The Nordic Africa Institute


Researchers: ECOWAS’ options in Niger are limited

People rally in Niger's capital Niamey on 1 October 2023. The gathering comes a few days after the departure of the French ambassador from the country. The French president announced on 24 September that France would withdraw its ambassador and military personnel from Niger. Photo: Issifou Djibo

People rally in Niger's capital Niamey on 1 October 2023. The gathering comes a few days after the departure of the French ambassador from the country. The French president announced on 24 September that France would withdraw its ambassador and military personnel from Niger. Photo: Issifou Djibo

Date • 27 Oct 2023

The military coup in Niger in July dramatically shifted conditions for democracy and security in the Sahel, deepening a crisis in legitimacy for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). NAI asked three leading scholars on peace and integration in West Africa to reflect on political and societal challenges exposed by the latest military power grab.

On 26 July, soldiers detained Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, at his home in the capital Niamey and installed a military junta. It was the eighth coup in West Africa in three years (and it was shortly followed by a ninth, farther south, in Gabon).

Under the leadership of Nigeria, ECOWAS led a combative response against the coup makers in Niamey, threatening to use military force to restore constitutional order in the country, with the backing of Senegal, Ghana, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Benin. In response, the junta warned it was determined to defend its country. Meanwhile, Mali and Burkina Faso, which had been suspended from the bloc after their militaries had themselves taken power in coups, indicated they would rally their forces to defend junta-led Niger.

The stand-off contrasts with a long-established culture of collaboration within the bloc, which has allowed for joint interventions during constitutional crises in member countries. In the most recent example, ECOWAS troops entered The Gambia in January 2017 after long-time president Yahya Jammeh had refused to accept an election defeat and step down, in effect ending a constitutional crisis in the country.

Since then, ECOWAS has been struggling with organisational issues and many of its members have been beset by internal problems. In compliance with demands from the ruling junta, France has pulled out its troops from Mali. After having initially dug in its heels, on 24 September French president Emmanuel Macron declared the country’s military will leave Niger as well, by the end of the year. While the former colonial power gradually has decreased its military presence in West Africa, Russia’s influence has grown.

On 16 September, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – all run by military leaders who are deemed to be pro-Russian – signed a mutual security pact, the Alliance of Sahel States, pledging to support each other against “rebellion or external aggression”.

Adekeye Adebajo. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Adekeye Adebajo. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Nigeria and other ECOWAS members that initially supported a military intervention in Niger, seem to have cooled off on their plans, according to Prof. Adekeye Adebajo of the University of Pretoria. Adebajo says that if ECOWAS had continued to push for intervention, the organisation might not have survived.

“There is a deep split within the bloc. And if it was perceived that the US and France were trying to use ECOWAS as a Trojan horse, then pushing ahead with a military intervention would have been very dangerous.”

In reality, ECOWAS’ options are limited, Adebajo argues:

“They have no choice but to negotiate transitions with these military leaders.”

Soon after ECOWAS condemned the military takeover in Niger, crowds of pro-coup Nigeriens demonstrated in Niamey, shouting, “Down with ECOWAS, down with France, long live Putin!”

“Although some say they were a rented crowd, I think that one should not underestimate the very strong anti-French sentiment across the whole region,” Adebajo says.

Many people in Niger clearly supported the takeover. The same can be said about the latest coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, according to Shola Omotola, professor of political science at the Federal University Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria and holder of the Claude Ake Visiting Chair at NAI and Uppsala University’s Department for Peace and Conflict. However, Omotola believes that most people in the Sahel would prefer democracy to other political systems, an argument which is supported by the results of surveys External link, opens in new window. by pollster Afrobarometer. The problem, Omotola says, is the imbalance between what people expect from democracy and what their leaders have been providing.

Shola Omotola. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Shola Omotola. Photo: Mattias Sköld

“Elected governments in West Africa have failed to deliver on the dividends of democracy – be it in the educational sector, the health sector, infrastructural development, job creation or poverty reduction,” Omotola says.

Instead of providing services for all citizens, governments have engaged in patronage politics, where people loyal to the leaders are rewarded and given resources, whereas others, who oppose the leaders, are denied them.

“The popular enthusiasm about military regimes is strongly connected to this economic disillusion. People start to see these military coup leaders as the new messiah,” Omotola says.

Despite its shortcomings, ECOWAS still has the potential to drive a return to democracy, according to Omotola.

“Here, constant dialogue – the diplomatic route – is very critical. They must not close the doors but continue to engage with those coup leaders, put the various options and likely outcomes on the table for them. Applying pressure while also engaging in dialogue – that is how Niger can return to the path of democracy.”

Kwesi Aning. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Kwesi Aning. Photo: Mattias Sköld

A reversal of the democratic backsliding in West Africa must start within each individual country, says Prof Kwesi Aning, NAI associate and director of the Faculty of Academic Affairs & Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana.

“Democracy must be seen as a national responsibility, with citizens of that country saying, ‘We will not allow a backslide to take place’. That people will fight for institutional reform, transformation and effectiveness. That people are ready to get onto the streets and fight for their rights and hold governments accountable.”

Aning says the coups have helped bring to the fore underlying developmental problems that are prevalent in many West African societies.

“I am talking about the broader environment, about migration, youth and unemployment. And perhaps even more importantly, what is the functional utility of the education that we are providing to the youth? Thanks to social media, young West Africans are very aware of and conversant about what young people in Uppsala [in Sweden] are doing. They ask themselves, ‘Why can't our leaders provide those kinds of opportunities?”

Adebajo says that the democratic backsliding in the Sahel must also be seen in the context of the weak security architecture in the region and in Africa as a whole. Repeated failure by national, regional and international organisations to provide security feeds public appetite for quick fixes by national military leaders, he argues.

Adebajo adds it is important to keep in mind the efforts that Africans have made over the last three decades in terms of creating security mechanisms, and making military and economic sacrifices.

“But because of the lack of logistics and funding, a lot of these African regional organisations remain weak and fledgling, and often need external support from the UN or the EU to be able to sustain themselves in the field,” he concludes.

TEXT: Mattias Sköld