that security contractors would see the region as fragile and take advantage of its natural resources if prompt actions are not taken. He added that ECOWAS must be proactive in its use of force and ensure that the activities of security mercenaries are curtailed in the region.
“We’ve seen the communique issued by ECOWAS a few days ago to the coupists in Niger, telling them to return the president and have given an ultimatum,” he said.
“So we are waiting to see what ECOWAS will do at the end of the ultimatum and I think if ECOWAS is able to garner the political muscles to bite hard at this time, it will be sending a very strong signal to whoever is outside the country that is supporting and masterminding what we are seeing.
“They are very active in the regions where there are natural resources and would continue to perpetuate conflicts and instability to justify why they should continue their activities wherever they are.
“The ECOWAS communique that was released drew attention to the fact that the region does not welcome private military and security contractors. But unfortunately, we don’t have a regional framework for dealing with that and that is a major gap.”
But any military intervention by ECOWAS will be led by Nigeria, where such intervention is highly unpopular, and has been strongly opposed by various stakeholders, including Northern senators, the Consultative Forum (ACF), among others.
“At last count, Algeria, Italy and Russia have spoken against any military intervention in Niger Republic,” said economic analyst, Kalu Aja @FinPlanKaluAja1.
“I just saw a Nigerian military memo dated 01/08/23, where the Nigerian military are told to prep to proceed to a Northern State and also enforce a no fly zone in Niger Republic.
“I don’t believe the President has this authority without NASS appropriation of funds for this action, which will cost a lot of money.
“I personally know Nigeria does not have the means or financial resources to enforce a no-fly zone in Niger Republic, where is the aviation fuel?
“Last year bandits inside Nigeria shot down a Nigerian fighter jet, yet we are prepping to cross an international border? With fighter jets?
“As I type Nigerian farmers do not have safe access to farms, this insecurity has led to high inflation in Nigeria caused by high food costs. Similarly, oil exports have been muted due to illegal oil theft inside Nigerian waters.
“A President that has told the NLC he inherited a mess and pleads with Nigerians still earning N30,000 a month minimum wage should focus on Nigerians not Nigereans. This is waste of funds and a distraction. The President is being wrongly advised.”
Nigeria, has the largest economy and military in the region, had led similar interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone – and had deployed forces in Gambia to force Yahya Jammeh to concede power in 2017, the year he resisted handing over power after he lost election – albeit at huge costs in both finance an personnel.
Gen. Lucky Irabor (rtd), the immediate past Nigerian Chief of Defence Staff hinted recently that the country spent a whopping $8bn and lost about 1,000 soldiers in both operations; what the country, facing biting economic challenges, and stretched armed forces battling insurgency and banditry in many parts, simply cannot afford.
This, while Tinubu appears to favour an intervention, he continues to face opposition from many in the country, who insist that such would only amount to fighting proxy war for the West, even as questions have been raised about his own legitimacy, given the way the February 25 presidential election that produced him was conducted.
“I hope the National Assembly will not approve the request to send our military to Niger Republic to fight a senseless war of restoring democratic government in that country. Nigerians need our security agencies, including armed forces, to restore peace and security in Nigeria,” Jibrin Samuel Okutepa, SAN, @jibrinSAN, a senior lawyer and analyst.
“I do not see the moral and legal rights of Nigerian government embarking on such misadventures when the democratic credentials of the government are in issue. No soldier should be sent on such a wasteful ventures. No life of Nigerian soldier should be lost in such misadventures.
“Nigerians are asking that this government and any Nigerian government should demonstrate full commitment to democratic ideal by allowing the will of Nigerians to determine the legitimacy of the government. Restoring internal democracy in Nigeria should be the focus of government.
“Being glutinous for external aggression to demonstrate a power Nigerian state lacks is the worst international diplomacy to embark upon at this perilous times when Nigerians are in hell in their own country. Let govt give our armed forces the best equipment to maintain peace here.”
In a continent where democratic leaders have failed to live up to the expectations of the populace, and where elections are largely a charade, military coups are becoming popular with the younger generation, most of who did not witness the dictatorships of the 80s and 90s, and in Niger, thousands have continued to troop out to support the coup, and mock Tinubu for “attempting for meddle in affairs of their country.”
