Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will meet on Thursday (today) in Abuja to decide on what to do with the political crises in Niger Republic, whose military rulers have resisted its ultimatum to concede power or face probable military action.
With the deadline to restore democratic governance long passed, ECOWAS’ stout initial action seems to have been exchanged for a more pragmatic approach.
ECOWAS had this week announced a slew of sanctions against individuals collaborating with the military junta in Niger.
Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s president and ECOWAS chairman, directed the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to implement the financial sanctions on those concerned.
“Mr President has directed the acting CBN governor to levy another slate of sanctions against entities and individuals associated with the military junta in Niger public,” Ajuri Ngelale, Tinubu’s spokesman, said.
“This is not an individual action taken by an individual president on behalf of an individual nation. This is an action taken yes, by the ECOWAS chairman who is the president of Nigeria, but standing on the authority provided by the consensus resolution of all ECOWAS members and heads of state with regard to financial sanctions being levied by ECOWAS member states against the military junta in Niger Republic,” he added.
The bloc’s additional sanctions on the landlocked West African country, according to him, are proof that the commission is focused on a diplomatic approach before resorting to the use of force as a last option.
Tinubu’s spokesman said military intervention was not off the table.
An ECOWAS source from one of the Francophone countries said it would be highly unlikely that leaders of the bloc would order immediate military action when they meet today.
“What I am seeing is a cooling down of the initial irritation and a realisation of the need to give diplomacy a chance. The response of Mali and Burkina Faso shocked the leadership of ECOWAS. Guinea’s rebuff of ECOWAS’ threat of military action against Niger did not help matters either. The regime’s recent appointment of a new prime minister was an unambiguous message to ECOWAS leaders that the military rulers in Niger are not ready to back down,” the source said.
The coup leaders this week named Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine the country’s new prime minister. Zeine previously served as Niger’s cabinet director and finance minister. He is expected to lead consultations for the formation of a new government.
A retired Nigerian foreign intelligence officer told BusinessDay that he expected the leaders of the West African bloc to put more premium on diplomacy and sanctions and less on war.
“The truth is that they need to de-escalate the harsh sound that has been coming from them. They should not allow themselves to be boxed into a corner. I expect that they would have to give diplomacy and diplomatic engagements more chance. The initial response by ECOWAS to the coup was too exacting, too public and sadly, it simply pushed the regime into a corner. Sanctions will not make the regime back down. Sanctions do not benefit anyone. However, diplomacy will be a win-win for all sides, even for Nigeria,” he said.
The retired officer dismissed the possibility of the appointment of a new foreign minister in Nigeria changing the dynamics.
Nigeria has been without a foreign minister since the end of May when Tinubu took over from Muhammadu Buhari.
With the threat of military action looming, calls for a diplomatic solution continues to put pressure on hawkish leaders within the regional bloc.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former ECOWAS chairperson and Africa’s first female president, told CNN that dialogue should prevail, as “the ECOWAS authority has a record of being able to respond to issues in all of the ECOWAS countries using dialogue, using engagements, finding the means to resolve differences and I have confidence that despite the differences between the decisions made and the response by the affected countries, I believe that the leaders of the ECOWAS authority have the abilities and knowledge to find the best approaches to resolve the problem”.
Italy and Germany called on Monday for a time extension to an ultimatum imposed on the junta to reinstate democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum.
“The only path is a diplomatic one,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told La Stampa newspaper.
“A solution must be found. It’s not set that there is no way other than war.”
Germany’s foreign ministry echoed the calls for a diplomatic solution, saying: “We support ECOWAS in its mediation efforts, which are still ongoing.”
The ministry spokesperson stressed that the ECOWAS deadline expiration did not automatically mean there would be military action, adding: “We hope that these (mediation) efforts will ultimately lead to success and that constitutional order will be restored in Niger.”
The United States this week also backed enhanced diplomatic efforts to end the political stalemate in Niger. Antony Blinken, its secretary of state, said the US was backing regional efforts to bring a diplomatic resolution to the “extremely troubling” situation in Niger.
“We are supporting the efforts of Ecowas in Africa to restore constitutional order in Niger,” Blinken said in an interview Tuesday with Radio France Internationale. “The interruption of this constitutional order puts us, and many other countries, in a position where we have to stop our aid, our support, and this will not benefit the people of Niger.”
Victoria Nuland, acting US deputy secretary of state, travelled to the capital of Niger, Niamey, on Monday for what she called “difficult talks” with regime officials about allowing Bazoum to return to power.
ECOWAS needs to be clear eyed in regard to the stakes of the situation and the limited options available to it.
Niger plays a critical role in the Western fight against Islamist militias in the Sahel region. The country is a valuable member of the multinational joint task force, MNJTF.
The MNJTF is an effort by the Lake Chad basin states – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – to pool resources against jihadists that threaten all four countries. The joint force has carried out periodic operations, often involving troops from one country fighting in the country next door. Offensives have won victories and helped instil an esprit de corps among participating troops.
James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently warned that the conflict in Niger amid a looming deadline for coup leaders to cede power could potentially lead to a “full-blown war in Africa.”
Last week, defence chiefs from ECOWAS nations finalised an intervention plan and urged militaries to ready resources for a possible intervention.
A recent graphic released by War Mapper shows how extensive the costs of an escalation of the crisis in Niger might be.
The map shows that surrounding Niger are anti-coup nations Algeria and Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Togo. The War Mapper graphic also lists the Ecowas military coalition of Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Benin and Nigeria.
Robert Besseling, CEO of security and intelligence company Pangea-Risk, told Newsweek on Monday that ECOWAS had prepared a military intervention plan “consisting of a rapid deployment of special forces from Nigeria and possibly Benin, Chad, and other regional states, perhaps supported by French troops already deployed in Niamey”.
Over the last 10 years, Nigeria has built up large special forces’ units and special operations capabilities. They have been extensively trained by US, British, American, Israeli and Russian special forces training teams.
An ECOWAS intervention in Niger would likely receive air support from France.
Nigeria, according to an online military site, @DefenseNigeria on Twitter, has used its air power in the past “to stymie rebels and authoritarian rulers in Liberia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc. In the case of the Gambia, a show of force over the skies of Banjul and a naval blockade was enough to convince Yahya Jammeh to step down”.
“Todays Nigerian military is far better prepared to intervene in the region militarily across every spectrum on air, land and sea. The NAF is by far the most prolific regionally. Its reconnaissance capabilities are second to none in Sub Saharan Africa,” he said.