18 August 2023

Niger’s neighbours running out of options as chiefs consider military force

18 August 2023

West African defence chiefs met to discuss the crisis in Niger after coup leaders there ignored their deadline to step down.

It means that the region’s countries are left with few options in their effort to restore democratic rule.

Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown in July and remains under house arrest with his wife and son in the capital, Niamey.

Defence chiefs from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, were meeting in Ghana to discuss next steps in their stated goal of restoring Mr Bazoum.

Coup leaders in Niger already have ignored a deadline to restate him or face military intervention.

This is the first meeting since ECOWAS ordered the deployment of a “standby force” last week to restore constitutional rule in the country.

It is unclear if or when troops would intervene. A force would likely consist of several thousands soldiers from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Benin and could take weeks or months to prepare, say conflict experts.

ECOWAS has a poor track record in stemming the region’s rampant coups: neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali have each had two within three years.

Niger’s coup was seen by the international community and ECOWAS as one too many and in addition to threatening a military invasion, the bloc has imposed severe economic and travel sanctions.

But as time drags on with no military action and a standstill in negotiations, the junta is entrenching its power, leaving ECOWAS with few choices.

Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the think tank Clingendael Institute, said: “ECOWAS has few good options … particularly as the (junta) seems unwilling for the moment to cede to outside pressure.

“An intervention could backfire and damage the organisation in numerous ways, while a failure to extract major concessions from the (junta) could weaken the organisation politically at an already fragile time.”

The top security body of the African Union (AU) met to consider whether it would support military intervention but has yet to make public its decision.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council could overrule a military intervention if it felt that wider stability on the continent was threatened by it.

If it rejects the use of force, there are few grounds under which ECOWAS could claim legal justification, said Mr Lebovich.

But on Thursday, Abdel-Fatau Musah, the ECOWAS commissioner for peace and security, told reporters that the bloc was working with the United Nations on Niger’s situation and did not “need any approval from the Security Council to find a solution to the crisis”.

In recent years, Western countries have poured hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into Niger, which was seen as one of the last democratic countries in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert that it could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al Qaida and the so-called Islamic State group.

France and the United States have approximately 2,500 military personnel in the country, which trained soldiers and, in the case of France, conducted joint operations.

Since the coup, both countries have suspended military operations, which Sahel experts say is leading to an increase in attacks.

On Tuesday, at least 17 Nigerien soldiers were killed and nearly two dozen wounded in the Tillaberi region in the biggest attack by jihadis in six months.

Former militants have told The AP that active jihadis would leverage the coup to move around more freely and plan further violence while Niger’s security forces are distracted in Niamey and Western assistance has halted.

Displaced people who fled jihadi violence and are now living in makeshift huts in Niamey say they’ve suffered enough from the extremists. They do not want more problems from their neighbours.

Resident Daouda Mounkaila said: “I ask God not to bring (ECOWAS). We lost more than 600 people (from jihadi violence). I support the military, and God curse anyone who doesn’t love Niger.”

Last year he, his wife and their 11 children were chased from their home in Tillaberi, one of the hardest-hit regions in the country.

Others in the capital are trying to cope with the impact of the ECOWAS sanctions.

Niger relies on neighbouring Nigeria for up to 90% of its energy, which has in part been cut off.

The streets are littered with generators powering shops. Restaurant owners say they cannot keep their fridges cold and have lost customers.

The sanctions are making it hard for aid groups to get food and supplies in.

Before the coup, more than 4 million people in Niger — a country of some 25 million — were in need of humanitarian assistance, a number that is now expected to surge, aid groups say.

Trucks are stuck at the borders with Benin and Nigeria. Routes through countries that have ignored the sanctions, such as Burkina Faso, are dangerous because they are infiltrated with extremists.

Louise Aubin, the UN resident coordinator in Niger said: “With the closure of land and air borders, it’s hard to bring aid into the country.”

Supplies such as food and vaccines could run out and it is unclear how long the current stock will last, she said.

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