Following the coup last week in Niger, which saw General Abdourahmane “Omar” Tchiani overthrow President Muhammad Bazoum, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has announced it’s intention for armed conflict if the president is not restored.
ECOWAS has announced a one-week ultimatum to the new junta in Niger, or they will face the threat of invasion. France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany have all announced some form of support for the ECOWAS declaration.
The West African bloc has also declared a no-fly zone over Niger. Although the junta had previously closed all of its borders during the coup, Al Jazeera reports Niger’s borders are reopening with Algeria, Libya, Mali, Chad, and Burkina Faso.
The Niger junta says France is planning strikes to free Bazoum. Allegedly, those loyal to Bazoum have authorized French forces to carry out military strikes in an attempt to free or reestablish democracy. The military junta, which has confined Bazoum to the presidential palace since Wednesday of last week, has previously warned against foreign attempts to extract him, saying it would result in bloodshed and chaos.
What is ECOWAS?:
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), “The 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The main goal of ECOWAS is to promote economic cooperation among member states in order to raise living standards and promote economic development. ECOWAS has also worked to address some security issues by developing a peacekeeping force for conflicts in the region. ECOWAS established its free trade area in 1990 and adopted a common external tariff in January 2015.”
Demonstrators have also taken to the streets of Niger, with thousands out in support of the coup and others calling for the return of the President.
Both sides have accused the other of firing live ammunition at protestors.
Supporters of the junta burned French flags and attempted to breach the French embassy in Niger’s capital, Niamey. In response, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The junta has accused France of shooting at protesters, injuring at least six. The headquarters of the deposed president’s political party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), was stormed by protestors and has been pictured in flames.
During the demonstration, certain protesters forcibly removed plaque displaying the inscription “Embassy of France in Niger,” and instead, they displayed the flags of Niger and Russia. Concurrently, the crowd chanted slogans such as “long live Russia,” “long live Putin,” and “down with France.”
Protests were also seen in the capital in support of the ousted president; however, security forces were quick to crack down on these. Experts state that it is near impossible to judge the widespread mood of the people in Niger with regard to the new junta and the previous president.
The new leadership has also made significant arrests, including Foumakoye Gado, the chairman of PNDS, and Sani Issoufou Mahamadou, the oil minister and son of former president Issoufou Mahamadou.
The International Community:
France, the biggest foreign player in the region, has taken an aggressive stance towards defending President Bazoum. France has used Niger as a base of operations to combat radical jihadists and rebel factions in the Sahel, which account for most of the world’s terrorism. France has suspended financial support programs for Niger until the restoration of constitutional order in the African country, according to the French Foreign Ministry.
“France is preparing the evacuation of its citizens and [other] European citizens who want to leave the country,” the French Foreign Ministry states. Other European countries, including Italy and Spain, have announced they too will offer their citizens flights out of Niger.
The exact number of European civilians in the country is not known but is estimated to be 70 Spanish citizens, approximately 100 Germans, and at least 600 French nationals, according to various media reports. Spain and Germany have both suspended any cooperation with Niger.
The French Foreign Ministry has stated that the uranium mining company Orano in Niger will continue to work despite the evacuation of French citizens. While there have been claims that Niger has suspended Uranium and Gold exports to France, there has not been any official statements by the junta confirming this. Likewise, a spokesperson for the European Commission has stated that the coup in Niger will not lead to problems with the supply of uranium to the EU. Over 50% of the uranium ore extracted from Niger is used to fuel French nuclear power plants.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said, “All options are available regarding the movement of our forces in Niger.” Germany has announced it does not intend to launch an operation to evacuate its citizens from Niger, instead encouraging them to accept the offer of evacuation flights from the French government. According to the German foreign ministry’s estimate, there are fewer than 100 German citizens currently in-country. Note that this estimate does not include Germans in Niger for military reasons.
The United Kingdom released a statement on Sunday highlighting it’s condemnation of attempts to undermine democracy and stability in Niger. The statement reaffirmed the UK’s support for ECOWAS in their efforts to restore stability in Niger. “The UK is a committed partner of Niger’s democratically elected government and calls for President Bazoum to be immediately reinstated to restore constitutional order,” the statement declared.
