The most pressing dilemma for the AU on Niger is to help find a path for a non-military resolution of the crisis

The most pressing dilemma for the AU on Niger is to help find a path for a non-military resolution of the crisis

Date | 13 August 2023

Solomon Ayele Dersso, PhD
Founding Director, Amani Africa


Following the latest extraordinary summit of the West African regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on the coup in Niger and its decision calling on the African Union (AU) to endorse all its decisions, the major preoccupation in diplomatic discussions in Addis Ababa is whether the AU’s principal decision-making body on matters of peace and security, the Peace and Security Council, would heed the call from ECOWAS and give its full blessing by rubber stamping the ECOWAS decision as a package. No doubt this is a major policy issue of immediate concern. However, there is a more pressing aspect of the policy challenge the AU faces from the ECOWAS request for a wholesale endorsement of its decisions.

As the junta entrenches itself and gets more radical in an attempt to defy the sanctions and threat of force, and, on its part, ECOWAS doubles down on its threat of force, the two are locking themselves on a dangerous path of escalation. If this is not reversed, it could degenerate into armed fighting. Such fighting is sure to frustrate the end state ECOWAS seeks to accomplish through its planed military intervention- reinstating the deposed President back to power, thereby reversing the coup and restoring constitutional order.

Yet, the failure of the military intervention to achieve its end state would be the least consequential outcome. Unfortunately, the fighting that this intervention stands to precipitate is sure to accelerate the dangerous set of conditions put in motion that could blow up Niger, triggering calamitous consequences for the entire region and reverberating across the continent.

First, after the warning by the two other central Sahelian countries under military rule, Burkina Faso and Mali, that military measure against Niger amounts to a declaration of war against them, ECOWAS military intervention in Niger risks to trigger regionalized war.

Second, with the announcement of the formation of a movement led by a former rebel leader aiming at reinstating President Bazoum back to power, Niger faced the danger of internal fighting and hence the acceleration of its fragility.

Third, any military intervention that targets and weakness Niger’s army also exposes Niger to the danger of collapse. With an army battered by a fight with forces from neighboring countries, Niger will easily be overrun by the armed terrorist groups operating in the Sahel.

Thus, the most pressing dilemma for the AU is to help ECOWAS find a path for a non-military and non-punitive (for Nigerien people) resolution of the constitutional crisis in Niger and the attendant democratic setback it represents for the region.

For the West Africa region, the coup in Niger represented the case with the most significant regional and geostrategic implementations. It is the sixth coup to take place in the region since August 2020. With Niger, nearly one in five countries in the region are now under military rule.

However, more than any of the earlier cases, the coup in Niger sent shockwaves for much of the governments of the region. As an attack on a ‘democratically elected’ government, it has triggered understandable concern for governments of the region that, if not reversed, no government in the West Africa and beyond could remain immune from becoming victim of coup.

For the regional body, ECOWAS, which has been in the forefront of fighting coups, the occurrence of the coup in Niger puts spotlight on the efficacy of how it handled the other coups.

It signals that the anti-coup posture and approach of ECOWAS has lost all its potency and credibility – under the weight of elections with questionable credibility, prolongation of power by incumbents through tampering with constitutional provisions on term limits, erosion of civic space and worsening bad governance.

Coming not long after the ascent of Nigeria’s new president to the helm of leading ECOWAS, the coup also came as a major foreign policy challenge for President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who wishes to reaffirm the regional and continental leadership role of Nigeria.

When ECOWAS set its first extraordinary summit following the coup, the mood on the part of political elites in West Africa was to send a strong message against the putsch in Niger for drawing a line on coups in the region. Indicating that they should have been firm in how they responded to earlier coups, President of Senegal said ‘now that we are together on this, we should take action to make sure that it does not continue.’ Niger was thus slapped with the most severe regime sanctions that the regional body imposed ‘in the history of the region.’ It closed air and land borders. It suspended financial and economic transactions with Niger.

Not surprisingly, President Tinubu’s administration took a tougher stance against the coup. In addition to the ECOWAS sanctions, Nigeria cut power supply to Niger.

