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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

Ecowas moves to ratchet up diplomacy, take war in West Africa off the table

Ecowas moves to ratchet up diplomacy, take war in West Africa off the table
Pro-junta supporters display a Niger flag as they join a rally at a stadium in Niamey, Niger, on 6 August 2023. Thousands gathered in a stadium to show their backing for the military coup ahead of the deadline given by the Economic Community of West African States to free and reinstate democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Issifou Djibo)

West Africa appeared to have dodged a bullet — or rather a series of bullets, rockets, mortars and tanks — this weekend.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is moving to ratchet up diplomatic initiatives to restore democracy in the Republic of Niger while taking the threat of military intervention off the table for now.

General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of the Presidential Guard, overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum in a palace coup on 26 July. Bazoum and his family are still being held hostage while several hundred officials of the Bazoum administration are still in detention.

Last week on Sunday, 11 representatives of Ecowas, including eight heads of state, threatened that if their demands for the restoration of democracy were not met within one week, it would take “all measures necessary to restore constitutional order” in the Republic of Niger, which “may include force.”

The prospect of war caused tension to rapidly escalate. Three other militarily led countries, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, said they would regard any intervention as a declaration of war, and thousands of French, European, American and Chinese expatriates were evacuated.

Ecowas military heads drew up an intervention plan on Friday, seeming to set the stage for a conflagration between the countries of the Sahel and coastal West Africa.

However, Ecowas members meeting in Abuja on Saturday expressed concern about a move that could plunge West Africa into a devastating conflict.

One concern was that the whole matter was being cast as a showdown between Niger and Nigeria, the giant of the sub-region. It was Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the Chairman of Ecowas, who sought the tough line to enforce the organisation’s long-standing policy of zero tolerance for military putsches.

Thousands of supporters of the coup gathered at a stadium in the capital Niamey on Saturday to express their defiance of foreign intervention, the prospect of which appears to have enhanced the popularity of the coup plotters.

Military option unpopular

The military option has proved deeply unpopular in Nigeria. The Nigerian Senate passed a resolution on Saturday rejecting a request from Tinubu to deploy Nigerian troops to restore democratic rule in Niger.

Read more in Daily Maverick: With foreign interests prowling and Wagner mercenaries lurking, Ecowas has hands full with Niger coup

Senate president Godswill Akpabio said the Senate called on Tinubu to strengthen the political and diplomatic options, and not to intervene militarily unless all other options had been exhausted.

Muslim clerics and emirs have also petitioned Tinubu not to use military force.

About 40 % of the population of Nigeria, mostly in the north, are Hausa, who also constitute 60 % of the population of Niger. The coup leaders are mostly Hausa.

The diplomatic road is proving quite rocky. Tinubu has already dispatched at least four delegations to Niamey. The last one last Thursday included a former head of state, General Abdulalsalami Abubakar, and the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Northern Muslims.

They left without even being received by General Tchiani.

Ecowas is now looking at taking a different tack: engaging with Mahamadou Issoufou who was president between 2011 and 2021 and who was regarded as the power behind the throne and the mentor of both Bazoum and General Tchiani.

An Ecowas source said: “It is very clear that if you want a solution in whatever shape or form you have to get Issoufou in the mix.”

Ecowas is seeking to defuse regional tensions and prevent a permanent schism in West Africa.

Read more on Daily Maverick: A dangerous moment for West Africa as Niger coup fuels escalation of regional jihadist wars

“There was a need to push Nigeria to the sidelines,” the source said. “It was starting to be like Nigeria versus Niger — and that Ecowas were Nigerian stooges — and we needed to row back from that.”

The next delegation is expected to include two heads of state, one Francophone and one Anglophone, from the region.

Tough sanctions remain in place against Niger, a landlocked country that gets most of its electricity from Nigeria and about 40% of its budget in the form of development aid.

But it remains to be seen, now that coup plotters have called Ecowas’s bluff and used the threat of military action to rally popular support, whether a new set of faces will have any better luck than the delegations that have gone before. DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla.Africa. Get Unscrambled by signing up here.

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