Defiance, fear in Niger as ECOWAS deadline looms

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Men hold a child dressed in military uniform as they gather with thousands of anti-sanctions protesters in support of putschist soldiers in the capital Niamey, Niger August 3, 2023 [Mahamadou Hamidou/ Reuters]

The regional bloc’s ultimatum for Niger’s coup leaders to restore deposed President Mohamed Bazoum or risk military intervention is set to expire on Sunday.

Yeye Issoufou has joined pro-coup demonstrations in Niger three times since members of the presidential guards seized power in the West African country on July 26.

Numbering in their hundreds, the crowds have marched through the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, singing songs and waving placards hailing the country’s self-declared new leader Abdourahmane Tchiani. They booed “imperialist France” as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has threatened to intervene militarily and restore deposed President Mohamed Bazoum.

Issoufou, who works at Aghrymet, a climate institute in the capital, is frustrated by insecurity, corruption and a worsening economy in landlocked Niger. The country is battling armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) and is among the poorest in the world.

“They [France] have been exploiting uranium here for almost 63 years but we don’t have a dam that can produce electricity for Niger,” he said of Niamey’s former colonial ruler.

“We have hopes that the military regime will make Niger better because of the way they have communicated to the people. They said they have established other strategies to grow our economy.”

The coup in Niger makes the country the fifth in West Africa – after Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad – whose government has been toppled by its military since 2020.

International condemnation has been swift and harsh, particularly from ECOWAS, which has imposed a host of sanctions against Niger, including a no-fly zone and border closures. Neighbouring Nigeria, which supplies 70 percent of Niger’s electricity, has also cut off the power supply, plunging the 25-million-strong population into darkness.

The regional bloc also gave Niger’s military a one-week ultimatum to reinstate Bazoum, by August 6, or risk military intervention.

Collision course

In a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy, Nigeria on Thursday sent a delegation led by former military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar – who handed over Nigeria’s power to a civilian in 1999 – to negotiate with Niger’s coup leaders.

But Tchiani refused to meet the delegation and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on Friday requested parliamentary approval for military intervention. An ECOWAS spokesperson told reporters in Abuja on the same day that defence chiefs from the regional bloc have worked out “all the elements that will go into any eventual intervention … including the resources needed, the how and when we are going to deploy the force”.

France, meanwhile, has also voiced support for the bloc’s efforts.

With the ECOWAS-issued ultimatum set to expire on Sunday, uncertainty looms over Niger with millions of Nigeriens now facing the prospect of war and hardship.

Experts say any military intervention would be costly.

“I think this has the potential to be disastrous,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior associate in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’s Africa Program.

“The only positive thing we can say about this coup so far is that there has been no violence,” Hudson told Al Jazeera. “And I think we should preserve the peace in Niger for the sake of the people, and an intervention force led by Nigeria creates a very likelihood that perhaps uncontrollable violence will break out and that does not strike me as a positive outcome for anyone.”

‘Zero-sum game’

ECOWAS has sent troops to regional countries in turmoil before.

In 2017, when The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh refused to concede power to the election winner Adama Barrow, ECOWAS led an intervention force to remove the authoritarian leader. Jammeh’s forces offered little resistance and he later fled into exile.

But what was relatively straightforward in The Gambia seven years ago will be much more complicated in Niger, with military leaders in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso backing Tchiani and declaring that any intervention against Niamey will be considered a declaration of war against their nations.

Niger’s coup leaders have also courted Russia, reportedly seeking help from Russian mercenary group, Wagner, which sent troops to Mali after the military coup there.

“These [ECOWAS] forces are not trained for this mission. ECOWAS cannot bully Niger [as it has the backing of] Mali and Burkina Faso, because the only fighting force that has the experience of fighting and training together are those countries in the G5 Sahel,” Hudson said.

He was referring to a regional force set up in 2017, which included troops from Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali, and which received training as well as funds from the West to fight armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL in the Sahel.

Experts also fear that a conflict in Niger could benefit al-Qaeda, ISIL and other armed groups who would have room to grow stronger if governments in the region get distracted in a fight with each other.

Any conflict would also have severe humanitarian consequences.

Niger, the seventh-largest producer of uranium, ranks 189th among 191 countries in the 2022 United Nations Human Development Index. The sanctions that have already been imposed as well as an eventual war will only thrust more hardship on everyday Nigeriens already battling climate change, poverty and attacks from armed groups.

“Being one of the poorest people in the world, the sanctions [and war] are going to impoverish people further in terms of access to energy, economic engagement, trans-border trade… the lot is closed against Niger now,” said Oluwole Ojewale, an analyst at the Senegal-based Institute of Security Studies.

“War is a zero-sum game. Even though the other side of ECOWAS is stronger than the side that has been hijacked by military juntas, the fact remains that there will be humanitarian consequences on both ends and it is the poor that will bear the brunt of this,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ojewale noted that more than a million Nigerian refugees – now living in Niger’s border towns after fleeing attacks from bandits and the Boko Haram armed group – would also be caught in the crossfire.

Deploying troops to Niger could also prove costly to West African nations, many of which are battling their own security challenges.

“Each of ECOWAS’s countries has internal operations they are dealing with already and the consequence is that the militaries will become overstretched in each of the countries if they make military contributions,” Ojewale said.

“Money that ought to be channelled towards housing, health and education will be channelled to war – and at what costs?”

He added that any resistance by the military government in Niger could also provoke a protracted war that could reverberate across the entire region.

“Tchiani’s chances are very low, but you don’t go into another person’s house to attack the person and not receive some bruises,” Ojewale said.

“We can only see the beginning of the war; nobody can predict how it will end.”

Defiance, fear

As the ECOWAS deadline looms, the coup supporters in Niamey remain defiant.

“We are determined to go through any kind of stress and consequences. The people will accept whatever it will cost, lives or anything, and it is because we are tired of our leaders,” said Issoufou.

“There are now almost five borders open to us – Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria and Libya, so we can survive.”

Others, however, are fearful.

Samaila Mahamadou, who lives in Niger’s second-largest city, Maradi, hopes diplomacy will prevail.

The 26-year-old graduate from the University of Ilorin in Nigeria said he does not believe Niger’s military leaders have the capacity to solve problems plaguing his country.

Since 1960, Niger has only had a single transition between civilian governments, in April 2021, when Mahamadou Issoufou handed power to Mohamed Bazoum. This bleak history does not inspire hope in Mahamadou.

“Considering the military coups that have happened before, we did not see any change,” he said.

“Instead, the soldiers come, carry our money and go and leave the country for a civilian, and they will come and do another coup later. Soldiers are not meant to govern but to defend our country against danger. If they are in charge of the country, the country cannot be better.”

Although he does not support the coup, Mahamadou is afraid a military intervention will worsen the conditions for him and his countrymen.

More than 40 percent of Niger’s budget comes from aid. With France and the United States having suspended aid, the military will have to look elsewhere for economic sustenance, possibly opening the door for Russia

Mahamadou, tense and afraid, said he will be looking for updates constantly.

“If ECOWAS invades Niger, there will be bloodshed, and my country will be destabilised. They should try some diplomatic ways to resolve the problem,” he said.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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