Photo- Major General Abdourahmane Tchiani
By KOLA KING
Barely two weeks after President Bola Tinubu made his inaugural speech as the new Chairman of the Economic Community of West Africa, ECOWAS during the Africa Union, AU meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya on July 16, where he excoriated coup plotters and military adventurers who torpedo democratically elected governments on the continent and at the same time waxed strong about defending democracy on the continent than soldiers in the Niger Republic, Nigeria’s neighbour to the northwest, seized power removing President Mohammed Bazoum from office on July 26, throwing the Sahelian nation into an uncertain future.
Tinubu who was speaking at the Fifth Mid-Year Coordination Meeting (5thMYCM) of the African Union (AU), the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), the Regional Mechanisms (RMs), and the African Union Member-States, had announced plans to strengthen the ECOWAS Standby Force to deter coups and combat terrorism in the sub-region.
“It is very clear that in the area of peace, security, and stability, our region is confronted with the twin challenges of terrorism and reversal of democratic gains through undemocratic changes of Government.
“To address these challenges, the ECOWAS Authority, which I have the honour to chair, has given directive regarding the enhancement of the role of the ECOWAS Standby Force for deployment to fight terrorism and undemocratic changes in government.”
However, it appears as if the military adventurers in Niger are bent on poking their fingers in the eyes of a lion, as it were, by daring ECOWAS and the AU. The head of the presidential guards, Major General Abdourahmane Tchiani, emerged as the leader of the putschists. An officer with impressive credentials, General Tchiani, who is 59, had been named as the head of the presidential guard in 2011 by Mr. Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou.
As is common with military governments, the junta later announced that Niger’s Constitution had been suspended and that a new transitional body was taking charge of the executive and legislative powers.
General Tchiani joined the Nigerien military in 1985 and served in the United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sudan. He was mentioned in a coup attempt in 2015, but denied any involvement and has been a strong ally of former President Issoufou, who named him general in 2018. He was also instrumental in suppressing an attempted insurrection aimed at truncating the swearing-in ceremony of President Bazoum into office in 2021 by some disgruntled elements in the military.
General Tchiani in his address to the nation had enumerated several grievances against the ousted government of Mohammed Bazoum, citing poor management of the economy and the fight against militants.
“We have decided to intervene and seize our responsibilities,” Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani said on state television. “We can’t continue with the same approaches.”
“The current security approach hasn’t enabled us to secure our country,” he said.
While saying he appreciated the “support of our external partners” — an apparent reference to the United States and European countries — he also faulted Niger’s leadership for not partnering with the military juntas in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, which have moved close to Russia in recent years.
On planned attacks on Niger to free President Bazoum and restore him to power, the junta has vowed to defend Niger from any “aggression” by regional or Western powers. It has accused former colonial power France of planning military intervention.
The coup in Niger resonates with countries in the Sahel region of West Africa including Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso where there has been a contagion of coups and points to a shift away from the orbit of France, the former colonial master and alignment with Russia that has wormed its way into the hearts of many countries in Africa. In fact, there has been fervent anti-French sentiment in the Sahel countries of West Africa.
Over the years, Niger has faced growing insecurity amid the worsening effects of climate change, political instability, and armed insurgencies. Both the United States and France have troops in Niger. Also, the United States has two drone bases in Niger as well.
The paradox here, Niger, a resource-rich country of 26 million is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the United Nations, which explains why it has also been a favored recipient of humanitarian aid and Western funding as the last bastion of democracy in the Sahel region. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger receives close to $2 billion a year in official development assistance, according to the World Bank.
Moreover, it has been a key security partner of Western countries such as France, the former colonial power, and the United States, which both use it as a base for their efforts to contain a growing Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s Sahel region.
Plus, Niger is a key partner of the European Union in helping curb the flow of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The EU also has a small number of troops in Niger for a military training mission.
In addition, the EU allocated 503 million euros ($554 million) from its budget to improve governance, education and sustainable growth in Niger over 2021- 2024 according to its website. About 40 percent of Niger’s budgetary funding comes from France, the EU and other developmental partners.
As things stand, the coup could spell an end to the provision of budgetary support and cooperation to the country as its European and development partners have signalled the immediate cessation of budget support, humanitarian aid as well as cooperation actions in the domain of security.
