Maverick Citizen

BARREL OF A GUN OP-ED

Niger coup – military intervention by Ecowas could prove costly for human rights

Niger coup – military intervention by Ecowas could prove costly for human rights
Supporters of the Nigerien military junta display a sign that reads 'Ready to die for the fatherland' during a protest in Niamey against a potential military intervention on 20 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Issifou Djibo)

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.  

Niger Bazoum

Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on 1 November 2021. (Photo: Yves Herman – WPA Pool / Getty Images)

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.  

Niger Ecowas

Abdel-Fatau Musah (left), commissioner of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), and Lieutenant-General Mbaye Cisse of the General Staff of the Senegalese Army at an extraordinary meeting of Ecowas’ Committee of Chiefs of the Defence Staff in Accra, Ghana, on 18 August 2023. Ecowas has said a ‘standby force’ is ready to act and could be used to restore Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christian Thompson)

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.  

Niger

Burnt-out cars in front of the offices of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum’s Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism in Niamey on 11 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Issifou Djibo)

Way forward? 

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.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider