In the wake of last week’s military coup in Niger, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken swift action by sending a delegation to engage in crucial talks with the coup leaders.
This is a significant development in the ongoing political crisis in the country. The regional bloc has already imposed sanctions on Niger and has not ruled out the possibility of using force if the coup leaders do not reinstate the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum within a week.
Leading the delegation is former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar, who is expected to hold talks with the military government in Niger’s capital, Niamey. The mission’s specific objectives remain unclear at this time, as Amos Lungu, spokesperson for the ECOWAS Commission, has not provided any details or commented on the matter.
The military government in Niger is headed by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, the former head of President Bazoum’s presidential guard. Tchiani detained Bazoum on July 26 and subsequently declared himself the head of state. ECOWAS had previously tried to negotiate with the coup leaders through the efforts of Benin President Patrice Talon and Chaidan interim military leader Mahamat Idriss Deby.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, the ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace, and security, emphasized that military intervention is the last resort but necessary for the regional bloc to demonstrate its capability. “There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite,” Musah stated during a press conference in Abuja.
The stakes are high for Niger and the region as a whole. ECOWAS has been a key proponent of democratic governance in West Africa and has a strong track record in resolving political crises in the region. The bloc’s decisive action showcases its commitment to upholding democratic principles and preventing the erosion of democratic gains.
The bloc has struggled to contain a democratic backslide in West Africa, as member states Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea have also seen coups in the last two years, along with an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau.
But now ECOWAS has taken its hardest line yet on Niger, announcing a number of sanctions including the closure of the region’s borders with the country.
The bloc also slapped financial sanctions on the coup leaders and the country, freezing “all commercial and financial transactions” between member states and Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, often ranking last on the United Nations Human Development Index.
A source at Niger’s power company Nigelec told the AFP news agency on Wednesday that neighbouring Nigeria has disconnected the high-voltage line transporting electricity to Niger. The latter depends on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power.
The sanctions have prompted Mali and Burkina Faso, both still ruled by the military, to say that any intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them, too.
Niger is a key Western ally in a fight against armed groups and the coup has been condemned by foreign powers who fear it could allow the groups to gain ground.
“The UK very much welcomes ECOWAS’ actions and [they] are indeed decisive actions with a strong commitment to democracy,” said British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly after meeting Nigerian President Bola Tinubu in Abuja on Wednesday.
The coup leaders announced overnight they had reopened Niger’s land and air borders with Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Libya after closing them last week.
The reopened land borders are mainly in remote desert areas. Niger’s key entryways for trade and commerce remain closed due to imposed by ECOWAS.
France, the United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on anti-rebel and training missions, helping the army to fight groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
There has been no announcement of troops being withdrawn so far. Germany’s defence minister said on Wednesday that there were no concerns about the safety of German soldiers.
Any Western military intervention to restore democracy must be ruled out, as it would be “perceived as a new colonisation”, said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.