ABUJA, Nigeria — Regional mediation efforts to reverse the coup in Niger and restore its democracy collapsed as soon as they started. Tensions have escalated as the Sunday deadline nears for possible military intervention by other West African countries.
As its meeting ended Friday in neighboring Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, the region’s defense chiefs finalized a plan to use force against the Niger junta — needing approval by their political leaders — if Mohamed Bazoum is not reinstated as Niger’s president. An Economic Community of West African States delegation to Niger, led by Nigeria’s former head of state Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, had tried unsuccessfully to meet with the coup leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who later declared that any aggression against Niger “will see an immediate response and without warning.”
What started as an overthrow of the president by his closest commanders in the Presidential Guard has received the support of some other soldiers, including the Nigerien army command.
This would be the first time in years that the regional bloc known as ECOWAS would try to forcefully put down a coup in West Africa, which has seen several successful coups since 2020.
“The events of the last two days make it more likely that this (military) intervention may actually happen,” said Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at the Oxford Analytica geopolitical intelligence firm. “And if they offer resistance to an ECOWAS intervention, this can turn out to be really catastrophic.”
ECOWAS would be doing so as a split family, with three other regimes — Mali and Burkina Faso, which border Niger, and Guinea — choosing to side with the junta.
Niger’s other neighbors include Chad, whose leader has tried to mediate between the coup plotters and ECOWAS, and Algeria and Libya, which are not members of the bloc. This leaves any military intervention through land largely restricted to Nigeria’s 1,600-km (1,000-mile) border with Niger.
It’s not yet clear what the strategy of military intervention in land-locked Niger would look like, but the country enjoys some territorial advantage. With Bazoum being held in the capital, Niamey, the focus will start there.
With a population of 25 million, Niger is West Africa’s second-largest country in terms of landmass, spanning over 1.26 million square kilometers (486,000 square miles) — a hundred times more than that of Gambia, where ECOWAS last intervened militarily in 2017.
On the frontline of efforts to reverse the coup in Niger is its longtime ally Nigeria, which currently holds the chairmanship of ECOWAS.
Nigeria has West Africa’s largest military strength of 223,000 personnel — 22 times that of Niger’s 10,000, according to World Bank Open Data, and four times that of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Niger combined.
In Niger, some believe the military intervention might involve airstrikes. But with Bazoum still in detention, he could be both a bargaining tool and a shield for the junta.
An intervention force coming overland from Nigeria would have to cross a swath of mostly unoccupied land that hosts more than 200,000 refugees who have fled violence in northern Nigeria, further complicating any military deployment.
Niger’s international airport in Niamey is just 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the presidential palace where Bazoum is being held, which could make it more difficult to be overtaken. The country has two other international airports, including one in Agadez, where the U.S. military operates a drone base.
CONCERNS FOR THE WORLD
The latest military takeover amid a resurgence of coups in West Africa has been particularly concerning for the West, which saw Niger as its last remaining strategic partner in its counterterrorism fight in the Sahel. Niger also matters to the global market on various fronts, including its 5% share of the global supply of uranium.
Nnamdi Obasi, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, warned that a military intervention “could also deteriorate into a conflict by proxy between forces outside Africa, between those supporting the restoration of democracy and those supporting the junta, which has taken a strong anti-Western stance.”
On one end is Niger’s longtime strategic allies the United States and France. On the other is Russia and its private military contractor, Wagner, which have been hailed as allies by the military regimes of Mali and Burkina Faso.
CONSEQUENCES IN NIGER
There are fears that any battle in the event of a military intervention by ECOWAS will not be limited to Niger’s capital, Niamey.
“I fear the junta would gladly use its own people as cannon fodder or human shields, and ECOWAS militaries don’t have a good record when it comes to avoiding collateral damage,” said James Barnett, a researcher specializing in West Africa at Hudson Institute.
Even the best-case scenario from such an intervention would leave ECOWAS troops stationed in the country as anti-coup forces for what could be a lengthy period. That doesn’t look good for democracy — both for the country and the region, said Powell with Oxford Analytica.
“That would make Bazoum look like he is only a president because of foreign armies, and that is going to destroy his legitimacy.”
CHALLENGES FOR NIGERIA
Nigeria leading the ECOWAS intervention in Niger could face challenges on the homefront, where its military has struggled with overstretched, outgunned and outnumbered personnel, fighting armed groups that have killed thousands in the past year across the northern and central regions.
“Nigerian military has internal problems in Nigeria,” said Bello Tangaza, a resident of Tangaza in northern Sokoto state. “They have bandits, they have Boko Haram — but they have failed to tackle these problems and they want to jump to Niger.”
A military intervention led by Nigeria could shift attention from the armed groups that sometimes enter the country through the porous border with Niger. Four people were abducted by gunmen on Wednesday in Tangaza district, and residents fear the situation won’t improve anytime soon if the military turns its attention to Niger.