It is these measures that took centre stage in ECOWAS effort to reverse the coup. As a follow up to the one-week ultimatum and to add pressure on the junta, on 2-4 August the ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Defense staff met in Abuja to draw up a plan of military intervention.

With the space and the air sucked by the harshly punitive sanctions and the threat of military intervention, diplomacy ended up taking a very far secondary place. Indeed, the nature and scope of the sanctions and the ratchetting up of the threat of use of force, instead of facilitating diplomacy, raised the stakes for both Niger and ECOWAS. While the sanctions exact heavy price and the threat of use of force puts Niger’s survival in peril, for ECOWAS it is perceived, albeit wrongly, as a matter of its credibility per Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Outtara.

Having exhausted all of its other ammunition at a go, ECOWAS is left with military intervention as the only instrument of pressure. Not totally surprisingly, when the second extraordinary summit of ECOWAS was convened on 10 August, the regional body doubled down on its stance, including on its threat of use of force. Thus, notwithstanding the admission of President Tinubu on the failure of the one week ultimatum given to the junta, ECOWAS, among others, decided to ‘immediately activate the ECOWAS Standby Force with all its elements’ and ordered ‘the deployment of ECOWAS Standby Force to Niger to restore constitutional order.’ With all these, ECOWAS has locked itself in a tight corner.

On the other hand, the harsh punitive sanctions and the use of force have given the junta the context for stirring nationalist fervour of Nigeriens and ride on their anti-neo-colonial sentiments. ECOWAS’ position is made more difficult due to charges that it was being used to advance the interests of foreign powers in the face of the persistent diplomatic manoeuvring of France and until recently the US centred on securing the reinstatement of President Bazoum.

In the process, the junta has increasingly taken positions that are less amendable to diplomatic engagements. On 3 August a massive demonstration in support of the coup was staged. The ECOWAS diplomatic delegation headed by former Nigerian President General Abdulsalami Abubakar sent on August 6, was prevented from leaving Niamey airport and returned to Nigeria without meeting the coup leader. On 8 August, the junta declined to receive a tripartite delegation from ECOWAS, AU and the UN, alleging that ‘anger and revolt among the population’ against ECOWAS’ sanctions made it impossible to guarantee the envoys’ safety. In the last few days, it was reported that the junta warned that it would kill the deposed president if military intervention is followed through.

All of the foregoing signal that Niger and ECOWAS are on a war footing. The AU should rise to the occasion and mobilize robust diplomatic effort aiming at helping ECOWAS and Niger find a path that steers them clear of military intervention. This effort should include, (as proposed here) and as Joseph Sany, Vice President of USIP rightly counselled,  ‘avoiding military action that could worsen the crisis and shaping sanctions in ways to reduce suffering within the general population.’ AU would fail to play a more responsible role if it takes the easy option of reducing itself to rubber stamping the decision of ECOWAS despite all the risks.

The content of this article does not represent the views of Amani Africa and reflect only the personal views of the authors who contribute to ‘Ideas Indaba’

Update on the Situation in the Republic of Niger

Update on the Situation in the Republic of Niger

Date | 13 August 2023

Tomorrow (14 August) the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) is expected to convene under its revised provisional program of work, its 1167th session to consider the situation in Niger.

The PSC Chair for the month and Permanent Representative of Burundi to the AU, Ambassador Willy Nyamitwe will be delivering the opening remarks. The Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS), Bankole Adeoye, is also expected to make a statement. As a country of concern, the Permanent Representative of Niger is also expected to make a statement. The PSC may also hear a statement from the representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Tomorrow’s session is the second time for the PSC to dedicate a session on the coup in Niger and the third time to discuss it. When the PSC Program of work initially set to consider the situation in Niger on 17 August after the expiry of the two-week timeline the PSC set in its initial session on 28 July, the next course of action of ECOWAS was unknown. The date was brought forward following ECOWAS decision to hold its second extraordinary summit on Niger. As a session that comes two days after the ECOWAS summit, it is expected that PSC will dedicate significant portion of its session on considering the outcome of the summit.

As noted, the first time the PSC met on the current coup in Niger was on an emergency meeting held virtually on 28 July 2023 for its 1164th session, with a communiqué adopted as an outcome of the session. Apart from strongly condemning the coup, the PSC set 15 days for the junta to restore constitutional order. This timeline expired on 11 August.

