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ECOWAS and Niger remain at an impasse, causing a prolonged standoff

  Jerry Franklin A

On 22 August, the African Union (AU) suspended Niger’s membership. The African Peace and Security Council stated: “We are studying the ECOWAS decision to prepare forces for deployment in Niger, and the African Commission will evaluate its repercussions. We strongly reject any external interference by any party or country in the affairs of the continent, including private military companies.”

On 18 August, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed on a "D-day" for potential military intervention to restore democracy in Niger. Aljazeera quoted ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Abdel-Fatau Musah: “We are ready to go any time the order is given. The D-day is also decided. We’ve already agreed and fine-tuned what will be required for the intervention.”

On 16 August, the United Nations issued a warning, appealing for humanitarian exceptions to sanctions and border restrictions to prevent a humanitarian crisis, citing the present situation in Niger might significantly worsen the already severe food shortages in the country. The acting regional director of the World Food Programme (WFP) for Western Africa, Margot van der Velden, stated: "Our work is vital for the most vulnerable in Niger and needs to continue, particularly in the current circumstances. We urge all parties to facilitate humanitarian exemptions, enabling immediate access to people in need of critical food and necessities.”

Continuing pressure on Niger’s junta 
ECOWAS has ordered the mobilization of a standby military force, ready to invade Niger in case the military refuses to relinquish power. All member nations of ECOWAS, except Cape Verde and those under military control, are prepared to join the standby force. The ECOWAS sanctions have caused Nigeria to cut off the power supply to Niger, which relies on Nigeria for 70 per cent of its electricity, resulting in a meagre power supply for the landlocked nation. Residents of several towns, including Niger's capital Niamey, are struggling with prolonged power outages. Streets and neighbourhoods are frequently left without electricity for hours. The AU has expelled Niger from all of its initiatives and warned its members to refrain from taking any actions that would give the junta legitimacy. The Union asked the AU Commission to develop a list of junta members and their sympathizers for “the application of individual punitive measures” and targeted sanctions. 

Continuing resistance by Niger’s junta
On 10 August, the coup leaders in Niger proclaimed the establishment of a new government trying to legitimize its takeover. The new cabinet consists of 21 ministers. Lamine Zeine Ali Mahamane is the temporary Prime Minister and Minister of Economics and Finance. Mahamane leads the new Niger administration comprising both military and civilian figures. Salifou Mody, a former chief of staff and lieutenant general who is commonly seen as Abdourahamane Tchiani's second-in-command, has been named the Minister of National Defence. The junta has fired most of the senior government officials under Bazoum's administration and selected new military leaders. This new government counters the requests for President Mohamed Bazoum's reinstatement made by the ECOWAS and other international bodies. During the delegation’s recent visit to Niger, the coup leaders proposed a three-year transition plan and claimed that the specifics of the transfer of power would be determined within 30 days; however, ECOWAS did not accept the proposal and urged to restore civilian administration immediately. Several delegations from ECOWAS have been dispatched to meet with the junta; however, none of them have received a positive response.

The support for the junta’s coup in Niger is divided
The junta faces two standpoints within Niger. The people who support the junta find the takeover as a significant step to oppose foreign intervention in Niger. Niger’s military stated that it would pursue ousted President Mohamed Bazoum for treason alleging that he had undermined the internal and external security of the country. The junta has considerable support from Niamey's residents who routinely participated in anti-sanctions and anti-foreign protests. On the other hand, the people residing in other parts of Niger took part in protests supporting Bazoum. The military has forcefully ended the protests. The supporters of the ousted President Mohamed Bazoum stresses his notable advancements in security and development including the campaign against insurgency, increasing girl’s access to secondary school, and promoting the resettlement of villages affected by conflict. Rhissa Ag Boula, a former politician and rebel leader, has started a movement opposing the military administration indicating the first internal opposition. According to Rhissa Ag Boula, the goal of his newly formed Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) is to bring back ousted president Mohamed Bazoum, who has been held captive at his home since the coup. Ag Boula expressed his willingness to assist ECOWAS in any way possible and affirmed the CRR support for the organization and other international actors working towards the restoration of constitutional order in Niger.

The multiple challenges for the junta
The residents living along Niger's borders express grave concerns about the alarming rise in crime and instability. The people of Niger are under tremendous pressure as a result of the unprecedently high cost of necessary food products. Increased insecurity and rising food costs for the border neighbourhood have resulted in a catastrophic scenario. The military coup in Niger obstructing UN humanitarian activities because of border and airspace restrictions and posing a threat to the supply of food and medication. Currently, there are 4.3 million people in Niger who need humanitarian aid. On 16 August, near the Burkina Faso border, a terrorist strike by Islamists killed 17 soldiers and another 20 were reportedly injured. According to Al Jazeera, since the coup, there have been seven attacks against the country’s armed forces by terrorists.

What does it mean?
The continuing standoff between the ECOWAS and Niger’s junta makes it difficult to find common ground to resolve the confrontation. Both the junta and ECOWAS stand firm in their motives and seek to uphold their stand at any cost. The most recent declaration of the Niger military junta's restoration to democratic administration after three years is a constructive move; yet, there is a possibility of military intervention. Niger stands on the verge of an economic and security crisis. The imposition of sanctions on Niger has had a significant impact on both the local community and the country's economy. The situation in Niger would have a detrimental effect on the growth and quality of life of the populace. The regional sanctions on Niger would only increase the number of people in need of assistance. If not resolved, the crisis will worsen the region's deteriorating security and economic situation. 

(Part of the commentary has been previously published as part of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly)

About the author

Jerry Franklin A is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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