Recently, in July, the military in Niger staged a successful coup that deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. In its prompt reaction to the coup, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc also known by the acronym ECOWAS, met in Abuja, Nigeria. After few days of deliberations, they imposed sanctions against Niger and demanded the immediate reversal of the coup with the return to the presidency of deposed President Bazoum. To convey the seriousness of their position and to make an example of the coup makers, the ECOWAS leaders threatened to use military force if their demands were not met with compliance within a week. But Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, three countries under military rule, warned that any ECOWAS’ attack against Niger will be an attack against them. The ECOWAS’ ultimatum appears to have been determined by few countries and issued without extensive diplomatic conversations with other members.
Across West Africa, as people waited with trepidation, the deadline came and went without an ECOWAS military action, leaving the junta leadership to carry on consolidating their hold on Niger. ECOWAS, apparently, realising that lacking the capable logistics to stage the intervention would pose enormous practical challenges, decided to ignore its own deadline. But on 17 August 2023, it assembled its military chiefs of staff in Accra, Ghana, to organise a “comprehensive plan of military action” against Niger. The Nigerien military leaders, in reaction to the new ECOWAS position, proposed an arrangement that will allow them to rule for three years, culminating in general elections. ECOWAS, however, rejected the proposal in principle that it will encourage future coup makers. This position blinds ECOWAS’ members from seeing and examining the destructive consequences their military intervention may lead to.
The proposal from the Nigerien junta leaders is reasonable because it will automatically prevent the needless loss of lives and allow each side to retain its standing without humiliation. But ECOWAS, because of its numerical advantage and its standing as a regional bloc, with members who fear the possibility of being overthrown too in the future, wants to go to war to make an example of Niger as a warning to would-be coup makers. Its intransigence, undoubtedly, takes confidence from the calculation that the combined forces of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast will easily overcome the Nigerien army. But the lesson of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tells us otherwise. When Russia, a presumed military superpower, invaded Ukraine, it was feared that the latter would be easily overcome in less than a year. Almost two years on, however, the war is at a standoff with increasing human casualties, perhaps in the millions, on both sides.
The ECOWAS threat, if it is carried on as issued, will mark the second time that ECOWAS’ military force is deployed in a West African country to reinstate a deposed president. The first time it happened was in 1998 when Nigeria, the regional superpower, acting unilaterally in the name of ECOWAS, intervened in Sierra Leone and reinstated the late president, Tejan Kabbah, to the presidency in the madness of the brutal civil war.
Undoubtedly, the decision to use force to return Bazoum to the presidency is inspired by the success of the military intervention in Sierra Leone. But what the ECOWAS’ decision on Niger ignores to recognise and take into consideration is that today is not yesterday, each with its own unique political and military circumstances. Yesterday’s circumstances that made the military intervention in Sierra Leone successful are different from today’s circumstances. President Kabbah, who had been deposed, was exiled to neighbouring Guinea as the guest of government there. The invading forces, therefore, were not restrained by the safety concerns for Kabbah and his family, allowing them to go all out on the attack against a Sierra Leonean army that was disorganised. But in Niamey, Niger, the deposed Bazoum and his family are held as prisoners in a location or, perhaps, in different locations that are presumably well fortified. Since the mission of the invasion is to return Bazoum to the presidency, wherever he is held will be a battleground of bloodbath for both sides.
In 1998, Nigeria, which is expected to lead the intervention against Niger, was a different country internally militarily and politically. It was ruled by the military with Gen. Sani Abacha as head of state and chairman of the ruling council. The military council executed policy-decisions that were decided and approved by few senior military generals who issued decrees that the public was not allowed to debate and express opinions about. Internally, by comparison to today, Nigeria was then at peace. Its citizens were not under daily threat of attacks on their lives from domestic terrorists. The future Boko Haram’s threat to its national security was not yet in full operation. Hence, the primary internal security concern of Abacha and his boys was the prevention of military coups against him, and that he did ruthlessly. So, having no security demands at home made it convenient for Nigeria to undertake a military intervention in a foreign country.
Today, 2023, unlike 1998, the country is governed by a civilian administration of politicians who were elected to their positions. Under the civilians, the country’s security and safety of citizens are under serious threat from Boko Haram which seeks to rule Nigeria. To accomplish its mission, it uses mindless abductions, sexual violence, mass murders, burning and looting against defenseless civilians. For almost 20 years now, the Nigerian military has been struggling to defeat the group, which, by the counts of different sources, has killed more than 60,000 people and displaced about 3 million people.
