Niger: How might an ECOWAS military intervention unfold?

ECOWAS also has a stabilization force in Guinea-Bissau where it redeployed some 600 troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana following an attempted coup in February 2022

ECOWAS says that coups would no longer be tolerated in the region and it has to show that it 'cannot only bark but can bite' (photo: STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ECOWAS says that coups would no longer be tolerated in the region and it has to show that it 'cannot only bark but can bite' (photo: STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images)


West Africa's defense chiefs were wrapping up a meeting in Nigeria's capital Abuja on Thursday where they discussed the possibility of a military intervention if diplomatic efforts fail to reinstate Niger's ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum.

The Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, threatened the use of force if coup leaders don't restore Bazoum to power by Sunday.

How likely is ECOWAS to send troops into Niger?

"The likelihood of a major intervention is very, very high," said geopolitical analyst Ovigwe Eguegu, "because there are so many factors that speak for it."

The United States would support it, Eguegu said, because Niger is a critical Sahel partner in the fight against jihadist insurgency.

In addition, new instability in Niger would allow Russia to exert even more influence in a region where a succession of coups have seen military-led governments turn their backs on the West and embrace the Kremlin.

ECOWAS has struggled to contain a democratic backslide in West Africa and had vowed that coups will no longer be tolerated after military takeovers in member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea in the last two years.

Mali-based security expert Fahiraman Kone believes military intervention is a "possibility" especially given the desire of Nigeria's new president, Bola Tinubu, to reclaim Nigeria's position as a regional leader.

Tinubu, who was elected ECOWAS chair less than a month ago, "wants to reaffirm Nigeria's leadership [and its] military, financial and diplomatic strength in the region," said Kone, Sahel Project Manager at the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank.

Speaking on Sunday at an emergency EWOWAS meeting, Tinubu said: "We will stand with our people in freedom and our commitment to the rule of law and not the barrel of gun. Africa has come of age."

Has ECOWAS acted on its threats before?

The 15-member bloc has made similar threats before and carried through on them. Most recently, ECOWAS sent troops in 2017 into The Gambia when long-term ruler Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing elections.

After around 7,000 members of an ECOWAS-backed multinational force, led by Senegal, massed at the border to The Gambia, Jammeh quickly agreed to a deal to step down and go into exile.

Some 2,500 troops made up of forces from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Togo and Nigeria are still involved in peace-support operations in the country.

ECOWAS also has a stabilization force in Guinea-Bissau where it redeployed some 600 troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana following an attempted coup in February 2022.

In the past, the regional bloc established the ECOMOG peacekeeping mission to help restore order in Liberia and Sierra Leone and it also deployed forces to Ivory Coast in 2003.

What troops does ECOWAS have available?

An intervention in Niger would rely heavily on Nigeria, which has 223,000 personnel as well as modern fighter jets and armed helicopters.

Not only does Nigeria have the largest army in the region, experts say it makes logistical sense to rely on Nigeria, which shares a 1,600 kilometer (1,000 mile) long border with Niger.

Senegal said on Thursday that it would participate if ECOWAS decides to intervene militarily in Niger. The country's Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall told journalists in the capital Dakar that "Senegalese soldiers have to go. these coups d'etat must be stopped," she said.

Several other ECOWAS member states, however, already stated that they would not support the use of force in Niger.

"Aside from our Nigerian neighbor, I don't think there's another [ECOWAS member] force because Mauritania doesn't agree, Algeria doesn't agree, Mali and Burkina don't agree either. And Benin isn't going to attack [Niger]," said Abdoul Moumouni Abass, an expert in the prevention of radicalization.

However, analyst Eguegu pointed out that Nigeria's army is "bogged down at home" fighting the militant Islamist movement Boko Haram and armed bandits, running operations in 30 of Nigeria's 36 states. 

This presents a major challenge for Nigerian forces to assemble their true power for such an intervention, he said.

What are ECOWAS' chances of success?

A military intervention in Niger would be completely different to the situation in The Gambia — the smallest nation on the African mainland — which has a relatively weak army.

Niger is a vast country lying at the heart of the Sahel. Although it's one of the world's poorest countries, its troops are experienced fighting jihadists and trained by the United States, which has 1,100 troops stationed in the country, and France, which has around 1,500 forces there.

"The size of Niger, the large number of troops in the Niger army makes things difficult, of course," said Ivoirian historian and defense analyst Arthur Banga.

"But when you prepare an intervention plan, you do so with all these options in mind, to mobilize in terms of personel, equipment."

Then there's the issue of Mali and Burkina Faso. In a joint statement, both countries warned that any military intervention against Niger's coup leaders would be considered a "declaration of war" against their nations.

Both countries have military governments which came to power in coups, and both are suspended from ECOWAS decision making bodies as a result.

All this means that while intervention is "very likely," said Ovigwe Eguegu, "it is actually very high risk ... of being a real war."

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