ECOWAS mobilizes prepared force, asserts flexibility towards Niger, despite force being a ‘final alternative’
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken action to activate a standby force in response to the military junta that seized power in Niger. This force is seen as a last resort but is still being considered as an option. The new military rulers in Niger have shown defiance towards ECOWAS’ demands for the government to step down.
On Thursday, the West African bloc, ECOWAS, announced the activation of a standby force that could potentially be deployed against the junta that took control of Niger in July. ECOWAS aims for a peaceful restoration of democracy, but it is willing to consider all options, including the use of force. The threat of military intervention, although not specified, will raise tensions in and around Niger, a significant uranium producer and a former crucial ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region. The junta, which seized power on July 26th, ignored ECOWAS’ deadline of August 6th to relinquish power. Instead, they closed Niger’s airspace and vowed to defend the country against any foreign attack.
After a summit of ECOWAS heads of state in Abuja, Nigeria, the bloc decided to enforce sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes on those obstructing the return to power of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who serves as the ECOWAS chair, stated that no option, including the use of force, would be taken off the table. He expressed hope for a peaceful resolution to restore stability and democracy in Niger, emphasizing that there is still room for a positive outcome. An official statement was issued, which included a resolution urging the bloc’s defense chiefs to immediately activate the ECOWAS Standby Force with all its elements.
Another resolution mentioned the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in Niger, followed by a subsequent resolution emphasizing the desire to restore order through peaceful means. Security analysts believe that it might take weeks or even longer to assemble a regional force, allowing for potential negotiations to take place.
The creation of a standby force consisting of thousands of troops has been a long-standing plan for ECOWAS. However, funding delays and insufficient troop commitments have hindered its progress. In December, regional leaders expressed their determination to establish such a force due to the increasing number of coups since 2020 and growing militant activities. The current stage of assembling the force remains unclear.
During the summit, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara described the detention of Bazoum as a “terrorist act.” He emphasized the sub-region’s commitment to democracy, firmly rejecting coups. He further stated that if the junta refuses to release Bazoum to exercise his mandate, decisive action should be taken to remove them. While ECOWAS sought to project a unified front, it is divided, with Mali and Burkina Faso, both ruled by military governments, supporting the Niger junta.
According to Aneliese Bernard, the Director of consultancy Strategic Stabilization Advisors, there are still many unknowns and unresolved issues, such as timelines, red lines, and contingency plans, if the situation continues to deteriorate.
The United Nations and Western powers support ECOWAS’ efforts to persuade the coup leaders to step down and release Bazoum, who is currently confined to his residence. However, so far, there is no indication that they are willing to back down. In a move to solidify their position and present themselves as a legitimate government, the junta announced a list of ministers just hours before the summit in Abuja.
Western countries are concerned that Niger might seek assistance from Russia’s Wagner Group, which has been designated as a transnational criminal organization by the US. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s chief, has openly welcomed the Niger coup and offered his forces to restore order.
Niger, despite being one of the poorest countries globally, holds significant strategic importance as the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium. It is also a valuable ally for Western countries in their struggle against a long-standing Islamist insurgency that has caused displacement and hunger crises across the Sahel region. The junta in Niamey has followed the pattern seen in previous coups in Mali and Burkina Faso by engaging in anti-French rhetoric, blaming France for Niger’s problems and accusing it of violating their sovereignty, allegations which Paris denies.