Niger Coup: Can ECOWAS Intervene On Its Own?

West Africa’s recent wave of military coup d’état, the latest which occurred on July 26, 2023, in uranium-rich Niger, started in Mali in August 2020 (infographic: Google Maps/Daily Observer)  

.... ECOWAS must, therefore, act swiftly to prevent the coup from consolidating power and undermining the will of the people.  After all, the people of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea deserve to live in societies that respect and protect their basic rights, regardless of political changes.

A successful coup in Niger is a threat to the stability of the ECOWAS region, for which it should never be allowed. 

First, it was Mali (May 2020 and August 2021), and ECOWAS watched and did nothing. Guinea (Sept. 5, 2021) was next, followed by Burkina Faso (January 23, 2022). Now, Niger has joined the list of Francophone West African states giving the finger to their former colonial master (France) and ousting democratically elected governments, while daring any outsider to intervene. 

Is anyone seeing a pattern here? First of all, we are looking at four countries that comprise more than half of the landmass of the ECOWAS region, being controlled by military regimes that overthrew democratically elected governments. Additionally, all affected countries are also linked together — not just by their francophone identity, but by successive borders from the western coast to the eastern extreme of the subregion. 

Did ECOWAS not see this pattern emerging? Does it have the resources to effectively restore democratic governance to this part of the subregion? 

ECOWAS could have intervened in Mali when it had the opportunity, but refused to. This has now emboldened anti-democratic elements in the region, leading to a cascade of numerous successful military coups with Niger the latest example. 

This may very well be out of the reach of ECOWAS authorities, and requires more strategic intervention. Discussing the coup in Niger on Aljazeera recently, Gyude Moore, a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, opined that “when the West refuse to engage in the situation of a coup, it opens the door, of course, for other actors who do not care about the regime type — in this case especially the Wagner Group and Russia… to expand in yet another country on the continent.” 

Indeed, the possibility of sanctions against these four countries would be unwise since doing so could push desperate regimes to form ‘unholy’ alliances to meet their economic and security needs. Given the pro-Russia chants among crowds of coup supporters in Niger, need we also mention the threat of terrorist actors from the north? 

Critics may argue that military intervention to undo a coup is a violation of a nation's sovereignty and escalates violence and exacerbates the situation in Niger. However, history has shown that inaction in the face of a coup often leads to prolonged instability and human rights abuses. And that the dangers of non-intervention far outweigh the potential risks of military action as it would have a far-reaching domino effect.  

Niger’s General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who up to the time of the coup was the chief of Niger’s presidential guard, has so far shown complete disregard for dialogue as he suspended the country’s constitution and closed its borders.  He is unwilling to reinstate the constitutionally elected government of President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been held by the military since the coup took place last week.

A military intervention is also about ECOWAS safeguarding the stability of the bloc and the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which emphasizes the importance of the peaceful transfer of power. 

The Protocol adopted by ECOWAS in 2001 stands as the bloc’s commitment to democratic principles and explicitly recognizes the right of ECOWAS to intervene in member states in exceptional circumstances where democracy is under threat. 

This provision was established precisely to prevent unconstitutional changes of government and protect democratic norms. The military coup as in the case of Niger now is a direct affront to the protocol and undermines the progress made in establishing stable democratic governments across the region. 

Article 1 of the protocol, among other things, boldly states that ECOWAS has “Zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means and strict adherence to democratic principles.”  

International law also support ECOWAS’s right to intervene militarily in the face of threats to security. Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter explicitly provides for regional organizations to take collective action to address regional conflicts. History of the region has shown that political crises rarely stay contained within national borders.

And if ECOWAS fails to intervene military because of fail of escalate violence, it risks witnessing a chain reaction of instability and violence, with far-reaching consequences that could compromise regional security and hamper economic progress, as with the Mali coup in 2020, which emboldens anti-democratic elements in the region, with the end result being more than four coups.  

ECOWAS must, therefore, act swiftly to prevent the coup from consolidating power and undermine the will of the people.  After all, the people of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea deserve to live in societies that respect and protect their basic rights, regardless of political changes. It is their collective voice that should shape their respective countries’ future, not the ambitions of a few seeking to seize power through force. 

The international community, led by ECOWAS, must act decisively and intervene with every possible resource, since all applicable laws can be appropriated to enforce the protocol mandate, of which Niger is a signatory. 

We dare agree that swift and decisive military action can serve as a deterrent against future attempts to seize power unlawfully and would-be autocrats undermining democracy who want to undermine regional peace and stability as it has been the case now. 

Let it be known that ECOWAS 2016 attempted to apply this protocol when ex-Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh, wanted to use the military to extend his stay in power by force after losing the election to Adama Barrow. ECOWAS’s threats of force were enough to have Jammeh agree to the will of the people. But ECOWAS has since just watched one military takeover after another with no action beyond mere condemnation.

These condemnations have not helped either — which is why ECOWAS needs to return to the 2017 strategy to ensure that the Niger coup is short-lived — which would demonstrate the region's commitment to stand firm against any unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government. 

A successful coup in Niger would set a dangerous precedent for other fragile democracies in the region and would show a weaker ECOWAS' which is unable to effectively respond to threats to democracy within its member states.