On Thursday, thousands marched in Niamey, the country’s capital, with placards expressing support for Russia and rejection of France. Notably, some paraded a banner in which they described the Nigerian president as Ebola Tinubu, and dismissed him as a puppet of France.
Niger, which shares a long border with Nigeria, stretching across many states, has approximately 25 million people, and is about 37 percent larger than Nigeria, a country of over 200 million people, by landmass.
Niger is approximately 1,267,000 sq km, compared to Nigeria’s approximately 923,768 sq km, which suggests that a military intervention in the country would be a complex and difficult undertaking, especially given the already muted presence of the Wagner Group – whose leader had expressed support for the coup – the precarious security situation in the region, and the express declaration by Mali and Burkina Faso, that a war with Niger is also a war with them.
“ECOWAS move in troops to remove the military junta in Niger Republic and Forces from the Military Governments of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso move in to support the Niger Military Junta; What will happen?” wondered Shehu Sani, former Kaduna Central senator.
Niger’s relationship with Nigeria does not end with borders. Over 53 percent of the country’s population are Hausa, with another 6.5 percent being Fulani, which means that the country shares ethnic identity with much of Nigeria’s North. Thus, any military intervention, observers say, will be deeply felt in the country.
Sani, on Monday, warned that any ECOWAS war with Niger will simply be a war between Niger and Nigeria.
“Russia and Wagner May come in support of Niger Republic and Nigeria will have to use its own money to prosecute the operation,” Sani said.
“Nigeria offsets 70 percent of the budget of Ecowas. I don’t see the U.S Congress approving unlimited arm supplies for Ecowas to wage war against another country.
“Our bordering states of Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Jigawa and Yobe will incur direct hit in the event of war.”
Opposition to military intervention is strong in the north, and in a move suggesting that Tinubu’s request for the Senate to approve such intervention will fail, northern senators on Friday, cautioned that deploying a military intervention in Niger, which it said may have negative consequences for Nigeria and the region.
Suleiman Kawu, the spokesperson of the forum, warned that deploying Nigerian troops to the Niger Republic will hurt seven northern states —Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Zamfara, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno —sharing borders with the country.
“We also take exception to the use of the military force until other avenues as mentioned above are exhausted as the consequences will be casualties among the innocent citizens, lwho go about their daily business,” Kawu said.
“Besides, about seven northern states who share a border with the Niger Republic namely Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Zamfara, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno will be negatively affected.
“We are also aware of the situation of Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya, which may affect the seven northern states if military force is used.”
The mounting opposition to military intervention has clearly forced Tinubu to reconsider same, which may have prompted the new measure of imposing financial sections on non specific entities “supporting” the Niger coup leaders, while explaining, in what seemed like a face saving position, that the seven-day ultimatum was issued by ECOWAS, and not him.
Ajuri Ngelale, special adviser to President Bola Tinubu on media and publicity, told state house correspondents on Tuesday, that the ECOWAS chairman has directed the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to implement the financial sanctions on those concerned.
“Mr President has directed the acting CBN governor to levy another slate of sanctions against entities and individuals associated with the military junta in Niger public,” he said.
“I said that intentionally I didn’t make a mistake, because I was given permission to make that statement and I emphasised that this is not an individual action taken by an individual president on behalf of an individual nation.
“This is an action taken yes, by the ECOWAS chairman who is the president of Nigeria, but standing on the authority provided by the consensus resolution of all ECOWAS members and heads of state with regard to financial sanctions being levied by ECOWAS members states against the military junta in Niger Republic.
“There is an authority that we are standing on. It is not the Nigerian government’s authority, it is the authority of the resolution passed in public before now.”
Ngelale said the seven-day ultimatum issued against the military junta is not a personal decision taken by Tinubu but that of ECOWAS.
“Concerning the ultimatum given to the military Junta in Niger Republic, it is an ECOWAS mandate, and it is not a Nigerian ultimatum. It is not a Nigerian mandate,” he said.
“And the office of His Excellency, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, also serving as the chairman of ECOWAS, to emphasise this point, that due to certain domestic and international media coverage, tending toward personalisation of the ECOWAS sub-regional position to his person and to our nation individually.
“It is because of this that Mr President has deemed it necessary to state unequivocally that the mandate and ultimatum issued by ECOWAS is that of ECOWAS’ position.”