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ECOWAS must rule out military intervention in Niger

Any military action in Niger will create more divisions in a region that is already plagued by numerous and complex security challenges.
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The 26 July coup in Niger has generated mixed reactions: ranging from swift condemnation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and Western powers on the one hand to widespread jubilation among the people of Niger and their allies on the other hand. Western powers through the subterfuge of an ECOWAS intervention have threatened military action to restore constitutional order in Niger, but this pathway is problematic in many aspects and must be ruled out.

For one, the ECOWAS as a regional economic community does not have an express mandate to intervene in the internal affairs of member-states except when there are reasonable grounds to avert humanitarian conditions under the principle of Responsibility to Protect. The modalities for implementing sanctions against errant members in the oft-quoted Chapter Two of the Supplementary Protocol do not provide for military action in order to restore constitutional order. Hence, any ECOWAS-led military action in Niger will be done in fragrant disregard of the country’s territorial integrity.

Two, any military action in Niger will create more divisions in a region that is already plagued by numerous and complex security challenges. Given that the Community’s quest for regional economic integration is weakened by historical, administrative, political, security and socio-cultural challenges, an ECOWAS-led military invasion in Niger will further widen this division. In particular, the longstanding differences between ECOWAS Anglophone and Francophone blocs will become more evident, thereby creating incalculable difficulties for political and economic cooperation and integration in the region. The ongoing fraternal political and military solidarity between ECOWAS Francophone member-states―Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali―following the military intervention in Niger is a clear case in point.

Three, the war between Niger and its allies on the one hand and the ECOWAS on the other hand will not only create more financial burden on the economy of ECOWAS (particularly that of Nigeria), but also lead to undue humanitarian conditions within Niger and its contiguous neighbours, including Nigeria. Given that Nigeria is the heart and soul of the Community, any ECOWAS-led war in the Niger Republic will come at a very huge financial cost to the Nigerian government amid the ongoing fiscal straits bedevilling the country. Although the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) of the 1990s in Liberia and Sierra Leone was widely celebrated as an epitome of peace enforcement in Africa, the available report shows that it came at a huge cost to Nigeria. The report indicates that Nigeria lost at least 500 soldiers, with several hundreds of soldiers and civilians wounded or missing. The report also shows that Nigeria spent at least US$8 billion during ECOMOG’s seven-year peacekeeping operation in Liberia. Hence, with the benefit of hindsight, it is plausible to argue that other ECOWAS member-states will hardly be keen to contribute either troops or funds or both if the military option is pursued.

Moreover, Nigeria is currently bedevilled by enormous security challenges. There is hardly any day without reports of terrorist attacks, kidnapping, banditry, violent extremism, armed robbery, murder, wanton killings, religious intolerance, ethno-communal crisis, vandalism of oil facilities, secessionist movements and other sundry security challenges in the country. These security challenges cut across Nigeria’s six geo-political regions, particularly the North-East, North-Central, North-West and South-East regions. The effects of these security challenges are food insecurity, rising defence expenditure, and economic and humanitarian crises.

What is more, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Nigerian refugees by country asylum indicates that as at 30 November 2022, the number of Nigerian refugees in Niger Republic had risen to 187,130; 132,151 in Cameroon and 20,388 in Chad. Yet, the security of Nigerian refugees in Niger and other neighbouring countries has not been central to the discussion of ECOWAS-led military action in the Niger Republic. A country with this precarious security situation within its territorial jurisdiction as Nigeria should be less concerned about a military coup in Niger and more concerned about the wellbeing of its people.

Four, an ECOWAS military intervention in Niger would potentially turn the security-beleaguered West African region into a war zone. Already, the July 2023 coup in Niger has largely turned the country into a theatre of international political struggle between the West (the United States, France and their allies) and Russia (and its allies). The West is evidently at the centre of the threatened ECOWAS-led military intervention in Niger, which means that the Community’s hard-line position is at the behest of the Western authorities’ unbridled quest for uranium and gold. On the other hand, the widening anti-French (anti-West) sentiments in West Africa have offered Russia an opportunity to deepen its military-diplomatic alliances in Africa. Russia and its allies, including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, have openly expressed their preference for diplomatic approaches rather than military invasion in dealing with Niger’s political situation. Worst still, being a key operational base of different violent non-state actors, especially terrorist groups, a war in the Sahel region would further exacerbate the security situation in that region.

Five, the ECOWAS threat of military intervention in Niger will provide justification for past and future illegal foreign military operations that are inimical to Africa’s collective interests. Apart from military conquests that were used to subdue domestic resistance to colonial incursion in Africa, post-independence African states have continued to witness the presence of Euro-American military forces on the continent. Today, the United States has no fewer than 29 military facilities/bases in 15 African countries, while France has at least 15 bases in 10 countries within the continent. Even China currently has one overseas military base in Djibouti, while Sudan has accepted to host Russia’s first naval base in Africa. Beyond these foreign military facilities in Africa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), under the pretext of protecting civilians during the 2011 Libyan political uprising, launched a major out-of-area military operation in Africa in order to expand its influence on the continent. An ECOWAS-led military action in Niger will further the militarisation of Africa amid growing domestic resentment and hostility against such actions.

The hullaballoo generated by the July coup in Niger is traceable to the country’s enormous geo-strategic security and economic significance to international actors, especially the United States, France and the NATO military alliance. Niger’s geographical location in the Sahel where it shares boundaries with Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali makes the country an important strategic outpost for France and the United States in their phantom drive towards countering Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahel belt and across Africa. Niger also offers them the territorial base to monitor, instigate and take advantage of political instability in neighbouring African countries. Further, the abundant supply of uranium ore, gold and other mineral resources in Niger―with France and its allies as the major trading partners―makes the country attractive to Western powers. The prevailing anti-France sentiments in French West Africa (especially Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea) have heightened the geo-strategic and economic interests of French authorities in Niger―interests that were gleefully served by the deposed President Bazoum. Given the foregoing and the difficulty to pinpoint the objectives Nigeria wants to achieve through an ECOWAS-led military invasion in Niger, it is safe to argue that ECOWAS’s proposed military intervention in Niger is either driven by the ego of its new chairman, President Bola Tinubu, or the promptings of the Euro-American imperialists, or even both.

It is beyond coincidence that five out of the six countries currently under full blown military rule in Africa are of Francophone colonial origin. This suggests that beyond the internal contradictions (most of which are externally instigated) in these African social formations, the causal factors behind these coups are largely traceable to the patron-clientele relationship between France and its former colonial territories on the continent. Hence, it is important to emphasise that the military pathway to achieving peace and stability in Niger is utterly shallow given the underlying cause of these military coups. Nigeria should not cry more than the bereaved; Nigeriens should lead the fight against military rule in their country if they are opposed to it. In any case, Nigeriens have held mass rallies in support of the new military government in the country. Hence, ECOWAS leaders should continue to prioritise diplomacy, dialogue and peaceful resolution to restore civil rule and stability in Niger.

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