It’s been a month since military guards under the command of General Abdourahamane Tchiani ended 12 years of democratic governance in Niger. The situation seems to have reached a stalemate as the junta has refused to restore democracy immediately.
In a national broadcast on 19 August, Tchiani stated that the military regime would organize elections and hand power back to a democratic government after three years.
Ecowas rejected the proposal. Ecowas commissioner for peace and security Abdel-Fatau Musah said the regional bloc wanted an immediate restoration of constitutional order and the release of Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum.
Beyond rejecting the proposal, Ecowas seems lost regarding what to do next.
The water has been further muddied by a 21 August statement from the African Union in which it “strongly opposed” any military intervention from countries outside the continent. Observers have noted that the statement is ambiguous and therefore unhelpful.
The AU didn’t make its position clear on an intervention by Ecowas to restore democracy.
These developments confirm my previously stated view that military intervention is unlikely because of the many complications it would invite.
Now that the junta has stated its position, and Ecowas has rejected it, what next?
As a scholar of politics and international relations I have analyzed the implications of foreign military bases in Niger. I have also previously highlighted the role Nigeria plays in regional organizations such as Ecowas and the Multinational Joint Taskforce in the region.
I believe there are three things Nigeria-led Ecowas can do to resolve the situation without using force or losing its credibility as an organization. The regional bloc made a mistake when it simultaneously imposed sanctions, threatened the use of force and gave a short ultimatum for the regime to hand over power.
Ecowas now needs to re-strategize by re-evaluating and properly targeting its sanctions; negotiating a short transition period; and negotiating foreign interests in Niger.
Ecowas needs to make sure its sanctions target only leaders of the military junta and their allies. It also needs to agree that Bazoum is unlikely to be reinstated, so there should be a short transition period.
In addition, the organization must be pro-active in helping the United States protect its security interests and France its economic interests on terms favorable to Niger. The US has invested heavily in security infrastructure in the Sahel (mainly in Niger), while France has investments in the mining sector.
Re-evaluating the use of sanctions
The sanctions issued by Ecowas are biting hard. Prices of staple foods have risen because Niger is a landlocked country and depends on its neighbors for most imports. Some of the countries have closed their borders to Niger, thereby disrupting the economy of the country. While the sanctions seem to be effective, they are affecting ordinary Nigerians more than the junta.
In addition, Nigeria has cut off the supply of electricity. This is having an impact on small businesses and average Nigerians.
The impact of the sanctions is fueling resentment towards Ecowas and the organization is accused of acting on behalf of France.
The sanctions have had the effect of forcing the junta to negotiate and reopen the possibility for dialogue. This, I believe, resulted in the announcement of the three-year transition period. It is therefore essential for Ecowas to keep some of the sanctions. But they should target members of the ruling junta and their allies.
The junta also understands that public perceptions could change quickly if the hardship continues, so Ecowas needs to use this as leverage in negotiations.
Negotiate a short transition period
It is very unlikely that Bazoum will be reinstated because of how far the junta has already gone in entrenching itself.
Ecowas should push for a short transition period. Algeria has already suggested a six-month transition. This transition period must be consistent across all the four countries that have had coups: Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
The perceived inaction by Ecowas when military juntas took over in the other three countries emboldened the junta in Niger. This has been corrected with strong words and action by Ecowas after the Niger coup and must be sustained to deter other countries in the region.
A short transition period will restore stability to the country and help western partners to protect their assets and continue to support the fight against insurgency.
Negotiating foreign interests
One key issue which has been observed since the military takeover is anger and resentment towards France and perceived “foreign occupation”.
France has significant economic interests, which the people argue have not benefited them. For instance, Areva – the biggest uranium mining company in Niger – has previously been accused of not paying Niger a fair rate of tax. Bazoum was accused of being a puppet of France.
The US has security interests in the country, including one of its largest drone bases in Africa.
Any attempts to have these countries relinquish their interests will be met with stiff opposition but will also have a negative impact on the economy and security of Niger.
Ecowas will have to do two things to placate Nigerians and stabilize the region.
First, it must ensure Niger gets a fair share of its resources from mining companies operating in the country.
Second, Ecowas needs to be more involved in working with the US and its allies in fighting terrorism in the region. Terrorism is a regional problem and Ecowas must be more proactive in helping its members.
Currently, Ecowas is seen as an enemy of Niger and the organization needs to change this perception. It’s time for Ecowas to stop the threat of military intervention in Niger and engage in diplomacy so as not to escalate the already precarious situation of the region.