Military rulers in Mali and Burkina Faso have thrown the proverbial wild cat among the pigeons by backing the coup makers in neighbouring Niger in defiance of ECOWAS, the regional economic bloc, and by extension, the international community.
After their extraordinary meeting in Abuja on Sunday, 30th July 2023, ECOWAS leaders imposed a series of sanctions on Niger and gave the Brig.-Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani-led coup makers a seven-day ultimatum to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and restore constitutional order in the country or face possible “use of (military) force.”
The African Union (AU) had earlier given the Niger coupists 15 days to reinstate elected Bazoum, who was deposed in the coup of 26th July.
Niger is a strategic ally of the West and the United Nations, European Union, France, and U.S. which have military bases in Niger have also condemned the coup and suspended financial aid as well as military assistance and cooperation with Niger.
Moscow, which has been making strong political and economic inroads into Africa has also condemned the Niger putsch, but the leadership of Russia’s private military group Wagner has hailed the Niger coup as a good development.
Wagner is active in several Africa countries and the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, former French colonies, have side stepped Paris and turned to Russia for military support to fight terrorist and Islamic insurgency.
In their joint statement on Monday, the Mali and Burkina Faso military governments made no reference to the African Union, but specifically denounced the position taken against Niger by ECOWAS and the West African Economic and Monetary Union, with the French acronym UEMOA.
The two military governments said they would not respect the “illegal, illegitimate and inhuman sanctions” announced by ECOWAS and UEOMA against Niger.
They also warned that any military intervention against Niger would “amount to a declaration of war against Mali and Burkina Faso” and could result in both countries’ withdrawal from ECOWAS, and their “declaration of self-defence measures in support of the armed forces and people of Niger.”
The non-reference to the African Union in the joint statement is instructive given that it was the continental organization that first issued an ultimatum to the Niger junta before ECOWAS and UEMOA after their separate meetings in Abuja.
It was curious that the African Union fired the first shot in the case of Niger, contrary to established tradition of allowing Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to take the lead in regional conflict management and interventions.
Indeed, the African Union had attracted criticism of “double standard” in its treatment of coup makers in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, who have been slammed with sanctions, while Chadian current leader Gen. Mahamat Kaka Idris Derby, who also seized power after Chadian rebels assassinated his father president in 2021 is given VIP treatment by the continental body.
Ironically, the young Gen. Derby has visited Niger for talks with the coup leaders, detained Bazoum and his predecessor in office President Mahamadou Issoufou, after consultations on Sunday with Nigerian President Ahmed Tinubu, Chair of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government., who convened the Abuja summit on Niger.
It is believed that the AU’s precipitate 15-day ultimatum to the Niger coup makers might have forced ECOWAS to issue a shorter deadline of seven days, thereby boxing the regional bloc into a dilemma.
From experience, ECOWAS and the AU would normally impose sanctions before issuing an ultimatum, but perhaps, in order to appear tough on the incessant military incursions in the region, ECOWAS decided to announce its sanctions and the ultimatum in one go.
ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff are expected to hold an emergency meeting in Abuja on Wednesday on the way forward in Niger. This is expected to be followed by a military delegation to Niger.
But the situation begs the question whether ECOWAS can make good its threat of military intervention within seven days, and what becomes of its already tented reputation in the event of its failure to follow through with the threat?
There are huge assumed and unintended implications and consequences of kinetic confrontations between Niger’s ill-equipped and poorly trained estimated 12,000 active and 5,000 reserve military and police forces, with a possible Nigeria-led external forces, which is likely to receive support from the U.S. and France, which have military bases and about 3,000 combined troops in Niger.
Such confrontations will make the ECOWAS region a war theatre, further compounding the grave insecurity and socioeconomic hardships bedevilling the community of estimated 400 million people.
In addition, landlocked Niger shares porous borders and historical ties with Nigeria and a number of politically unstable nations such as Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and Algeria.
A war that pits ECOWAS member States among themselves, could unleash dire humanitarian consequences leaving the region more susceptible and vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists and other armed groups from the Sahel.
No doubt, there has to be a strong message to military adventurers such as Abdourahamane Tchiani of Niger, Assimi Goita of Mali, Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea, and Ibrahim Traore of Burkina Faso that ECOWAS and the international community will stop at nothing to defend democracy and the respect for constitutional order in the region.
But as the maxim goes, he who comes to equity must also come with clean hands!
Is the raft of sanctions and external interventions about saving political allies in trouble, what about the long-suffering populations, who are already victims of bad governance in these countries?
President Bazoum was elected and should be protected, but the root causes of incessant coups and growing domestic disaffection with governments in Africa and their foreign allies demand very urgent interrogation and remedy.
The life and comfort of a government official cannot be more valuable than the lives and survival of the majority of oppressed citizens.
The international community must spare a thought for Niger’s estimated 26 million population impoverished in the midst of priced minerals such as uranium, gold, oil, cement, coal, gypsum, limestone, salt, silver, and tin, being exploited by foreign companies to enrich their nations, while Niger remains one of the poorest countries of the World.
There should not be a different set of rules for corrupt leaders who rig elections, alter national constitutions to obtain or retain political power, repress their opponents and trample on the citizens’ rights, and the coup plotters.
There must be justice and consistency in the collective defence and consolidation of democracy.
Extreme caution is required in dealing with the complex situation in Niger to avoid unnecessary bloodletting or aggravation of the country’s perilous situation.
Africa has more than its fair share of wars and instability.
The triggers and drivers of military incursions into politics in the continent must be addressed with rule of the thumb zero-tolerance for any unconstitutional change of government.