- By Yusuf Akinpelu
- BBC News, Lagos
President Bola Tinubu, who heads regional superpower Nigeria, sees the coup across the border in Niger as a litmus test for democracy in West Africa.
After taking over the presidency of the regional bloc Ecowas just three weeks ago, he faced a major foreign policy challenge when the military seized power in Niger – a strategic ally in the fight against militant Islamists wreaking havoc across much of West Africa.
Sir. Tinubu had expressed concern over coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea when he ascended to Nigeria’s presidency in May, saying Eco needed to bolster his regional strength to prevent further coups and to fight the militants.
So when Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was toppled by his presidential guards last week, he quickly responded by calling a summit of West African leaders at his presidential villa on Sunday.
The regional bloc issued an ultimatum to Niger’s junta – hand power back to the elected president within a week or Ecowas would take “all necessary measures to restore constitutional order”.
“Such measures may include the use of force” and military chiefs should meet “immediately”, their statement added.
Although Mr Tinubu’s own victory in February’s presidential election is being challenged in court by opposition candidates who claim the result was rigged, he styles himself as a democrat who campaigned against military rule in Nigeria in the 1980s.
“I think he sees this (coup) as a violation of his democratic credentials, especially at a time when he holds the chairmanship of Ecowas,” said Wole Ojewale, a Nigerian analyst at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
More crucially, the coup has a direct bearing on Nigeria. The two countries share a border that stretches for more than 1,500 km (930 miles), and they have strong cultural and trade ties dating back to the pre-colonial era, when parts of both were part of the Sokoto Caliphate.
Their safety is also related. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram has carried out attacks in both countries, where a military force – made up of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon – has fought them. Strength’s “strategic and technical partners” include the United Kingdom, the United States and Francewith the latter two having military bases in Niger.
While Niger accounted for about 4% of global uranium production in 2022, it is the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium and has the highest grade uranium ore in Africa.
Neither Ecowas nor its Western partners want the radioactive material – used in both civilian and military settings – to fall into the wrong hands in a region where militant Islamists are active and Russia and the Wagner mercenary group are expanding their influence.
After their coups, Mali and Burkina Faso turned towards Russia, with the junta in Niger giving the impression that it might move in the same direction.
Chad’s leader Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno – who was put in power by his own army after his father was killed by rebel forces in 2021 – went to Niger on Sunday to urge the junta to follow Ecowas’ ultimatum.
Chad is not a member of the regional bloc, but Mr Déby attended the meeting earlier on Sunday. As a military strongman, he was seen as ideally placed to liaise with the coup leaders and to urge them to step down.
But the junta has so far refused.
Instead, it has stepped up its rhetoric against both the West and Ecowas, and thousands of its supporters took to the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, on Sunday to support the coup. Some of them attacked the French embassy, waving pro-Russian flags.
But it is unclear whether the military takeover has majority support in Niger – more than half of its citizens were satisfied with the way democracy was working in their country, according to a 2022 survey by the respected research group Afrobarometer.
Only Tanzania, Zambia, Sierra Leone and Mauritania had better democratic approval of the 36 African countries surveyed.
However, two-thirds of respondents said military men could intervene when elected leaders abused power. This is an argument that coup plotters, as well as their supporters, often make to justify their actions.
The juntas of Mali and Burkina Faso have warned Ecowas against military intervention in Niger, saying it would be a “declaration of war” and that they would move to defend their fellow coup leaders. So military intervention risks snowballing into a full-scale conflict.
However, Ecowas has previously sent troops to several countries – including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia – either to help end civil wars, reinstate ousted presidents or to force out leaders who refused to accept electoral defeat.
These interventions were in line with its mandate to maintain “peace, stability and security in the region”, although its troops were also in some cases accused of human rights abuses.
Sir. Ojewale is not sure whether the bloc has the military capacity to intervene in Niger – a vast arid country on the edge of the Sahara desert – especially when many of the countries that make it up, including Nigeria, are facing their own security challenges.
“What little resources they have can be stretched,” he said.
The analyst believes that conflict between two sides could become a “zero sum game” and worsen the humanitarian crisis in the region.
“There would be casualties as there would be people caught in the crossfire,” he said, adding that a diplomatic solution to the crisis would be better.
There are also questions about the safety of the ousted president, who is being held captive by the junta. Another analyst, Jaafar Abubakar, claims he could become a “bargaining card” in the event of a military confrontation between Ecowas and the junta.
“It is in (the junta’s) best interest to keep (Mr. Bazoum) alive and well,” he said. “If they kill him, they will become full-fledged rebels without any legitimacy.”