The United States has adopted a moderate stance, both diplomatically and militarily. CNN, quoting a Pentagon official, reports that about a thousand US Army soldiers were retrograded to the NATO military base in Agadez, Niger, after the overthrow of President Bazoum. The White House initially stated, “We have not made a decision to send US forces to Niger to support evacuations by countries there,” but they have since decided to evacuate the embassy in Niger, leaving only key staff behind.
A senior US State Department official told Reuters that the US objective is to support West Africa’s regional bloc, ECOWAS, in its efforts to reverse the military takeover in Niger. The Pentagon has said that “training cooperation with the armed forces in Niger has been suspended” and that they remain “in close contact” with their military counterparts in Niger.
A joint US and South African statement declared, “We stand with the Democratic Government and people of Niger and reaffirm our support for democracy in the country.”
In regards to Russia’s involvement, the White House stated that any partnership between Niger and Russia would not be in the interest of the people of Niger. They’ve also stated there has been no indication of any Wagner Group PMC interference as of yet. National Security Advisor John Kirby reinforced this, remarking that there is no indication that the Russian Federation was behind the coup in Niger.
“We remain deeply concerned about the unfolding developments … the United States condemns in the strongest terms any effort to seize power by force,” said Kirby.
“A military takeover may cause the United States to cease security and other cooperation with the government of Niger, jeopardizing existing security and non-security partnerships.”
There are about 1,100 U.S. troops in Niger, where the U.S. military operates out of two bases.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said that the riots outside the French embassy in Niamey were influenced by Russia, adding it had “all the usual ingredients of destabilization, the Russian-African way”.
Russia has echoed the West’s call for peace and reinstatement; however, their involvement in West African politics has influenced much of the conflict there in recent years, as well as the removal of much of France’s own influence in it’s former colonies.
As more European powers pull their influence from the region, it leaves a foreign policy vacuum likely to be filled by Russia. The Kremlin has long been involved in both overt and covert operations in Western Africa. With the new military junta in Niamey openly promulgating a pro-Russian stance, it is likely that Moscow will seize the opportunity to embolden the new government.
West Africa Divided:
The nations of West Africa have taken differing stances on the coup in Niger and the outspoken declarations by ECOWAS and the West.
Algeria has expressed its backing for the ECOWAS initiative to reinstate democracy in Niger. In an official statement, Algerian authorities reiterated their support for ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, in their call for a resumption of constitutional democratic governance in Niger. Given their extensive desert border with Niger, Algeria maintains close vigilance over any signs of instability in the region.
Guinea has taken a stance against the decision of ECOWAS. According to CNRD, Guinea refrains from implementing the “illegal and inhumane” sanctions imposed by ECOWAS on the people and authorities of Niger. They have also said that Guinea will not follow the sanctions imposed against the country by ECOWAS.
“If anyone dares invade Niger due to the Military takeover, coup d’état, we will declare it as a war against them and we will send our military to defend the country”, stated President of Guinea Mamady Doumbouya.
Mali and Burkina Faso, both recently undergoing coups of their own, released a joint statement standing in solidarity with the Niger junta. Read the wrap up of the statement here.
Junta leader and President of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traore stated, “We African heads of state must stop behaving like puppets who dance every time the imperialists pull the strings. Glory to our peoples, Dignity to our people, Victory to our people, Fatherland or death, we shall conquer.”
It is important to note that Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea have all been suspended from ECOWAS due to coups in recent years.
Nigerian Army Chief of Staff General Christopher Musa says his men are ready to act in Niger to restore order as soon as President Tinubu gives the order, saying, “We will not give them [coup leaders] the opportunity to succeed.” In West Africa, Nigeria stands out as arguably the strongest militarily and the West’s biggest supporter. Nigeria’s President also doubles as the chair of ECOWAS.
Chad is sending representatives to meet with junta leaders in Niger to act as emissaries on behalf of ECOWAS in an effort to reach a diplomatic conclusion and avoid military conflict.
A Larger Conflict:
The evacuation of European civilians may signal that European nations are wary of a larger regional conflict. As Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea back Niger in the face of ECOWAS threats of military force, the western portion of the African continent faces a spiraling destabilization that could result in further violence and bloodshed. This destabilization not only allows other insurgent and Islamic extremist groups further room to grow but potentially an environment in which to thrive.