After military takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso, another country in the region succumbs to a military coup. Why the situation in Niger is different and what geopolitical impact it has, explain our partners from the Institute for Security Studies, a regional human security policy think-tank with an exclusive focus on Africa.
By Fahiraman Koné, Hassane Koné and Djiby Sow
On July 26, a military takeover deposed Niger’s elected president Mohamed Bazoum. Led by General Abdourrahmane Tchiani, head of the presidential guard, the Conseil National pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie (CNSP) has effectively assumed power. President Bazoum, who has refused to resign, remains detained by the CNSP. This coup follows a failed attempt following Bazoum’s election in 2021 and is the fifth military takeover since Niger’s independence in 1960.
One coup too many
On July 29, the African Union (AU) issued a 15-day ultimatum to the CNSP to “restore constitutional authority.” The next day, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a series of severe economic and financial sanctions against Niger. It called for the immediate release and reinstatement of Bazoum and gave the CSNP one week to meet their demands, failing which further measures will be taken, including the possible use of force.
The extent of the pressure exerted by ECOWAS is presented as commensurate with the threat to its zero-tolerance policy for unconstitutional change of government. Following the double coups in Mali (2020 and 2021) and Burkina Faso (both in 2022), as well as Guinea’s lone coup (2022), the overthrow of Niger’s elected government marks the sixth coup in West Africa since 2020.
The regional body accurately assesses that failure to curtail this latest military takeover may irrevocably undermine its ability to uphold its normative framework in relation to unconstitutional changes of government and to weigh on the political destiny of its member states.
The military takeover in Niger is somewhat atypical compared to Burkina Faso and Mali, which may also explain ECOWAS’s tougher approach. The coup has officially been justified on “the continued deterioration of the security situation, and poor economic and social governance.” However, security issues have been managed more efficientlyin Niger than in its central Sahel neighbors.
Military action: a high-risk option
ECOWAS’ ultimatum expired on August 6 without much progress having been achieved on the ground. The CNSP did not respond favorably to the regional body’s diplomatic overtures. A West African delegation composed of former Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar and the Sultan of Sokoto, a religious dignitary, traveled to Niamey on August 2 but was not received by General Tchiani. On August 7, the CNSP indefinitely postponed the visit of a tripartite AU-UN-ECOWAS delegation to Niamey, officially due to safety concerns arising out of the popular anger at the economic sanctions imposed on the country.
The CNSP has, in the meantime, consolidated its position within the armed forces and expanded its popular base in urban areas, mostly due to the threat of external military action and economic sanctions. Anti-French sentiment has also driven demonstrations of support to the army.
While expressing a preference for a diplomatic solution, ECOWAS reconvened on August 10 and activated its standby force in preparation for military intervention. However, the ultimate aim of any international action must be to restore a stable and governable Niger, capable of combating violent extremism and delivering social services to its citizens. From this point of view, military intervention in Niger involves high risks.
The most significant is that of further dividing the defense and security forces that did not all initially support the coup. The worst-case scenario of a clash between military units was narrowly averted following extensive consultations that led to the July 27 communique from the Armed Forces General Staff endorsing the CNSP declaration.
An equally critical issue to consider is Niger’s governability in the aftermath of a military intervention. While the army should, in principle, be subordinate to civilian institutions, Bazoum’s relationship with parts of the military as well as his broader ability to govern are likely to come into question should he be reinstated through an external intervention of force. In Niger, and the West Africa region more broadly, the perception that leaders are beholden to external forces is already deeply ingrained in public sentiment.
And, as was the case in The Gambia precedent, an “in and out” operation appears unrealistic. Assuming that the military action successfully meets its objectives, the current state of play in Niger strongly suggests that ECOWAS will need to maintain troops to ensure Bazoum’s safety and the viability of his government.
Not only would this feed into the perception that the regime is under external tutelage, but popular hostility to the presence of foreign military forces on Nigerien soil will only grow from now on. With the distinct possibility of sustained civilian resistance, the humanitarian consequences of a military intervention, including the strengthening of destabilizing refugees and migrant flows, must also be factored in.
ECOWAS unity at risk
Meanwhile, the situation in Niger unfolds in a whole new regional political context. There is a growing fault line within ECOWAS itself, with the de facto coalition of transitional governments comprising Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali. All rejected ECOWAS measures regarding Niger, with Burkina Faso, and Mali warning on July 31 that any armed action against Niger would be considered as a declaration of war against them. Acting together, these states wield growing political strength and may complicate a military intervention.
Crucially, this political dynamic is underpinned by a shift in strategic alliances in favor of Russia, amid renewed great power competition. Similarly, the situation in Niger also has strong geopolitical resonances, with the CNSP terminating the country’s military agreements with France and allegedly seeking PMC Wagner’s support. It is therefore critical that any regional action avoids playing into the geopolitical tensions that increasingly polarize the Sahel and West Africa and undermine its stability.
ECOWAS must also safeguard its unity. Beyond the countries undergoing military transitions, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cabo Verde have also expressed their opposition to the use of force. Of the organization's 14 member states, excluding Niger, six therefore oppose the military option. Their number rises to seven, if we include Togo which, although it refrained from expressing a position at the August 10 conference of Heads of State, signaled its preference for a negotiated solution by unilaterally undertaking mediation with Niger's military authorities.
Bound by its domestic political circumstances, Nigeria, ECOWAS's leading economic and military power, has since called for a short transition of nine months. The senate had already called on President Tinubu to strengthen efforts towards a diplomatic solution, lowering expectations around the extent of Nigeria’s role in a potential military operation.
Lack of diplomatic support
The ECOWAS military option does not enjoy the full political support of the AU either. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) took eight days to issue the communiqué of its August 14 meeting on Niger, due to internal differences on the issue of military intervention, with Algeria, South Africa, and Egypt in particular opposed. The PSC therefore endorsed ECOWAS efforts to find a diplomatic solution, but merely noted the organization's decision to use force, and called for an assessment of the humanitarian, economic, and security implications of such an intervention.
Similarly, the United Nations Security Council is unlikely to authorize military intervention in Niger. Although Russia has condemned the coup and called for a return to legality, it is opposed to military action. ECOWAS will also not be able to count on the key support of the US – including logistical and intelligence support – which expressed its preference for a negotiated solution in the wake of the US diplomatic mission to Niamey on August 2. The pledges made by the CSNP regarding their (non-)cooperation with Russia and Wagner PMC appear to have persuaded the US to adopt a pragmatic approach. A new US ambassador to Niger took office in Niamey on August 16.
The need for a negotiated transition
In view of the risks associated with armed intervention, and the divergence of views both internally and with its diplomatic partners, ECOWAS should consider a transition towards a return to constitutional order. Restoring a stable and governable Niger requires a diplomatic approach, through dialogue with the CNSP. A negotiated settlement has become all the more urgent for the latter as the economic and financial sanctions imposed on the country by ECOWAS are rapidly becoming unsustainable.
However, the outcome of President Bazoum’s reinstatement appears increasingly unrealistic as time goes by. The option of a civilian-led transition must therefore be considered by ECOWAS. The appointment of the President of the National Assembly as president, as provided for in the constitution in the event of a power vacuum, would ensure a constitutional transition.
Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné is Sahel Project Manager at ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad.
Hassane Koné is Senior Researcher at ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad.
Djiby Sow is Senior Researcher at ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad.
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