Using Diplomacy And Biting Sanctions To Beat Niger Coup

*By Paul Ejime

There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in response to the 26 July military coup that toppled the government of elected President Mohamed Bazoum, are biting hard, especially the suspension of electricity supply by Nigeria,

After last weekend’s meeting in Niamey with a delegation of Muslim Scholars) Ulamas from Nigeria, the Brig.-General Abdourahamane-led junta began singing a different tune from their pervious uncompromising stance.

It was announced after that meeting that the junta leaders were now ready to dialogue with ECOWAS, having treated with disrespect a delegation from the organization led by former Nigerian military Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, and also refused to receive a joint ECOWAS-AU-UN Mission.

The soldiers were reportedly angry that ECOWAS “did not hear their side of the story before imposing the sanctions,” and also threated the use military force if detained Bazoum was not released and reinstated within seven days.

The seven-day ultimatum had since passed without any military intervention as the Niamey junta rather consolidates its hold on power by announcing military regional governors and a cabinet of 21 ministers headed by a civilian Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine. Zeine also doubles as Finance Minister in the cabinet with soldiers holding key portfolios of defence and internal affairs.

At their second emergency summit on the Niger crisis on 10th August in Abuja, regional leaders had ordered the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in Niger. They had further directed “the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff to activate the ECOWAS Standby Force in all its elements immediately.”

But in the intervening period, it emerged that Tchiani and his junta colleagues received the group of Muslim Ulamas led by Sheik Bala Lau.

Both sides were reported to have agreed that dialogue with ECOWAS was a better option for the resolution of the Niger impasse.

Officials of the military regime were also reported to have praised ECOWAS as an important regional organization, stressing the need for diplomacy, and appealing for lifting of the regional sanctions.

But shortly after that seemingly positive development, the junta announced that it would charge detained Bazoum with high treason for allegedly inviting foreign forces to attack Niger.

ECOWAS responded by expressing “stupefied” anger, condemning the junta move junta as provocative. The regional bloc further reiterated that Bazoum remained the democratically elected president of Niger.

Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that while the ECOWAS threat for the use of military force might have played a part, the impacts of the regional sanctions, especially the cut of electricity supply have proved a most effective weapon that can force the junta to the negotiating table.

Apart from Niger, three other ECOWAS member States – Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are now under military dictatorships, with Mali and Burkina Faso vowing to join forces with Niger against the ECOWAS planned military intervention.

Somehow, the use of force in Niger is growing unpopular based on the fear that it could snowball into a catastrophic enterprise. There is opposition in some ECOWAS member States including Nigeria, Niger’s key neighbour, which is expected to play a major part in such a venture.

Also, Algeria and Mauritania, Niger’s neighbours in the Sahel would prefer diplomatic initiatives.

As ECOWAS military chiefs hold their second emergency meeting in Accra, Ghana 17-18 August since receiving the marching orders for the activation of the Standby Force from the reginal leaders on 10th August, the general expectation is that ECOWAS would stay on the message, still holding up the military card, but at the same time, allow parallel backend diplomatic efforts to continue.

Doubtless, the military coup in Niger is one too many in the ECOWAS region. But it is also true that military incursion into politics in the politically restive region, is only a symptom of the perennial systemic failure of governance systems, characterised by corruption, mismanagement, vote rigging, disregard for the rule of law and human rights violations.

Some leaders in the region have blatantly altered national constitutions to gain or retain power, amid disturbing trends of godfatherism, state capture, personalisation of democracy and undemocratic control of the legislature and the judiciary by the executive arms of government.

Soldiers belong in their barracks for the protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the hypocritical tendency of always jumping to condemn military coups, while allowing political leaders to continue with impunity, generates public anger, especially when peaceful street protests are often met with ruthless repression by the politicians.

In the case of Niger, internal power struggle between Bazoum and his godfather, former President Mahamadou Issoufou, coupled with the ousted president’s plan to carry out major changes in government institutions, including the armed forces, might have triggered the putsch, foreign interference is also playing a major part.

Niger is a major Western ally, especially the United State and France. Both have military bases in the country.

For hosting America’s key military facilities, including intelligence gathering drones, and also assisting Western countries to stop immigration from Africa, Niger was receiving foreign assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, the country is also rich in natural resources particularly uranium, which is very useful for nuclear power generation, although this is exploited by Western companies for the benefit of their countries.

For instance, France uses Niger’s uranium to generate about 70% of its power supply while 80% of Niger’s estimated 26 million people wallow in darkness, with the country on the bottom rung of the UN Human Development ranking.

There is also growing anti-French sentiment in Niger and other French former colonies in Africa. This has found expression in sporadic street protests, with some protesters destroying the French national flags while others hold aloft the Russian flags, in what is interpreted as an appeal for Moscow’s support.

The junta leaders have already recalled Niger’s ambassador from France and suspended Niger’s uranium supply contract with France, with every indication that like their colleagues in Mali and Burkina Faso, they are leaning toward Russia, which has expressed opposition to military intervention in Niger.

Mali military ruler Col Assimi Goita had a phone conversation recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly called for peaceful resolution of the Niger crisis.

The head of Russia’s private military group, Wagner, has also welcomed the Niger coup as “a positive development,” although no indication that the group is ready to send soldiers to Niger.

To underscore Niger’s strategic interest to its Western allies, the American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has continued follow developments in Niger, praising ECOWAS and its current Chairman, Nigerian President Ahmed Bola Tinubu for their “efforts” in Niger.

Paradoxically, while America and some Western countries have evacuated their citizens from Niger, Washington has announced plans to send its new Ambassador to Niamey at a time ECOWAS is threatening military intervention.

The more reason ECOWAS will be well-advised to continue to explore diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the Niger crisis, to avoid a dangerous backlash, especially in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse, and by extension, the entire region. Also, Bazoum’s life could further be jeopardised.

The Niger junta, too, must realise that it cannot take on ECOWAS in the event of kinetic option.

The prognosis looks rather grim for deposed President Bazoum, and France, which is losing hold in its former colonies, even as Russia continue its inroad in Africa, despite the pathological fears of the West.

The way forward is for Paris to review its policy towards Africa, otherwise, the citizens appear determined to free their countries from the suffocating and overbearing French influence.

Even if Bazoum were to escape jail sentence for alleged treason, he is unlikely to be reinstated. He has apparently lost the loyalty of the Niger armed forces and might pay for the strained relations between him and his godfather, Issoufou, assuming his erstwhile Western allies are also not done with him.

When Bazoum had the opportunity to speak out from the junta detention, he only called for his release and reinstatement, without any consideration for the long-suffering citizens, who bear the brunt of coups and bad governance.

His reinstatement will only make nonsense of whatever reason/s canvased by the junta for the coup, so a short transition period of six to nine months for the election of new civilian government seems a most likely solution to the Niger crisis. ECOWAS should not be dragged into a deadly and risky proxy war.

A major lesson from the geopolitical game in Niger and other Francophone coup countries is that solutions to African problems are in Africa and that relations with foreign countries, be they America and its Western allies, Russia, China, or any other country for that matter, must be based on equal partnerships with the interests of the majority of Africans as the priority.

*Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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