BARREL OF A GUN OP-ED
Niger coup – military intervention by Ecowas could prove costly for human rights
Mohamed Bazoum’s ascension to the presidency in 2021 in a rare political transition was a major boost for Niger’s democracy. Some welcome developments have come in the past two years, including the adoption of a law to protect human rights defenders and an amendment to a regressive cybercrimes law, but major human rights restrictions have remained.
As the crisis in Niger persists, so does the threat of military intervention from Ecowas. Military chiefs from the regional body are discussing the options available, which states would contribute to a force and what an intervention would look like.
This may be in line with Ecowas’s increasingly tough stance over unconstitutional changes in power, but it could further destabilise Niger and the region. There are marked divisions at the moment within Ecowas, between those who favour military intervention and those against it. Mali and Burkina Faso, themselves under military rule, have warned that an intervention by Ecowas would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
For the past decade Niger has been at the heart of the growing insurgency in the Sahel and has played a key role in pushing back against jihadists in Niger and across the region. This makes the 26 July coup not only a major setback for democracy in Niger but also for west Africa. Having a democratically elected leader at the helm is crucial for the fight against insurgent forces. One of the militant groups has already taken advantage of divisions in Niger and attacked a military convoy close to the border with Burkina Faso, leading to at least 17 deaths.
An Ecowas military intervention and ensuing conflict would force Niger’s military to divert its attention to focus on resisting Ecowas. This would leave huge gaps in other parts of the country, particularly in areas bordering Burkina Faso and Mali, which could only be exploited by the insurgents, who could be expected to move quickly to capture strategic areas.
By antagonising leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso… military intervention could further serve to balkanise the region.
Another unintended consequence of a military intervention is that it would likely exacerbate the cold war-style divisions seen in other west African countries and currently brewing in Niger.
The Niger junta is currently engaged in anti-France posturing, something that resonates with sections of the Nigerien public. France’s colonial and post-colonial policies in Niger, as in other countries in Francophone Africa, are viewed as a major source of the socioeconomic challenges and insecurity faced by Nigeriens.
Read more in Daily Maverick: African Union suspends Niger over coup
This anti-French stance is being exploited by Russia, which through the notorious Wagner group provides military support in some Francophone African countries, in exchange for plunder of natural resources. When thousands of protesters demonstrated in favour of the coup in its immediate aftermath, some were seen destroying French flags and waving Russian flags.
By antagonising leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso who for obvious reasons support their peers in Niger, military intervention could further serve to balkanise the region and set a dangerous precedent for the future. It could reverberate along the region’s political faultlines to become another source of instability.
Implications for human rights and social activism
Mohamed Bazoum’s ascension to the presidency in 2021 in a rare political transition was a major boost for Niger’s democracy. It allayed the fears that his predecessor might hold a third term in office. Some welcome developments have come in the past two years, including the adoption of a law to protect human rights defenders and an amendment to a regressive cybercrimes law, but major human rights restrictions have remained.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Niger — thoughts from near the front line
The situation was far from perfect, but military rule can only make it worse. Experiences from other countries in the region that have undergone coups demonstrate that juntas dig in for extended periods even if they promise transition, and go on to quell any protests calling for an end to the transition and elections. As observed in countries that have recently had coups, journalists and media outlets are targeted for reporting on the actions of military rulers.
Ecowas faces another major test and understandably wants to send a strong message to coup leaders that undemocratic takeovers are no longer tolerated in the region. But in acting tough, the regional body also needs to strike a careful balance and prioritise dialogue with the junta. It’s in the best interests of Nigeriens for decision-makers to find a peaceful and rapid path to a transition.
Read more in Daily Maverick: With poverty and inequality at the heart of Niger coup, free trade can help drive peace building
If diplomatic options are prioritised, the negotiations should be led by the African Union together with former African heads of state who are respected in the region. They should consult and be guided by a wide range of civil society in forging a path to sustainable democracy. This is a huge test for Ecowas – but the proliferation of coups in the region means it’s one it can’t afford to fail. DM
Originally from Cameroon, David Kode has fought for human rights for more than 15 years. He leads CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWitness campaign, calling for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders around the world and urging governments to end the persecution of activists. As Advocacy and Campaigns Lead, David often talks about civic and democratic rights – including the freedoms of free speech, assembly and association – from a global perspective. He is also interested in strengthening civil society organisations in African countries so they can support and champion free and fair elections. Before joining CIVICUS he worked with Unicef South Africa, defending the rights of children.