As the deadline issued by the Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS led by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to the coup Plotters in Niger republic to reinstate deposed former President Mohamed Bazoum expired, the military junta on Sunday announced that they had closed the country’s airspace indefinitely, reports.said.
Speaking tough, the new military rulers led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani also warned that any attempt to violate the country’s air space would meet with an “energetic and immediate response.”
“Faced with the threat of intervention, which is becoming clearer through the preparation of neighbouring countries, Niger’s airspace is closed from this day on Sunday… for all aircraft until further notice,” the country’s new rulers said in a statement.
ECOWAS last Sunday issued Niger’s new military rulers with a seven day ultimatum to stand down within the week or face possible military intervention.
Bazoum was overthrown on July 26 when members of his own guard detained him at the presidency.
As ECOWAS’s seven days ultimatum for the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger expired on Sunday, there is uncertainty about the next line of action for the bloc.
Last Sunday, ECOWAS had an emergency meeting where it gave putschists led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani until yesterday (Sunday) to reinstate Mr Bazoum or risk military intervention. Severe economic sanctions were also imposed on Niger in a bid to get the putschists to comply with its demands.
Despite the sanctions and other measures taken to reverse the situation in Niger, putschists have remained defiant with Mr Tchiani saying in a televised broadcast that he will not bow down to pressure to reinstate Mr Bazoum. He also criticised sanctions imposed by West African leaders as illegal and inhumane.
He urged Nigeriens to get ready to defend their nation while warning against any interference in Niger’s internal affairs.
In a turn of events, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea declared their support for the putschists; with Burkina Faso and Mali stating categorically that they will support Niger militarily should ECOWAS move in. The three countries, though members of ECOWAS, are currently led by soldiers who executed coups.
However, ousted President Bazoum’s Prime Minister, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, said it will be near impossible for any of Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea to send troops into Niger. He said their countries are separated by jihadists, who they have fought for years and have been unable to defeat.
In other words, he insinuates that those three countries would have to defeat the jihadists before getting into Niger.
The reason for this show of solidarity may not be far from the assumption that if ECOWAS succeeds in shutting down the military rebellion in Niger and reinstating Mr Bazoum, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea could be next.
In a similar development, the defence chiefs of the four countries were absent as ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff (CDS) met in Abuja last week. Guinea, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso were absent from the meeting, offering no official explanations.
At last Sunday’s meeting, ECOWAS asked the Chiefs of Defence Staff to meet to discuss the possibility of military intervention. The meetings were held between Wednesday and Friday last week.
“All the elements that would go into any eventual intervention have been brought out here and been refined, including the timing, the resources needed and the how and where and when we are going to deploy such a force,” said Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security at the meeting of defence chiefs.
However, hours before the deadline, it continues to be highly unlikely that ECOWAS will deploy troops to Niger, especially as opposition to troops deployment mounts in Niger’s large and powerful neighbour, Nigeria, which would be expected to provide the large number of ground forces needed.
ECOWAS Chair and Nigeria’s President, Bola Tinubu, last week notified the National Assembly of the ECOWAS resolutions including the possibility of troops deployment. Parliamentary approval would be needed to deploy Nigeria’s troops.
Reports say that the Senate opposed troops deployment and advised Mr Tinubu and ECOWAS to explore a political solution to the crisis.
Just like the National Assembly, several groups have advised ECOWAS to adopt diplomatic means to resolve the situation in Niger as possible escalation would be detrimental to the security of the region.
A Nigerian government think-tank, Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience (OSPRE), described the plan to intervene militarily in Niger as costly and infeasible.
It added that ECOWAS should not only suspend the military option but also prohibit any military intervention in Niger by foreign forces as that will likely turn the country into a vortex of instability in the region.
Rather, non-military options are required to address the situation. The options, it advised, should focus on securing the release of President Bazoum and a transition timetable.
There are also concerns that a military intervention could see the execution of Mr Bazoum by the putschists.
ECOWAS last week deployed two separate delegations to Niger with the most recent led by former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar who has since returned to Nigeria. The outcome of their trip to Niamey has yet to be officially announced although they could not meet the topmost leaders of the coup.
What options are left to ECOWAS?
ECOWAS may have boxed itself in a corner with the threat to use force, with many observers saying the threat was too quick.
There will be consequences for any action the bloc takes at this point. If it chooses to proceed with military intervention as threatened, the humanitarian crisis in the region could get worse.
Nigeria would be one of the most affected as it shares borders with Niger (about 1,600 kilometres) and citizens along these borders have over time built both commercial and filial relationships. A move against one could be seen as a move against the other. Also, there are tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees in Niger.
“The interlaced landscape of the northern states of Nigeria and the Republic of Niger necessitates a more circumspect and thoughtful action and/or approach. With several Nigerian states sharing borders with Niger Republic, military intervention could have unintended consequences that may impact the peace and stability of both nations,” said JNI, an association of Islamic organisations in Nigeria.
Similarly, OSPRE notes that any external commitment on the scale required to approach even a remotely feasible military operation would significantly weaken a heavily militarised internal security architecture and create vacuums that hostile non-state actors would exploit.
Conversely, if ECOWAS harkens to all the voices asking it not to deploy troops to Niger, it could be seen as a toothless dog that continues to make empty threats, a narrative the bloc desperately wants to change.
Not going forward with the planned action could also be seen as evidence of the acceptability of the new wave of coups in the region, betraying its loudly touted commitment to democracy. This could incentivise the military in other countries to topple their governments as there are no deterrents for coups.
Other options available to ECOWAS include negotiating and constituting a transition committee in Niger or suspending Niger from the bloc.
Negotiating and constituting a transition committee in Niger could, however, suggest an acceptance of the coup.
Before the coup in Niger, there have been six successful coups in four West African states – Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad – in the past three years.
A possible impact of constituting a transition committee is that it removes the possibility of a hostile escalation.
It could also lead to the release of President Bazoum who is hopeful that he would be rescued as he revealed in a statement that he wrote from detention.
In the statement, Mr Bazoum called on the US government and the international community to help Niger restore constitutional order.
“Fighting for our shared values, including democratic pluralism and respect for the rule of law, is the only way to make lasting progress in the fight against poverty and terrorism. The people of Niger will never forget your support at this pivotal moment in our history.”
Narrative of Western Apologists
Some observers including many Nigeriens have accused ECOWAS and Nigeria – by virtue of being the chair of the bloc – of being pawns of France and the West.
Such commentators have accused ECOWAS os allowing it to be pushed into attacking a friendly neighbour and throwing the region into further crises.
On Thursday, Niger’s independence day, a video of anti-Tinubu protests emerged online with pro-coup protesters criticising the Nigerian president in Hausa language saying “Allah should punish Tinubu”.
The third option of suspending Niger from the bloc may come across as a sign of weakness and ECOWAS’ inability to tackle putschists in the region.
Additionally, suspending Niger from the bloc will further polarise the region which already perceives anglophone colleagues, especially Nigeria, as fans of Western hegemony.
“In the Francophone West African imagination, the perception of Nigeria as an Anglophone giant with hegemonic designs on the region has long sustained an undercurrent of distrust and suspicion in the relations between Nigeria and Francophone member states of ECOWAS,” OSPRE notes.
It added that given the depth of anti-French resentment in West Africa and the Sahel, this could turn public sentiment against the intervention force. Nigerian troops would be seen as an occupation force rather than as liberators.
It also has security implications for the region as Niger in a bid to scorn Nigeria and ECOWAS may pull out of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) responsible for the fight against jihadist rebellion in the Lake Chad Basin, resulting in a reversal of the gains of the counterinsurgency campaign.