After the presidential guards ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and declared Abdrahmane Tchiani as the new leader, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions on the Niger Republic. Meanwhile, the Nigerian government closed its land borders and cut off electricity supply as part of the sanctions against the military junta which has hampered cross-border trade. Niger Republic is very strategic in the trans-Saharan trade routes. The escalating tension between ECOWAS and the putschists might unwittingly lead to West Africa becoming a pawn in the strategies of international players, causing instability with the ripple paralysis of the fragile West African trade.
The closure of the northern borders between Nigeria and Niger threatens over $1.3 billion in trade along the trans-Saharan route of significant importance linking Nigeria with Niger, Chad, Mali, Tunisia and Algeria. Trucks conveying about 60% of Nigeria-bound goods are stuck at various borders with Niger, among which are Ilela, Malam Fatori, Jibia, Maigatari, Babanmutum and Kamba borders. Arewa Economic Forum (AEF) members lose about N13 billion per week at the Nigeria-Niger border because of the border closure.
West Africa is grappling with an epidemic of military coups. Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Niger have each experienced successful coups from 2020 till date. This trend portrays a decline in democratic processes in the Sahel, as soldiers have overthrown four democratically elected governments in a span of three years. Military coups negate ECOWAS principles as such ECOWAS vehemently opposes the unconstitutional assumption of power in West Africa.
Niger, a landlocked country, relies on Nigeria for an efficient transhipment route while, Nigeria-Europe bound flights navigate through the short and efficient Niger airspace
Nigeria’s President, Bola Tinubu, who also doubles as the Chairman of ECOWAS is in the middle of a critical dilemma. His loyalty and leadership are bound to be tested. Nigerians oppose military intervention in Niger while ECOWAS which he chairs seems to be gravitating towards confrontation as a last resort in Niger.
Read also: AU suspends Niger Republic
The proliferation of weapons, those from Libya’s defunct regime and of local origin is still a source of concern. The Sahel region cannot afford a full-blown ECOWAS-Niger conflict at this time. This could escalate insecurity and fuel the probable emergence of various insurgent groups. Meaningful trade cannot thrive in an atmosphere of insecurity and instability.
From geopolitics dynamics and undertones, any war between ECOWAS – Niger is indirectly a power tussle between the United States and Russia. Besides, most people of Niger and northern Nigeria have shared roots, socio-cultural and religious ties long before the European colonialists drew new political borders that divided pre-existing administrations and cultural groups. This is akin to waging war against self.
Trade interdependence and interconnectivity in West Africa
Following the diplomatic fallout, the 248-kilometre Nigeria-Niger rail project which is anticipated to carry 9,364 passengers and transport about 3,000 metric tonnes of cargo on a daily basis is at risk of suspension. The Nigeria-Niger Republic rail line aims to enhance trade, ease trans-border movement, foster socio-economic interactions, and promote AfCFTA goals within sub-Saharan countries.
With the launch of the $1.5 billion Lekki Deep Seaport, some West and Central African countries considered discontinuing Cotonou and Lome ports as a transit rather, they signified their interest in the patronage of Lekki Deep Seaport via the Dala Inland Dry Port, Kano. Consequently, Nigeria is positioned to reclaim a substantial 60% of the cargo formerly bound for Niger Republic, which had been rerouted to ports in Ghana, Togo, Benin Republic, and Cote D’Ivoire, leading to an annual revenue loss of approximately N136 billion. Transit cargo movement to the Niger Republic faces a setback due to the Federal Government’s directive to halt operations at land borders and seaports.
Niger Republic closed its airspace due to concerns about a potential invasion by ECOWAS forces. Niger Republic becomes the third nation in West Africa to shut down its airspace, following Sudan and Libya. The coup plotters’ move led to the blockage of approximately 2,600 miles of African airspace, spanning from Western Niger to the Red Sea. This led to flight diversions, cancellations, and longer routes for Europe-bound flights from Nigeria, negatively impacting international travel in Africa and causing disruptions in aircraft movements across West and Southern Africa.
The Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (4,128 km) with a cost of $13 billion will link Warri in Nigeria to Hassi R’Mel in Algeria, passing through Niger. Upon completion, the pipeline will carry up to 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas supplies to Europe yearly via Algeria; with an alternative potential to Russian gas. The project which was recently reactivated due to a strong international demand for gas could also suffer a serious setback.
Niger, a landlocked country, relies on Nigeria for an efficient transhipment route while, Nigeria-Europe bound flights navigate through the short and efficient Niger airspace. This is a microcosm of the trade interdependence and the necessity for mutual relationships among West African States.
Mitigating cross-border trade paralysis: Recommendations
The open support for the military coup in Niger affirms underlying issues and the disconnect between the citizens and the elected political elites. Previous military coups have been linked to conflict and displacement of people, authoritarian rule, tweaking the constitution for self-aggrandisement and clinging to power among others. The frequent coups are pointers to the declining governance and deteriorating democratic values in ECOWAS member States.
The anger of military personnel taking over in response to France’s dominance and neocolonialism highlights the need for ECOWAS to step up and protect West African sovereignty through regional economic coordination and independent monetary interventions.
As a long-term conflict resolution mechanism, ECOWAS should thoroughly investigate the underlying factors behind the recurrent military coups in West Africa. These are the germane issues ECOWAS should address. Non-aggression between member states and peaceful settlement of disputes among member states are at the core of the ECOWAS treaty, as such diplomatic avenues should be pursued to find a peaceful solution to the ECOWAS- Niger crisis.
The stability of West African States is vital for regional security, seamless cross-border trade and a leap in economic growth. War is not an option.
Odewale, a Lecturer at Kaduna Polytechnic, Nigeria, public affairs commentator and a Free Trade Fellow at Ominira Initiative, tweets @ODEWALEAbayomi