The Niger coup d’état, which allowed a military junta to remove democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, quickly found itself in the crosshairs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) according to Reuters. This West African union called for the ruling junta to release and reinstate President Bazoum by August 7, 2023, or face military action. However, the junta ignored the deadline, and there has been no military action from ECOWAS.
The ruling military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have stated that any international military action taken against Niger would be considered an attack on them. Whether this statement will change the ECOWAS decision to act is unknown, but there is also the potential for individual action.
According to the BBC, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has threatened the use of military force against the Niger junta if its members don’t leave power. This threat carries weight, due to the shared border between the two nations.
Tinubu needs approval from his Senate before executing military action, however. Although Nigerian senators from the border regions are currently opposed to military action, that could change with an increase in tensions. Overall, the situation in West Africa is far from settled.
What Is ECOWAS?
ECOWAS is a political and economic union comprised of 15 states in West Africa, initially formed in 1975 to foster economic integration. Eventually, the action of this union included political and military cooperation as well.
ECOWAS has provided military peacekeepers to regional partners when needed, but ECOWAS has also intervened militarily when a member-state experienced political instability or unrest. While it has used military intervention in the past – with the 2017 intervention in The Gambia as the most recent example – ECOWAS cannot prevent or respond to every coup that occurs among its member-states.
In some cases, the union has suspended membership of those nations instead of turning to military intervention. This suspension most likely occurred because the ruling juntas had foreign backing or that a jihadist threat made the risk of intervening too risky.
The Niger Junta Has Some Support from Neighboring Countries
Niger currently hosts foreign forces belonging to France and the U.S. in a counterterrorism capacity, suggesting that Paris and Washington could handle a jihadist threat in the northern areas of Niger while ECOWAS peacekeepers work to stabilize the capital city of Niamey. This line of thinking is speculative, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
According to Barron’s, Italy and Germany asked ECOWAS to extend the lapsed deadline in the name of continued diplomacy attempts. However, the Niger junta has support from two of its neighbors who in turn have some support from Moscow.
As a result, the new military junta rulers in Niamey are not without leverage. The junta’s rule and negotiating position is not exactly unassailable. But the more time that passes with the junta in power, the more entrenched it becomes.
With like-minded neighbors in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger now joins a growing anti-Western bloc that challenges the efforts of ECOWAS to foster economic and political independence and stability. ECOWAS may indeed use military force at some point. However, wars are inevitably expensive and military forces would have to deal with both the ruling junta and the Islamist insurgency in the Sahara and Sahel region.
U.S. and French forces could support such a mission if their respective populations back home support it, and that support is not guaranteed. After the military coup in Mali, the security situation declined further, even with the aid of the Russian-linked Wagner Group. This situation will likely repeat itself in Niger.
If national security in Niger continues to decline, then ECOWAS may have to make good on its threat to use force in Niger. It all comes down how the risk from the junta plays out, but it appears that ECOWAS is expecting the worst. If that is the case, then the potential for a regional conflict increases.