ECOWAS responds to yet another West African coup

August 2023

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In late July, Niger became the latest West African nation run by the military, after senior officers ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and announced the creation of a military junta. The coup, like similar coups in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso in the past three years, was condemned by regional and international partners. However, beyond imposing sanctions, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) went further and threatened military action.

While media scrutiny has turned to yet another coup, this time in Gabon, Managing Consultant Valentin Robiliard and Researcher J.J. Enoch take the pulse on Niger in this month’s Insight. They examine the situation today, assess the regional and international response to the coup, explore different scenarios going forward, and consider the implications for operators in Niger and the region.

State of play

On 26 July, General Abdourahmane Tchiani and members of the presidential guard ousted President Bazoum, who was democratically elected in February 2021. The junta cited bad governance and the degradation of the security situation to justify the takeover, and announced the creation of a National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) to rule the country. France, the US, and other international partners condemned the coup and suspended cooperation, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed financial sanctions and gave the junta one week to restore Bazoum or face military intervention.

Supported by their Malian and Burkinabe peers, and while asking Russia’s Wagner Group for support, the Nigerien generals let ECOWAS’s deadline pass on 6 August. On 19 August, Tchiani proposed a three-year transition to civilian rule, the principles of which would be decided in an upcoming national dialogue. ECOWAS defence chiefs have agreed to activate a standby force – which France has expressed support for – but to keep military intervention as a last resort. The African Union on 22 August suspended Niger and said it would examine the implications of ECOWAS’s possible intervention, though vehemently rejected interference by actors external to the continent.

Regional and international partners take a stronger stance

The Niger coup is the sixth coup that has taken place in West Africa over the past three years, following military takeovers in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, Guinea in September 2021, and Burkina Faso in January and September 2022. These coups, like Niger’s, prompted regional and international condemnation, suspension from regional bodies, and the imposition of sanctions. However, the takeover in Niamey is the first time ECOWAS has threatened military intervention, and France has pledged support for such an intervention. Various factors could explain this stronger stance.

First, ECOWAS is likely keen to stop the domino effect of coups that West Africa has witnessed since 2020, and which – if left unchecked – could spread elsewhere in the region. This is in part because other ECOWAS countries are also subject to the political, socioeconomic or military tensions that were used to justify recent coups in the Sahel. Upon his appointment as ECOWAS Chair in June 2023, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu – who strongly opposed military rule in Nigeria in the 1990s – warned that ECOWAS would no longer tolerate coups in the region. Meanwhile, Francophone powerhouses Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, which in recent years also saw tensions over potential – or actual – third term bids, may also be keen to ensure military coups are not legitimised.

Second, there are concerns an unstable Niger will jeopardize the counter-terrorist fight in region. The Sahel has become the global epicentre of terrorism, accounting for more terrorism-related deaths in 2022 than South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa combined. Attacks in recent years have notably intensified in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates continue to make gains. In the face of these threats, and while Mali and Burkina Faso broke away from Western partners, Niger had become a privileged ally in the fight against terrorism, receiving training from and hosting Western militaries. A volatile Niger thus provides opportunities for Islamist militants to continue their expansion in the region, prompting concerns from both international partners and coastal ECOWAS countries.

Beyond the democratic backsliding or counterterrorist narrative, regional and international partners may also be keen not to lose another ally in the region, especially amidst growing Russian influence. Niger’s role as a key supplier of uranium to France and Europe has also been raised as a potential reason for Paris’ stance. Whatever the rationale, international partners are keen to up the ante, perhaps amidst a consensus that sanctions imposed on Mali in early 2022 were broadly ineffective.

Three possible scenarios going forward

A month after the coup, various scenarios remain possible. In a most likely scenario, a hardline junta could stand up to regional pressures and threats of military intervention, and maintain its tight grip on power and three-year transitional timeline. While the junta would remain subject to ECOWAS sanctions and the suspension of international aid, it would look to soften the blow by strengthening ties with its Burkinabe, Malian and Guinean counterparts, and perhaps Russia. Over time, long-standing security and commercial partnerships could be revisited, raising concerns over the future of counterterrorist cooperation with the West and the presence of Western mining companies in the country.

In an alternative scenario, the junta and regional and international partners could soften their stance and find a consensus. Recent visits to Niger by US diplomats, Nigerian traditional and religious leaders, and Chadian officials highlight continued efforts to prioritise dialogue and avoid a protracted – or violent – standoff. Fruitful negotiations could see the junta agree to a shorter transition, and a less aggressive stance towards some counter-terrorist or commercial partners. The regional and international community would maintain individual sanctions on junta leaders but fall short of comprehensive economic sanctions. While the transition would likely experience delays, it would eventually lead to new polls being held.

Finally, in a least likely but worst-case scenario, ECOWAS could carry out its threat of military intervention. However, while the last ECOWAS military intervention – in Gambia in 2017 to allow elected President Adama Barrow to assume power – faced little resistance, an intervention in Niger would face greater challenges. Although the Nigerian, Senegalese or Ivorian soldiers that were committed to the standby force are amongst the best trained in the region, they would face the similarly capable Nigerien soldiers. And while ECOWAS would likely benefit from French intelligence support, the Nigerien junta would be backed by their Malian and Burkinabe peers – and perhaps Russia’s Wagner group, depending on what it becomes. An ECOWAS intervention could thus turn into a lengthy mess, further dividing the region and exacerbating an already volatile security environment.

Complex implications for businesses

In all scenarios, this latest West African coup will have implications for business operators in Niger and the broader region. The bloodless coup – like recent coups elsewhere in the Sahel – had a limited impact on the immediate security environment, and mining companies in the north were quick to reassure investors that their operations were unaffected. However, the coup and its aftermath brought – and will continue to bring – operational disruptions. This includes travel disruption due to border and airspace closures; power cuts after Nigeria cut electricity supply to Niger; and broader trade and supply chain disruptions due to ECOWAS sanctions. While landlocked Niger can still trade via junta-led countries and other friendly governments, barriers to trade with Nigeria will have an impact on the cost of imported goods. Coupled with the suspension of aid, this would undermine economic growth and exacerbate socio-economic woes, elevating the threat of unrest.

Beyond operational disruptions, turmoil in Niger would exacerbate the Islamist militant threat in the country and the broader region. The junta in early August said it would revoke military agreements with France. Although lines of communication remain between US and Nigerien officials, and the Nigerien, Malian and Burkinabe juntas in late August said they would strengthen cooperation, existing security partnerships could be revisited. And while Russia’s Wagner Group said it would lend support to the junta, its counterterrorist methods – tainted by accusations of human rights violations – raise questions about the group’s ability to eradicate the militant threat. Operators in Niger may thus over time be exposed to a higher terrorist threat.

Meanwhile, in what has perhaps generated the most media attention, turmoil in Niamey is fuelling questions about the future of Niger’s extractive industries. The country is notably the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, and accounts for around 20 percent of France and Europe’s uranium supplies. French mining company Orano swiftly after the coup reassured that operations at its uranium mines – in the desert north – were unaffected, while the EU’s nuclear agency said there was no immediate risk to nuclear power production. But there are fears a less Western-friendly junta – especially if it is courted by Russia – will eventually challenge existing mining conventions, forcing Europe to rethink part of its nuclear energy strategy. Beyond uranium, the coup and associated regional sanctions could also delay projects in the oil and gas sector.

Regardless of the possible scenarios, the Nigerien turmoil – coming on the back of Guinean, Malian and Burkinabe disorder – will have lasting implications for operators in the country and the Sahel, while fuelling a larger proxy tussle for influence in the region.