Nigeria’s neighbour, Niger’s house is on fire. How to quench it is Catch-22 for big brother. The fire is a figure of speech, referring to Niger’s present constitutional crisis as a result of the July 26 forced regime change by soldiers of the elite presidential guard. The previous day, they blocked access to the presidential palace, locking in the country’s president Mouhamed Bakoum. The next day, they announced that the military had overthrown the president’s government and had assumed power. Their reasons were purportedly deteriorating insecurity and poor governance. They suspended the constitution and closed all borders.
Niger is a member of the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and becomes the fourth member nation to come under army rule since 2020. The other three are Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.
How to handle the development in Niger is Nigerian President Bola Tinubu’s first major foreign policy test since taking office only last May. On July 10, he was elected chair of ECOWAS’ Authority of Heads of State and Government. This position and the fact of Niger being Nigeria’s nextdoor northern neighbour place a huge burden on his shoulders. What more, America and France, the latter Niger’s former colonial master, are putting the squeeze on Tinubu to do what it will take to restore constitutionality in Niger.
Tinubu responded by calling an extraordinary meeting of heads of state and government of ECOWAS on Sunday, July 31 in Abuja. The meeting gave the coupists a seven-day ultimatum to restore President Bazoum in office. It outlined a number of diplomatic, commercial and economic sanctions to be taken against the illegal regime in Niamey after the deadline. The ECOWAS leaders left open the option of military intervention. Meanwhile, they directed their defence ministers and army chiefs to begin planning towards that should it become a last resort.
Either options leave Tinubu and his ECOWAS colleagues little room for manoeuvre. Sanctions as a tool to beat errant parties into line are, by their nature, ineffectual. They are meant to affect leaders but, truth, they instead hurt ordinary citizens more a d they are easily undermined by those that impose them. Their only use, in effect, is symbolic, nothing more. What complicates matters is the arrival of new players in the geopolitics of Francophone West Africa – the mercenary Wagner Group and Russia. We have seen their hands in happenings in Mali where the military regime has dropped French as its lingua franca and sent UN peacekeepers packing. In Niger, the rogue regime has received support from Wagner which has emboldened the regime to cancel France’s uranium mining contract. Russia which is keen to replace France as an influence peddler in the old French territories stands ready to give arms and financial assistance to the new government in Niamey. If this happens, ECOWAS sanctions will be dead on arrival or a wet duck.
The military option is even much more complicated. As mentioned earlier, it is no choice at all in President Tinubu’s situation. Firstly, his inexperience in the office he occupies today makes him a bad choice to lead a military intervention. Buhari succeeded in 2017 in The Gambia because he was an army general and a civil war veteran. Secondly, Nigeria itself is having to cope with an internal security challenge that is eating up dwindling resources and time. Becoming involved in an external military expedition, therefore, is off the table because to do so will worsen internal insecurity.
There are 7 Nigerian states bordering on Niger. An ECOWAS military intervention will invite a direct hit by the Nigerien regime on those states. Besides, fighting in Niamey will send Niger’s civilian population streaming over the border into Nigeria. This will feed the ranks of the bandits terrorizing our citizens in the border states.
Niger’s new leaders appreciate Nigeria’s difficult position in as far as military intervention to force them to surrender power is concerned. They are even daring Nigeria to make a try. Our advice is to not try. Instead, we encourage continuing dialogue with Niamey, including an offer of amnesty in exchange for giving power back to the elected government they deposed. Hopefully, a win-win situation it will be with no blood shed.