On its part ECOWAS in its communiqué, following its extraordinary session on 30 July 2023, imposed a series of sanctions such as: closure of land and air borders, institution of a no-fly zone, suspension of all commercial and financial transactions, asset freeze, travel bans, and suspension of financial assistance and transactions. Additionally, it demanded the coup leaders to return the country to constitutional order within 7 days against the threat of the use of force.

The UN Security Council like the PSC also held a briefing and issued a statement. Among others, it called for the release of President Bazoum, underscored the need for constitutional order and expressed support for the role of ECOWAS.

Since the PSC’s last session on 28 July, the grip of the junta on Niger has continued to deepen. Apart from the establishment of Conseil National Pour la Sauvergarde de la Patrie (CNSP) [in English: National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland], composed of senior officials from various branches of the defence and security forces and the emergence of the chief of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani as the leader of the junta (while  General Salifou Moudi, who was appointed as chief of staff by former Nigerien President in 2020 and demoted by President Bazoum in March 2023, became the second in command), on 7 August the junta named former Finance Minister Lamine Zeine Prime Minister. On 30 July, large number of people took to the streets in support of the coup. Just before the convening of the ECOWAS summit, the junta announced a new cabinet. The 21-member new government involves two members of CNSP responsible for ministers of defense and interior.

On the diplomatic front as well, ECOWAS took a lead. It sent various delegations. After he volunteered to mediate, ECOWAS sent the Chadian leader Mahamat Idriss Deby, who himself seized power through military means, to Niamey, although this mission accomplished nothing despite meetings for photo with the coup leader and the deposed President. Earlier on the same day the unfolding of the coup was first reported on 26 July, Benin’s President was also reported as planning to travel to Niger. Designated by ECOWAS Chairperson, President Tinabu of Nigeria as official mediators, another delegation headed by former Nigerian President and member of the AU High-Level Panel on Sudan, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and involving the Emir of Sokota traveled to Niger on 6 August but was unable to meet the head of the junta. On 8 August, a joint ECOWAS-AU-UN mission destined to Niger was unable to undertake its mission, on account of, in the words of an ECOWAS statement, ‘a late-night communication from the military authorities in Niger indicating their unavailability to receive the tripartite delegation.’

Rather than this plethora of diplomatic missions, what received the most attention and concentrated the minds of the members of the junta and people in Niger as well as many others in the region are the raft of sanctions that ECOWAS slapped on Niger and most significantly the threat of use of force. In addition to ECOWAS’ sanctions, Nigeria has cut power supply to Niger. On 2-4 August, the ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Defense staff met in Abuja to draw up and agree on an intervention plan. Countries such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire announced their plan to send troops as part of ECOWAS intervention force.

The pressure and the threat of force, instead of dissuading the junta from continuing on the unconstitutional path it embarked on, seemed to have had the opposite effect. They hardened its position. The coup leaders have dismissed the sanctions as ‘inhuman’ and have vowed to resist them. The threat of force also stirred nationalist fervor of the Nigerien public, making it easier for the junta to galvanize public support. However, it is also worth noting that the junta is not without opposition. On 10 August report emerged that a former Tuareg rebel leader and politician in Niger, Rhissa Ag Boula, announced the launching of a rebel movement opposing the military junta and seeking to restore President Bazoum’s rule.

Regionally as well, despite unity in condemning the coup and the call for restoration of constitutional order, some of the measures by ECOWAS particularly the threat of use of force divided views both on the part of countries and the wider public in countries neighboring Niger. Niger’s neighbors outside ECOWAS who support the position of ECOWAS on restoration of constitutional order such as Algeria and Mauritania expressed concern over the threat of force, with Algeria indicating its strong opposition to it. Chad on its part stated that it would not join military intervention against Niger. On the other hand, Burkina Faso and Mali announced that military intervention in Niger amounts to a threat of war against them as well, while Guinea also rejected the threat of use of force.