The Sahel has been in ferment for a long time due to growing activities of Islamist jihadist movements, hence the military takeover in Niger is the sixth in that region in less than three years, coming after Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, and threatening to radically alter regional efforts to fight Islamist insurgencies by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Expectedly, the United States, the United Nations, and the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, have all condemned the military takeover, and the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it did not recognize new leaders of Niger.
In a way, the toppling of President Bazoum has created shockwaves not only across the sub-region but reverberated across Europe and the United States due to the fact that Niger is home to strategic mineral reserves such as uranium, gold, and crude oil, among others and with France holding mineral rights for the mining of uranium which powers its nuclear power plants. France depends on Niger’s uranium mines for about 15 percent of the resources to fuel its nuclear power plants.
Aware of the strategic importance of uranium to France’s energy needs, already the junta has announced that it was suspending the export of uranium and gold to France and the United States of America with immediate effect. Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of Uranium.
Since the overthrow of President Bazoum’s government, ECOWAS has been in a flurry of activities and condemned in uncertain terms the military adventurers in Niger, saying it will not accept the brazen overthrow of a democratically elected government and asked the coup plotters to return to the status quo ante by returning to the barracks and restoring Bazoum to power.
No doubt Bazoum had enjoyed a chummy relationship with Nigeria since he was elected to power in 2021 succeeding former President Mahamadou Issoufou. Bazoum became president in 2021, taking the reins in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transition since it gained independence from France in 1960.
Meanwhile, West African leaders last Sunday gave the military junta in Niger one week to cede power, warning they did not rule out the “use of force,” and imposed immediate financial sanctions.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanded the “immediate release and reinstatement” of Niger’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, who has been held by the military since Wednesday.
ECOWAS announced the “suspension of all commercial and financial transactions between ECOWAS member states and Niger”, which is part of the bloc, as well as halting energy transactions.
It said it was freezing Niger’s assets in ECOWAS central and commercial banks and imposing a “travel ban and asset freeze for the military officials involved in the coup attempt”.
“The same applies to their family members and the civilians who accept to participate in any institutions or government established by these military officials,” said the statement, which was read out at the end of the crisis meeting by Nigerian president and ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu.
What could the events mean for Niger? The days ahead are uncertain and there’s a sense of foreboding as ECOWAS seems poised to make good its word on the truncation of democracy by military adventurers in the sub-region. For Nigeria in particular a coup in neighbouring Niger is as though going to sleep with fire in the loft. More, the coup in Niger is like a malignant danger and it’s unlikely Nigeria would tolerate a coup in its backyard. Still, the coup could further destabilize a poor country and nascent democracy. The events could also lead to a conceantation of shockwaves in a region plagued by Islamists jihadists, poverty, and coups.
Now Niger’s neighbours, Burkina Faso and Mali have warned that any military intervention against Niamey would be considered a “declaration of war” against their nations.
The two countries issued the warning in joint statements read on their national broadcasters:
“The transitional governments of Burkina Faso and Mali express their fraternal solidarity… to the people of Niger, who have decided with full responsibility to take their destiny in hand and assume the fullness of their sovereignty before history,” the two countries said.
“Any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali,” they warned, adding that such a move could result in “disastrous consequences” that “could destabilise the entire region.”
However, the way out of the current conundrum will suggest a diplomatic solution toward resolving the impasse rather than a military approach with its concomitant effects. All efforts should be geared towards dialogue in resolving this crisis. It is doubtful if a military solution will work in this regard for it could further stoke a wider crisis and create more problems than envisaged. In the first instance, Niger is home to over 300,000 Nigerian refugees fleeing their homeland from the Boko Haram insurgent and widespread banditry in the northwest. Outbreak of war would lead to large-scale humanitarian disaster.
The question is can we accommodate a fresh wave of refugees spilling into our borders in the event of a long-drawn-out war in Niger. For a nation still battling Boko Haram insurgents and bandits as well as the separatist tendency in the southeast region this will further compound our security situation. Indeed, ECOWAS should be wary of dancing to the drumbeats of the Western powers and should avoid turning our backyard into a flash point of crisis. More importantly, in the event of war Niger could be turned into an ideological battleground between the East and the West. At the end of it all, Nigeria will be left to carry the can as other ECOWAS members lack the wherewithal for a war with Niger. In a word, we have more to gain by diplomacy and dialogue than getting gung-ho about military intervention in Niger. So, it’s incumbent on ECOWAS to act out of an abundance of caution.