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Why Niger coup leaders are not listening to the US, France and regional groupings

Police patrol streets of Niamey after the coup in Niger.

Niger is a country steeped in poverty and nearly 3 million of its people continuously face severe hunger issues due to climate change and terrorism. Nearly 75% of the country is desert, mainly towards the north bordering Algeria and Libya.

The fertile part of the country is towards the south. bordering Nigeria, where much of the population lives. Poverty levels accentuate rivalry for resources that generates communal tensions among pastoralists and farmers. It’s a delicate tinderbox.

Niger is a part of the 15-member Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), one of the eight regional economic communities (RECs) recognized by the African Union (AU).

The coup that occurred in Niger on 26 July, 2023.  After one month, it seems to have settled down as part of a new normal. In fact, regional players, the African Union as well as strategic partners are all looking at ways to adjust to the situation, even though the coup was against a rare democratically elected president.

Niger requires immense economic assistance. 40% of its GDP comes from exports of commodities such as uranium, gold, and the like. Real GDP is projected to grow at 7.0% in 2023 and 11.8% in 2024; the chronic current account deficit widened to 15.1% of GDP in 2022 from 13.9% in 2021, financed by concessional loans. The budget deficit widened to 6.6% of GDP in 2022. It has a very small industrial base and is dependent on foreign assistance.

Like other countries in the Sahel, Niger too faces insurgency for which it has 1500 each of American and French forces. Smaller EU contingent, including from Germany and others are there too. The armed forces worked closely with their Western allies including the presidential guard, which led the coup, evidently catching their western friends off guard.

The situation in Niger is mainly a domestic upheaval and not big power rivalry, with the involvement of Russia or China so far. Demonstrations where pro-Russian slogans and flags are seen is a sign of despair. Given the domination by Western powers, a Russian incursion in Niger is still a potential threat rather than a real one.

Niger’s people are unhappy over their economic lot, which has not improved over the years, even under the democratic government of President Bazoum. They are also unhappy about the pace at which counter-insurgency has succeeded and little relief was felt by the people.

Efforts by President Bazoum to curtail the power of the Defence Forces, reduce their budget and make them more accountable challenged the existing structure. However, it was not the army which led the coup, but the presidential guard which perhaps was set to suffer the largest reduction in influence had the reforms gone through. The situation in Niger was the result of an internal power struggle where armed units did not want to have their influence reduced. They did not really care about democracy or what the West would think about their actions.

Here the question arises about the role of France, which seems to now be a problem in Niger and other French speaking countries in West Africa. Coups in Mali and Burkina Faso within ECOWAS, as well as Guinea and Chad (Chad is not within ECOWAS, but a central African country) were in areas of French influence with French forces for long.

The fact that Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso had military coups and became more pro-Russian was the result of diminishing French influence. Militaries in these three countries are riding on nationalistic fervour which blames France for their lack of security and economic progress despite years of post-colonial association. They perceive an arrogance in the way France treats their former colonies. Though France has good equations with the ruling elites, the rank and lower echelons of society and the militaries are unhappy with the manner in which their opportunities were curtailed under French guidance.

Other analysts indicate that the French discourse in West Africa has run its course and a new set of associations are emerging. In some cases, these are Russia and Wagner backed. In others there is still a strong US influence, like in the case of Nigeria.

While France is now taking a low-key position in Niger, it has not withdrawn its force. The Americans too seem to have had the only diplomatic success in the initial phase, when acting Deputy Secretary Victoria Nuland visited Niamey and met with some from the junta. The US has also not withdrawn its forces so that space is not ceded to Russia.

In order to maintain its relationship with Niger post-coup, the US has not declared the military takeover as a ‘coup; because that would bring in US laws, which would prevent cooperation with the regime.

The situation has disturbed the region and ECOWAS, which is now chaired by the recently elected Nigerian president Bola Tinubu. The Nigerians came out threatening military action unless the junta brought Bazoum back to power and returned to their barracks. This bravado lasted a short while. It had the support of Senegal, Ivory Coast and Benin.  Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso three other ECOWAS countries under military rule did not concur with the challenging tone of ECOWAS.

ECOWAS efforts to send an envoy along with the AU and the UN was thwarted by Niger, as the junta settled down to deal with the region and the world on its own terms.

ECOWAS with 11 out of 15 countries ready to cooperate to deal with Niger held a meeting of the defence chiefs to coordinate a possible action by the standby brigade. The contradictions within ECOWAS about how to proceed began to show. It is evident that ECOWAS’ threat to restore order within seven days is impossible to enforce.

Any military action in Niger, would be in hostile territory, where the Niger army would fight back and local support of the people is divided. And not all are unhappy with the coup.

The very fragility of Niger, therefore, is a challenge which the use of force by ECOWAS could lead to contrary conditions than what are currently prevailing.

ECOWAS nevertheless has enforced sanctions, closing borders and Nigeria has cut off power supplies to Niger.

By 19th August, the junta was in a better mood and allowed an ECOWAS delegation to meet deposed President Mohammed Bazoum and the junta leader Abdourahmane Tchiani.  It was headed by a former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar. On an earlier visit, Abubakr was not able to meet Bazoum or the junta leader. At the same time, the UN Special Representative for West Africa and Sahel, Leonardo Simao also visited Niamey, showing the confidence which the junta now has in receiving interlocutors.

ECOWAS finds itself in a standoff with its own members, making it evident that a military solution is now not on the cards. It also seems that the junta will not return to the barracks without the guarantees it seeks.  The future of President Bazoum is uncertain.

What is clear is that the junta is calling the shots and everybody else seems to be adjusting to it. At what pace and level of adjustment is perhaps the only contention.

At the AU level there was initial support for the ECOWAS position when the Peace and Security Council met in late July. However, later when the PSC met again in mid-August, many of its members did not want to be associated with the aggressive posture of ECOWAS. They were against the illegal nature of the coup in Niger but were not supportive of military action.

Normally, the AU backs its regional organizations’ position clearly. Here, though the AU commission chairman has been doing so, the PSC is now divided. There is apprehension that intervention by ECOWAS could lead to a civil war in Niger, which will then become a bigger challenge to the AU and to the Sahel region. There is also apprehension that Burkina Faso and Mali would take military measures to support Niger if ECOWAS intervened.

The threat by a former rebel leader to activate efforts to reinstate Bazoum, under their Council of Resistance for the Republic led by Rhissa Ag Boula is also something which stresses the AU  decision makers.

Military intervention by ECOWAS would also weaken Niger’s resolve to deal with terrorist groups in the Sahel. This is not what the US, France or the EU want.

Therefore, the biggest challenge for the AU and the ECOWAS is to find a non-confrontational and non-military way out of the constitutional crisis in Niger. This diplomatic search is important rather than the continued usage of military language, because the strong posture that ECOWAS has adopted does not seem credible or potent. It is important for ECOWAS and the Nigerian president that in order to retain credibility, they must take steps that are implementable.

Having exhausted its various strong options at the initial stage, ECOWAS is left with the unhappy prospect of a military intervention which could lead to the kind of unsavoury consequences enumerated above. That would be a blow to ECOWAS as a regional body and AU as the continental body.

(Gurjit Singh is India’s former Ambassador to the AU and author of The Harambee Factor. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)