In Nigeria, which chairs ECOWAS, concerns have been expressed over the adverse peace and security implications of military force particularly for northern parts of Nigeria that share border with Niger. When requested for its support, Nigeria’s Senate advised against military intervention. Highlighting the geopolitical dynamics that complicates the position taken by ECOWAS particularly on the use of force, one open letter, addressed to President Tinabu by some Nigerian personalities including a former Commander of the UN Mission in Darfur, pointed out ‘the apparent rising wave of popular support for the putschists might create a situation in which the role of Nigeria is seen as being at variance with the interest of the Nigerien people and in support of external interests.’

It was against the background of the foregoing that ECOWAS convened its second extraordinary session on 10 August. Apart from ECOWAS member states, the summit also saw the presence of the Chairperson of the PSC at heads of state and government level, President Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi and the President of Mauritania. Apart from PSC Chairperson, the presence of the AU involved the Commissioner for PAPS, Adeoye.

Despite the emphasis it put on pursuing diplomatic avenues, the communique of the summit decided to uphold and enforce all the earlier decisions from the first summit. Doubling down on its threat of use of force, the ECOWAS Authority directed ‘the Committee of the Chiefs of Defense Staff to immediately activate the ECOWS Standby Force with all its elements’ and most importantly ‘order(ed) the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger.’ ECOWAS also called on the AU to ‘endorse all the decisions taken by the ECOWAS on the situation in Niger’. (Emphasis added)

As the PSC meets tomorrow, the issue it is facing is not one that is amenable to any easy policy choices. Considering the continuation of the coup after the expiry of the 15 days deadline, the only policy course of action that is easy for the PSC is to invoke Article 7(1)(g) of the PSC Protocol and slap Niger with suspension from participating in AU activities as per Article 30 of the Constitutive Act of the AU. The PSC may even agree to further measures but only to the extent of that they involve the targeted sanction of the authors of the coup.

Any measure going further than the foregoing would not be easy for the PSC. It would be difficult to find consensus in the PSC on the wholesale endorsement of all the sanctions on Niger, particularly those that are not targeted and will directly affect ordinary Nigeriens. Apart from the political and legal challenges, it would be even more difficult for the PSC to agree on the endorsement of the use of force for purposes of reversing the coup in Niger. It is to be recalled that the threat of use of force was the main factor why the PSC was unable to secure consensus when it discussed the outcome of the 30 July ECOWAS Summit during its 31 July session.

There are thus two potential scenarios as outcome for the PSC. Understandably, PSC members from ECOWAS by the dictates of protocol will seek to have the PSC endorse the decision their principals at heads of state and government level adopted. This brings forward as potential outcome of the session the scenario of endorsement of ECOWAS decisions as a whole. On the other hand, for PSC members from other regions, such endorsement of ECOWAS decisions as a package may not be as straight forward. They may therefore agree only to endorsement of the targeted sanctions.

On military intervention, one possibility is that instead of endorsement, the most members of the PSC can agree to take note of the decision of ECOWAS on the matter. Going further, the PSC may need to get clarity on the peace and security implications of military intervention in Niger for making responsible and well considered decision. Given the principal mandate of the PSC for peace and security, it would be difficult for the PSC to proceed with endorsing military intervention without it being both presented with careful assessment of the risks and satisfied that the risks of intervention would not be worse than the adverse consequences of the military coup. Indications are that the risks of military action in the particular context of Niger could far outweigh the adverse consequences of the military coup on its own. It may not only quickly degenerate into regional war as Burkina Faso and Mali get drawn in but also expose Niger to risk of collapse and be overrun by terrorist groups.

It is to be recalled that the PSC, following the military seizure of power and suspension of the constitution in Chad in April 2021, went as far as avoiding the activation of Article 30 of the Constitutive Act in respect of Chad let alone to consider the use of force for upholding constitutional process. The factors for such position, per the terms of the communiques of the PSC, include, ‘the complexity of the political and security situation in Chad.’ Yet, in Chad PSC’s position was informed more by what it called ‘the pivotal role being played by Chad in the promotion and maintenance of peace and security, particularly in the countering terrorism and violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel regions’, it is in Niger the PSC faces most intensely in a way it never did before the tension between its mandate to uphold constitutional order and its primary role in the maintenance of peace and security.

