Democracy appears to be in regression in West Africa where soldiers have toppled four elected governments in three years. The 48-year-old sub-regional bloc, ECOWAS, is under pressure to stop the trend but both opportunities and danger lay on its path.
There have been successful military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger from 2020 to date. On Tuesday, the police in Sierra Leone arrested several persons, including senior military officers, in connection with a suspected coup plot. President Julius Bio, himself a former coup leader, was elected to a second term only in June.
The putschists have cited the harsh economic conditions of citizens in some of the poorest countries in the world to justify their coups. The latest development is an opportunity for ECOWAS to demonstrate it is not a toothless barking dog and Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, who is the chairman of the body, has tried to rally the leaders to action.
ECOWAS has threatened to use force to reinstate the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum if the coup plotters refuse to do so within seven days. But their fellow coup plotters in Burkina Faso and Mali, have warned against the use of force and pledged their solidarity with the junta in Niger.
Niger is one of the largest countries in the Sahel and plays a vital role in the fight against jihadists in the region. Its fall under military rule will have a cocktail of implications for the fight against terrorism and insurgency in the region, including for Nigeria, should the situation in the country escalate.
For ECOWAS, the success of the coup in Niger will undermine the power of the bloc and reinforce the sentiments that it is toothless. It will also indicate that coups have become normal and acceptable.
But Jibrin Ibrahim, a professor of Political Science, warned that the use of force in Niger will be a “real crisis for ECOWAS, Nigeria and the Sahel because the risk of the major sustained crisis is real.”
He added that the size of Niger with its scattered population and land mass will make a military campaign perilous.
Also, Mr Ibrahim fears that Nigeria and ECOWAS risk becoming puppets in the hands of the West which is pushing them to attack Niger in the pursuit of its own interest.
“The Western countries are actually encouraging Nigeria to get into this fight, not for our own sake but for their own sake,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
“Another dimension is geopolitics,” Mr Ibrahim said. “With the war between Ukraine and Russia has been intense with Ukraine acting as a proxy for the West. The Russians have made it very clear that they will support the Niger military in this fight, so, we may have a fight that is really a fight between Russia and America and we are simply puns in that fight. That for me is the biggest risk for West Africa.”
With the US and France having their bases in Niger, and Russia posturing as the ally Africa so desperately needs, Niger may become a theatre for the show of power between the West and the East.
The just concluded Russia-Africa summit and the juicy promises President Vladimir Putin made to African leaders may also offer Russia a soft landing in the region.
However, Russia said it opposes a military solution to the conflict and that it has no plans to send its forces to Niger. But the Wagner mercenary group is already active in the region and has expressed support for the plotters in Niamey.
Mr Ibrahim noted that Niger has been a good friend to Nigeria, recalling the Nigerian civil war period when despite being pressured by France to support Biafra, Niger refused and stayed with Nigeria.
“We have a lot of good relations, not just with the government but with the people of Niger, including commercial and migration relations,” Mr Ibrahim noted.
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Military action in Niger will also cause a humanitarian crisis which Nigeria is not prepared for. “If there is a war, a significant part of the population will move to Nigeria, we have a lot of reasons not to engage in a military attack on Niger,” Mr Ibrahim said.
“The unfolding crisis, if not addressed, will exacerbate the deteriorating security situation in the region. It will also negatively impact the development and lives of the population in a country where 4.3 million people need humanitarian assistance,” Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Léonardo Simão, said, speaking from Accra, Ghana.
He said if measures are not taken, or the situation is not reversed, the spread of terrorism in the region may increase. “But no one wants to see regional conflict happening,” he added.
Wilson Ijide, a retired colonel and lecturer at the Department of Psychology and Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ibadan, noted that the implication is that the Sahel and West Africa region is headed for a cataclysm.
“The fragility of ECOWAS on one hand and of AU on the other would be exposed for all to see. Already there is division among the two bodies with AU giving 15 days ultimatum to the putschists while ECOWAS is giving only seven days,” he said.
Mr Ijide warned that ECOWAS’ use of force in Niger would worsen insecurity in the Sahel and Nigeria would see an influx of various insurgent groups from the Sahel.
“It will be wise for ECOWAS to face reality and negotiate a peaceful transition of power to an elected government in Niger, within a feasible timetable,” he added.
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