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ECOWAS sets ‘D-day’ for intervention in Niger

If the US doesn’t want to evacuate its forces, or see a regional war, it needs to do whatever it can to call off the attack.

Analysis | Africa

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has reportedly finalized plans for military intervention in Niger in response to the coup that took place there last month. In other words, both sides are more on the verge of war than ever.

The latest move to establish a "D-day" for invasion follows threats from the Nigerien junta to execute the deposed president Mohamed Bazoum (whom the junta is holding prisoner, along with his wife and son, in the palace basement). The junta previously ignored a deadline set by ECOWAS to restore constitutional order in Niger by August 6, but it now appears that the organization is determined to make good on its pledge to reverse the coup. 

Military intervention is hazardous at the best of times, and an ECOWAS intervention runs the risk of making the region even less stable than it already is. Even when regional actors are the ones taking military action, that does not guarantee that the intervention will be welcome or effective. Unless there is good reason to believe that an intervention will leave the affected country better off than it would have been, it is better for outside actors to refrain from using force even when they may believe they are justified in doing so. It is hard to see how armed intervention in Niger can meet that standard. 

That is why the U.S. should discourage ECOWAS from proceeding with plans for invasion.

The U.S. may not be able to prevent it from happening, but it should be prepared to evacuate its forces from Niger as quickly as possible so that they are not caught in the middle of a larger fight. As Connor Echols explained in his column for Responsible Statecraft last week, “the U.S. would likely have to leave if the military threats from ECOWAS turn into a reality.”

If the U.S. does not want to have to evacuate its forces from Niger, it needs to do whatever it can to dissuade ECOWAS from using force there.

Washington should also be reassessing its military-first approach to the region and evaluating its role in contributing to the growing militarism in the West African countries where it has been supporting the local governments. Washington’s engagement with the region has been far too one-dimensional and focused only on security cooperation, and it is not a coincidence that regional security has been steadily deteriorating as local governments have come to rely heavily on militarized solutions.

That also suggests that a militarized response to Niger’s coup is not the right answer.

Any outside intervention in Niger faces several obstacles and pitfalls. There is significant domestic opposition to military action in Nigeria, which has the largest and most effective army in ECOWAS. Any operation would need substantial backing from Nigeria to have any chance of success, but it is not clear that there is sufficient political support for a potentially costly expedition in Nigeria’s National Assembly. 

Opponents are rightly objecting to the rush to use force before all diplomatic alternatives are exhausted, and representatives of northern states along the border with Niger fear the consequences of war for their constituencies. One group of Muslim clerics from northern Nigeria warned that Nigerian President Bola Tinubu should not “rush into an avoidable conflict with a neighbor at the behest of global politicking.” 

Opponents of a military response are also reasonably concerned that the use of force would further destabilize northern Nigeria and Niger and contribute to the spread of conflict. The junta has every incentive to resist, and it may be able to call upon military contractors, including the Wagner Group, to assist in repelling an invasion. The junta’s supporters have already begun recruiting in anticipation of an intervention, though it is unclear how many men these supporters will be able to organize and whether they will put up much real resistance. 

The more that the junta can make an invasion look like a war against the entire country and not just against them, the harder it will be for ECOWAS to succeed.

Even if the intervention were to succeed in removing the junta from power, ECOWAS forces would have to remain in place to ensure that the return to civilian rule holds. That could become a significant drain on the resources of the bloc’s members. The political backlash that Tinubu is already facing is bound to get worse as the cost of the intervention inevitably rises.

It should be noted that a successful intervention isn’t impossible. ECOWAS has intervened to oppose coups in the region in the past in Liberia and elsewhere. The bloc has sometimes been successful in getting rid of juntas and ending ongoing conflicts, but that success has also come at the expense of the civilian population. Not all interventions fail and backfire, but it should be stressed that they always last longer and cost more than anyone expects at the outset. 

There is a chance that this time military action could backfire and trigger a wider regional war. The juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have already warned that they would consider any ECOWAS action against Niger as the equivalent of a declaration of war against them. Because there have been so many coups recently in neighboring countries, the junta in Niger has potential allies to resist an effort to restore civilian rule. 

It is also possible that foreign intervention could bolster domestic support for the junta if ECOWAS is perceived as acting as a cat’s paw for France and the United States. As analyst Chris Ògúnmọ́dẹdé explained in a recent column, “Many in Niger and elsewhere in the wider region will likely regard such an operation as little more than a fig leaf for U.S. and French meddling in Niger, at a time when both powers are making strategic adjustments to their overseas security footprints that they say will feature more local and regional leadership.” 

The junta could perversely exploit an outside invasion to tighten its grip on power by painting itself as the defender of the country against foreign aggression that would not be happening if there had been no coup.

There will be a temptation in Washington to support an ECOWAS intervention on the grounds that it is an example of regional governments taking care of their own problems, but that temptation should be resisted. There was similar openness to military action by regional actors when the U.S. supported Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in 2007, and the Ethiopian action was initially successful before it led to the longer-term destabilization of Somalia. 

The Obama administration welcomed and supported the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015 for similar reasons, and thus helped enable one of the most destructive wars and largest humanitarian crises in recent memory. The Biden administration should learn from these mistakes and urge the Nigerian government and its partners to find another solution that does not involve invading their neighbor.

FILE PHOTO: Military personnel attend the meeting of the ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Defense as they make plans to deploy the ECOWAS standby force to the Republic of Niger, in Accra, Ghana, August 18, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko/File Photo
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