(Xinhua) Leaders of West African countries are expected to meet on Thursday in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss their response to a military coup in Niger after Niger’s junta defied an ultimatum to reinstate the ousted president or face a possible military intervention.
The military in Niger detained President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 and chose Abdourahamane Tchiani, former leader of the country’s presidential guard, to lead the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), a governing body established by the soldiers after the coup, which has been since exercising legislative and executive authority.
The coup, the third of its kind in West Africa in three years, has drawn condemnation from many African countries, which view the unconstitutional change of power as a threat to stability and development on the continent. The international community fears instability in the Sahel region would breed extremism.
Observers have said the coup adds to uncertainties facing the region struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorism and humanitarian crises. They believe any military intervention would result in consequences that no country could afford, and a peaceful solution is the best way out.
BEHIND THE COUP
The CNSP said the soldiers overthrew Bazoum because of “the continued deterioration of the security situation” and “poor economic and social governance” in the country.
According to the World Bank, Niger has a poorly diversified economy, with agriculture accounting for 40 percent of its gross domestic product. Over 10 million people, or 40 percent of the population, lived in extreme poverty in 2021.
Moreover, the country is grappling with an influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring Nigeria and Mali. The United Nations has identified over 370,000 internally displaced persons and over 250,000 refugees in Niger.
In the past decade, the unrest in the Sahel, a vast semi-arid region of Africa extending from Senegal eastward to Sudan, has undermined security in Niger, located in the heart of the region.
In 2011, a NATO-led military intervention in Libya toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the following decade-long unrest resulted in rampant arms trafficking in the Sahel region, where armed groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State have grown immensely. According to a report by Mark A. Green, president and CEO of the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Sahel accounts for 43 percent of the world’s terrorism deaths, more than South Asia and the MENA region combined.
It was just after the fall of Gaddafi that “terrorism began in the Sahel region,” said Bella Kamano, a political analyst based in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.
“Populations of Niger are complaining about insecurity in their country. Not a week or a month goes by without terrorists taking hostages and committing attacks against people in the villages of this country,” Kamano said, noting that all countries in the Sahel region are suffering the consequences of the Libyan war.
The worsening security situation has contributed to a rising anti-Western sentiment in West Africa in recent years. In the past week, thousands of people marched through the streets in Niger’s capital city of Niamey, denouncing the country’s former colonial power and setting a door at the French Embassy ablaze. The CNSP also revoked five military cooperation agreements signed by Niger and France between 1997 and 2020.
Sheriff Ghali, an expert on international relations at the University of Abuja in Nigeria, said that the causes of the coup in Niger are complicated, with long-term economic difficulties and security dilemmas as the main instigators. There are also spillover effects from regional conflicts, such as the war in Libya and coups in Burkina Faso and Mali in recent years.
“This is going to affect West African economic integration. Why? Because you are seeing the military gradually taking over power from the civilian government,” Ghali said. “We are going to be divided. And when we get divided, we’re going to be more balkanized and more polarized, continentally controlled by the so-called powers.”
SECURITY, HUMANITARIAN DISASTER
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a political and economic group of 15 countries, announced an ultimatum and threatened to use force to “restore constitutional order” in Niger if the junta failed to comply. However, the CNSP refused to back down when the deadline expired on Sunday. ECOWAS leaders are expected to discuss the crisis on Thursday in Abuja.
Observers said the unrest in Niger would seriously impact the politics, economy and security of West Africa. If the coup crisis is not adequately resolved, it will further undermine regional political stability and economic integration.
The looming conflict will have consequences, Kamano said. “Foreign investors cannot take the risk of coming to invest in a country that is about to be destabilized, and this destabilization is likely to have repercussions in the region.”
“Any attack against this country to dislodge the junta risks causing acute poverty on the social level,” he said.
Worse, unrest following a military intervention in Niger could leave a security vacuum. A similar scenario the world witnessed in Syria a decade ago resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe created by the Islamic State.
“From a security point of view, Niger constituted this curtain of peace between the terrorists and the countries of the south, and if Niger is destabilized, no one will be able to prevent the terrorists who are on the other side of the Sahel from crossing Niger and turn around in countries like Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, etc.,” said Kamano, adding that “if Niger is destabilized, the sub-region risks facing terrorism in all directions and we risk ending up with a proliferation of weapons of all kinds in the sub-region.”
The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis in the region. “The problem on the air right now is that our humanitarian flights cannot fly within the country (Niger), which means that our humanitarian operations are suspended,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
There are currently 4.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Niger, compared to 1.9 million in 2017, Dujarric said.
Niger borders seven countries, and one of them is Nigeria, the biggest economy in Africa. Ghali said the large number of Niger refugees that may emerge from the conflict will put tremendous pressure on Niger’s neighbors.
Many refugee groups would become the recruitment targets of extremist organizations active in West Africa. Ghali stated that if ECOWAS intervenes militarily in Niger, it would negatively impact troops in the region fighting terrorism and worsen the already tense situation.
In light of the dire consequences of military intervention, regional countries and the international community are seeking political solutions to the Niger crisis.
Nigeria has the largest military forces in West Africa and hosts the ECOWAS chair. The country’s Senate on Saturday rejected Nigerian President Bola Tinubu’s demand to send troops to Niger, calling on the ECOWAS to explore political solutions to the ongoing crisis.
While supporting the ECOWAS to reverse the coup, France, which has about 1,500 troops in Niger, intends not to intervene militarily.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso and Mali, two ECOWAS members, voiced their “solidarity” with Niger’s junta. The two transitional governments, established after the military took power by force in the two countries, declared their support for the Nigerien soldiers and rejected “the illegal, illegitimate sanctions against the Nigerien people and authorities.”
The two countries also warned that any military intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them and would lead to the withdrawal of Burkina Faso and Mali from the ECOWAS.
Despite being taken hostage, Bazoum published an op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this month, asking the international community for help. He said the coup, launched against his government by a faction in the military, has no justification. If it succeeds, “it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world.”
The UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council have condemned the military coup, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the president and continued efforts to restore order in Niger.
“We have a country which is in crisis following a coup, and it shares its borders with other countries. We must therefore ensure that the crisis is resolved peacefully,” Kamano said.
“Instead of setting in motion the ECOWAS military arsenal to resolve the situation in Niger, it would be better to set this military arsenal in motion to fight against terrorism and against insecurity in the sub-region, mainly in the Sahel,” he added.
Ghali said that although there is little room to solve the Niger crisis through peace talks at present, the international community, the African Union and ECOWAS must prioritize political and diplomatic means.
“So the only way manner we can actually deal with regional conflict and insecurity is through a concerted effort,” Ghali added.