The expected outcome of tomorrow’s session is a communiqué. Expressing concern about the lack of progress towards restoration of constitutional order, the PSC is expected to immediately suspend Niger from all AU activities on the basis of Article 7(1(g)) of the Protocol establishing the PSC until the restoration of constitutional order. It is also expected to reiterate the call on the coup leaders to ensure the physical integrity of the President, his family and members of his government that are detained. The PSC may express its support for the leadership of ECOWAS in the search for finding solution to the constitutional crisis in Niger. In this respect, the PSC underscoring the importance of pursuing the effort for resolving the situation in Niger through diplomatic means, may urge the junta in Niger to collaborate with ECOWAS and engage constructively with the diplomatic initiatives. With respect to the decisions of ECOWAS both from its 30 July and its 10 August summits, the PSC may endorse the targeted sanctions that specifically single out perpetrators of the coup. On the proposal on the deployment of military intervention, the PSC may request that the AU Commission provides it with legal opinion indicating the legal basis under AU legal instruments for use of military force for reversing military coup and the African Standby Scenario under which such intervention is to be undertaken. Both for purposes of enabling it take informed decision on the peace and security implications of the proposal on military intervention and for instituting robust diplomatic process towards the restoration of constitutional order in Niger, the PSC may decide for the establishment of a mechanism that operates on a full time basis on Niger like a high-level Panel of leading African personalities who, in addition to their diplomatic role, working together with the AU Commission, would present to the PSC their carefully considered assessment of the nature of the peace and security risks of military intervention in Niger. Given the gravity of the situation in Niger, in addition to such standing mechanism, the PSC may also decide to establish an ad hoc committee of five at the level of heads of state and government from the various regions of the continent to provide strategic guidance.

The coup in Niger: Lessons from a trouble in paradise

The coup in Niger: Lessons from a trouble in paradise  

Date | 31 July 2023

Solomon Ayele Dersso, PhD
Founding Director, Amani Africa

Lea Mehari Redae
Associate Researcher, Amani Africa

After two earlier unsuccessful attempts, the latest usurpation of power by Niger’s army succeeded in ousting the country’s elected President, ending the last central Sahel country under civilian rule. Niger has been put on a pedestal. As a country where the incumbent respected presidential term limits and transferred power to a successor after the holding of elections in 2021, Niger was portrayed as an island of democracy in a sea of military coups and terrorism. During his visit to Niger US Secretary of State Anthoni Blinken praised Niger as ‘a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.’

Supporters of the Nigerien coup protest as the headquarters of Niger’s ruling party, the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, burns in the background

For a country with such standing, the coup that took place on 26-28 July ousting Niger’s elected President may come as a trouble in paradise. Certainly, it is a major blow to the country’s fragile democratization process. Even more troubling is the constitutional and political uncertainties the coup induces may compound the country’s fragilities. These uncertainties would detract from the effort to contain the terrorism menace unfolding in the country. There is also a huge risk that it exacerbates the geopolitical rivalry unfolding in the region by rendering the country to be a theatre of the power tussle that Niger’s neighbours became victims of.

Yet, the attempted coup in March 2021 made it apparent that Niger was not free of the threat of military seizure of power. France 24 reported quoting a Nigerien official that while the President was in Turkey ‘a second bid to oust Bazoum occurred last March.

Ousted President of Niger Mohamed Bazoum

Niger also shares some of the fragilities that characterise the central Sahelian countries, although it fared better than its immediate neighbours and avoided the crisis that befell Mali following the collapse of Libya in 2012.

Niger’s democratic credential shares some of the characteristics of Mali’s prior to 2012. Like Niger, Mali prior to 2012, was viewed as an example of democracy in the region. This view is best summed up by one analyst who asserted that ‘Mali has achieved a record of democratization that is among the best in Africa.’ As the events in 2012 revealed and many admitted, Mali’s democracy was not much more than electoral democracy.

