Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 04 September 2023

ECOWAS could intervene in Niger’s coup

Source: By Rishika Singh: The Indian Express

In a coup, soldiers in the West African nation of Niger installed Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani as head of state after ousting President Mohamed Bazoum, who said he was held “hostage”. Along with the difficult economic conditions already prevailing in the country, what has added to the concern for some in the West are the Nigerien calls for assistance from Russia’s Wagner Group.

mercenary organisation that was also active in the Ukraine war and maintained a footprint in Africa, the Group has fallen out of favour with Russian President Vladimir Putin after its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted a coup in Moscow in late June this year. However, its presence in Africa pre-dates its involvement in Ukraine.

Apart from the expected international players, such as Russia and the United States, the regional bloc ECOWAS or the Economic Community of West African States has been playing an active role. Its heads of state will meet on 10 August 2023 to discuss their next steps, after Niger’s military junta defied their 6 August deadline to reinstate the country’s ousted president and the soldiers closed the country’s airspace. There is also apprehension that ECOWAS may choose to intervene militarily.

What is ECOWAS?

Also known as CEDEAO in French, the regional group was established in 1975 through the Lagos Treaty – with a mandate of promoting economic integration among its members. Today, ECOWAS has 15 members: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’ Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo. Around 400 million people live in this region.

Although, following coups in recent years in some of the biggest countries in the bloc – namely Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – it suspended the three members and refused to recognise their new governments.

ECOWAS’ larger aims are to have a single common currency and create a single, large trading bloc in areas of industry, transport, telecommunications, energy, financial issues, and social and cultural matters. According to its website, the vision of ECOWAS is the creation of a “borderless region” that is well-integrated. “ECOWAS is meant to be a region governed in accordance with the principles of democracy, rule of law and good governance,” it states.

At the helm of its organisation structure is the Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State and Government. The Chairman is the current Head of State and Government and is appointed by other Heads of State and Government to oversee its affairs for one year.

What kind of a role has ECOWAS played in the region so far?

Beyond the goals of economic cooperation, ECOWAS has attempted to quell military conflicts in the region. According to Associated Press, ECOWAS also operated a regional peacekeeping operation known as ECOMOG, led by Nigeria in the 1990s and early 2000s, like in Liberia when forces were first deployed in 1990 during the deadly civil war and in Sierra Leone in 1997 when a democratically elected government was overthrown.

In 2017, it intervened in The Gambia after longtime President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing the elections which eventually led to the winner Adama Burrow coming to power. It has sent its troops to other countries but never to Niger.

Incidentally, the ongoing Niger coup’s leader, Gen. Tchiani, has previously served as battalion commander for ECOWAS peacekeepers in Ivory Coast after a ceasefire between government and rebel forces in 2003, according to a Reuters report.

And what might ECOWAS do in Niger?

While its response so far has indicated a military intervention, even if it ends up being limited in scope, the grouping faces many challenges.

For instance, Mali said it and Burkina Faso, both neighbours of Niger run by military juntas, were sending a delegation of officials to Niger to show support and would consider an attack as an attack on them as well.

The coups in these countries have been justified by the respective military leaders by pointing to the rising influence of terrorist forces and accompanying security challenges, which they claim the civilian establishment had been unable to handle. They have also been critical of the Western role in leading efforts to solve such issues but failing.

Omar Alieu Touray, President of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, briefed the UN Security Council in July this year that from 1 January to 30 June 2023, the region recorded 1,814 incidents of terrorist attacks, which resulted in 4,593 fatalities. By the end of April 2023, half a million refugees were recorded in the region.

There is also the question of whether longstanding measures of economic sanctions – such as those imposed by ECOWAS – can work, as these countries are also dealing with low economic growth prospects at the moment. France, a former coloniser of Niger, has cut off aid following the coup. Additionally, the presence of more than 2,000 troops from France and the US has also irked some locals, with the coup seeing anti-France graffiti and slogans.

There are also internal difficulties in launching an attack. As a Foreign Policy article notes, the neighbouring country of Nigeria has its President Bola Ahmed Tinubu currently as the bloc’s chair and he has led the call for ECOWAS to intervene militarily. However, the Nigerian Senate has pushed back on approving Tinubu’s request for military deployment.