Combating Boko Haram, undoubtedly, has stretched the Nigerian military to the limits. Any commitment of soldiers, perhaps more than 3,000, and materiel, will create a vacuum in the ability of the military to protect Nigerian citizens at home against Boko Haram. This, one suspects, will not be lost on elected senators and governors whose constituents are random victims of Boko Haram’s terror. Will the senators vote to commit Nigeria to lead a foreign military intervention that will leave other Nigerians vulnerable to Boko Haram’s attacks at home? Will every battalion in the Nigerian military find compelling reasons to go to Niger to fight and kill their Nigerien counterparts for what they themselves may commit one day at home in the future? In addition to this, there is the question of logistics which the ECOWAS’ one-week ultimatum to the Nigerien junta leaders carelessly ignored.
Niger is a landlocked country that shares borders with seven countries, four of which are members of ECOWAS. Mali and Burkina Faso, among the four, have taken side with Niger while Nigeria and Benin, the other two, have sided with ECOWAS military intervention. What does this mean for ECOWAS’ military intervention in Niger? It means that the initial military encounter of ECOWAS’ forces on their march to Niamey, the capital city where Bazoum is being detained, will commence at the borders Niger shares with Nigeria and Benin. Undoubtedly, this will expose ordinary citizens of these countries to deadly harm. If ECOWAS opts to invade the country by air, how will its forces secure airbases to land? Against the Nigerien army that has been battle-tested, as have Malian and Burkinabe armies, against the mindlessly deadly Jihadist terrorists, this encounter will drag on for long that it will create serious political, economic, and security problems at home for some ECOWAS leaders. The presumed air superiority of the Nigerian military, which ECOWAS depends on, is currently proving to be mediocre in its campaign at home against Boko Haram and pirates using organised armed rebellion to steal oil in the oil producing areas of the country.
Then there is the factor of the Russia’s Wagner military mercenaries and the Jihadist. According to accounts from different sources, there are about 5,000 Wagner fighters scattered around in some of the countries that constitute the Sahel region. In some of the countries, they serve either as military advisors or fighters against the Jihadist fighters whose number is believed to be in the thousands. Now, having lost their leader in a plane crash, the Wagner group may have a country to return to, but it is not something they would like to do in a hurry because of security and safety concerns for them in Russia, where Putin drinks tea with his adversaries in the morning and reads their obituaries in the evening.
As for the Jihadists, they have been in Niger fighting to depose Bazoum and other presidents and impose their rule. So, at this time or anytime soon, whenever ECOWAS goes there, it will not only be the Nigerien army its forces will confront militarily, it will also be against the Jihadists it will fight. Undoubtedly, Wagner’s role will be in support of the Malian, Nigerien and Burkinabe soldiers they have known and shared common interests with in the years past. This may play a role in the trajectory of an unknown military outcome that will take long to come.
A military invasion of a country, for whatever reasons, is an exercise that takes on a life of its own in the invaded country. It is a life that does not end promptly whenever the invaders conveniently wish to end it and return home. Usually, it metamorphoses into a long and destructive proxy war of competing security and economic interests that leaves a country fractured administratively. An example of this lies in Libya, 10 years now after it was invaded by the combined forces of NATO and Libyan opposition to remove Col. Gaddafi from office. Outside of Africa, it held America hostage in Vietnam, as well as the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and left Iraq a failed state. Currently, Saudi Arabia, having invaded Yemen 8 years on, is unable to extricate itself from Yemen. Russia is heading in that same direction in Ukraine. The presence of the Wagner and Jihadist fighters in the Sahel, undoubtedly, will contribute perilous recipes to any military intervention by ECOWAS. Therefore, the proposal by the Nigerien junta, to rule for 3 years, is reasonable because it will automatically save pedestrian African lives that would otherwise be lost unnecessarily in a war of ECOWAS’ military intervention. Significantly, it will preserve the lives of deposed President Bazoum and his family. ECOWAS must rethink its military position.
About the author: Benedict Nyankun Wisseh is a graduate of the defunct Charlotte Tolbert Memorial Academy. Email: [email protected].