Like Mali, Niger’s democracy is bereft of substantive depth that goes beyond elections. According to Afrobarometer’s 2020 survey, despite 53% support for democracy in Niger, 67% of Nigerians surveyed thought that the army ‘can intervene if leaders abuse power.’ Unless democracy is reduced to relatively free elections, it is difficult to imagine why citizens consider military intervention in politics as a first choice for holding leaders to account. A major factor that may account for such attitude is the absence or poor performance of the constitutional mechanisms in a democracy such as separation of powers and checks and balances, independent judiciary, free media and open civic space with autonomous civil society.

Apart from the public attitude to military intervention, the other context for the coup involves the widespread perception of President Bazoum administration’s deepening ties with France and the West in the face of the spreading anti-French sentiment in much of Francophone Africa. In other words, putting Niger on a pedestal might inadvertently have exposed Bazoum’s administration to be on a collision course with Nigeriens opposing to Niger becoming the new hub for France’s operation against terrorist groups in the Sahel as protests earlier in the year showed.

Niger: Protests against against the presence of French troops in the country Sept. 2022

None of the foregoing however makes the coup right, although these could limit public opposition against the coup. Indeed, despite the excuse by the junta that the coup was staged due to ‘the continuing deterioration of the security situation and poor economic and social governance’, the coup mostly has to do with greed and personal interests of those who led it. The actual motivation for the coup is immediately tied to President Bazoum’s plan to replace the leader of the Presidential Guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who took over as Niger’s leader.

General Abdourahmane Tchiani - former commander of the Nigerien presidential guard and coup leader

The coup in Niger is the seventh successful coup to take place in Africa since 2020. Six countries stretching from the Atlantic coast in the West to the Red Sea coast in East Africa are being led by men in uniform.

Map of successful, attempted and plots of coup in Africa from August 2020-July 2023

The epidemic of coups, as UN Chief characterized it, is, among others, a result of the crisis of governance of the security sector. The coup in Niger manifests the lack of total break from the experiences of politicization of the armed forces and the militarization of politics associated reflected in the number of successful and attempted coups in the country. As the attempt by Tchiani to forestall his planned replacement shows, the coup also shows the poor level of professionalism and integrity of the military. All of these suggest that democracy in its electoral form will remain susceptible to the vagaries of the army as long as these issues of the crisis of security sector governance are not effectively resolved.

In response to the latest coup in Niger, apart from the unanimous condemnation from AU, UN & other international entities, the regional body ECOWAS adopted the most severe measures including closure of borders & airspace, suspension of economic & financial exchanges and threat of military intervention. These may not be enough to reverse the coup without support from Nigeriens. This highlights that it is utterly inadequate for regional and continental norms to be effective in discouraging coups and other unconstitutional seizure of power to be dependent largely on external mechanisms of protecting constitutional order. More often than not, these norms are not  adequately backed by national level robust formal and informal processes and institutions of accountability and checks and balances. They are further undermined by governing elites tampering constitutions including presidential term limits.

The failure of the anti-coup norms of the AU to prevent coups is not thus merely a result of the lack of effective enforcement and consistent application of the norms on the part of the AU. It is also attributable to the lack of mobilizing and nurturing of anti-coup constituency on the part of the African public at the national level. This emphasizes that continental and international actors have to rethink the dominant approaches to democracy that are election centric and to international relations, including development and security cooperation, that are elite-driven. Not only that continental and international actors need to avoid downplaying the political and socio-economic grievances of local populations against national authorities. Their engagement and development and security cooperation should go beyond the security sector and national elites and extend to the human security, political freedom and development needs of local populations as well.

The upshot of the foregoing is that there is a need for rethinking both democracy promotion and counterterrorism security cooperation in Africa anchored on the primacy of the local. As Amani Africa’s research on terrorism asserted, such a paradigm shift necessitates policy interventions that focus ‘on the vulnerabilities and fragilities as well as political and socio-economic governance pathologies that create the conditions both for the emergence and … resilience of terrorist groups’ as well as coups. With such policy interventions that also entail ‘the same, if not more, level of infusion of technical assistance, financial resources and training of civilian expertise is directed to the governance, the economic and social issues facing local populations as the security-related sectors’, it is possible to mobilize a public that would become a bulwark against coups and other threats to constitutional order and security.

The content of this article does not represent the views of Amani Africa and reflect only the personal views of the authors who contribute to ‘Ideas Indaba’