Niger coup: West African bloc activates standby force for possible intervention

The regional bloc of West Africa on Thursday ordered the activation of a standby force for potential use against the junta that seized control of Niger in July, stating that it preferred a peaceful return to democracy but was open to all possibilities, including the use of force.

Although vague, the invasion threat heightens tensions in and around Niger, a country that produces uranium and was a key partner of the West in the struggle against Islamist terrorists that were wreaking havoc in the Sahel.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had set an August 6 deadline for the junta, which had taken control on July 26, to stand down. Instead, the junta closed Niger’s airspace and vowed to protect the nation from any outside invasion.

Following a summit of its leaders in Abuja, Nigeria, the bloc promised to impose penalties, travel restrictions, and asset freezes on anybody obstructing the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum’s return to office.

“No option is taken off the table, including the use of force as a last resort,” said Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the ECOWAS chair.

“I hope that through our collective effort we can bring about a peaceful resolution as a roadmap to restoring stability and democracy in Niger,” he said. “All is not lost yet.”

An official statement was read out which included a resolution asking the bloc’s defence chiefs to “activate the ECOWAS Standby Force with all its elements immediately”.

Immediately after another resolution that called for “the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger,” another one that called for doing so “through peaceful means” was passed.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated support for the ECOWAS initiatives and called for President Bazoum’s release in a statement, adding that the United States would hold the junta accountable for the safety of Bazoum, his family, and imprisoned government officials.

“The United States appreciates the determination of ECOWAS to explore all options for the peaceful resolution of the crisis,” Blinken said.

Security analysts said an ECOWAS force could take weeks or longer to assemble, potentially leaving room for negotiations.

The bloc has planned to create a standby force of thousands of troops for years but was held back by funding delays and insufficient troop commitments, said Ikemesit Effiong, a researcher at SBM Intelligence in Nigeria.

After a string of coups since 2020 and growing militant activity, regional leaders said in December that they were determined to create such a force.

ECOWAS Commission President Omar Alieu Touray told the U.N. Security Council last month that they were considering two options: a brigade of 5,000 troops at an annual cost of $2.3 billion or the deployment of troops on demand at an annual cost of $360 million.

The details of the force’s funding, participating nations, participating numbers of troops, and participating equipment were not included in Thursday’s statement.

Aneliese Bernard, director of consultancy Strategic Stabilization Advisors, stated that “there’s probably still a lot that hasn’t been agreed upon,” including timelines, red lines, and what to do in emergency situations if things keep going south.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the summit, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said he considered the detention of Bazoum “a terrorist act” and promised to supply a battalion of troops to the force.

“We want democracy in our sub-region. We do not accept, we will not accept coups d’etat. These putschists must go. If they don’t let Bazoum out to be able to exercise his mandate, I think we should move ahead and get them out,” he said, without saying how many troops the country would provide.

ECOWAS sought to project an image of resolution and unity, but the bloc is split, with suspended member states Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by military governments, vowing to defend the Niger junta.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns, but this (ECOWAS statement) is a significant next step and certainly an escalation of tensions, at least between the regional bloc and the junta bloc that seems to be forming right now, between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger specifically,” said Bernard.

While the United Nations and Western nations have supported ECOWAS’s efforts to urge the coup leaders to cede control and release Bazoum, who is being held in his home, they have so far shown no hint that they were prepared to budge.

They nominated a slate of ministers hours before the summit in Abuja, seemingly in an effort to solidify their position and depict themselves as a legitimate government.

Western nations worry that Niger would follow Mali’s example and ask Russia’s Wagner Group, which the United States has labeled as a transnational criminal organization, for assistance. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, praised the Niger coup and stated that his soldiers were available to restore order.

Landlocked Niger, which is more than twice the size of France and one of the world’s poorest nations, is the seventh-largest producer of uranium, a key component of nuclear power.

It was also a crucial ally for the West up until the coup as Mali and other former colonial powers turned against France in favor of tighter ties with Russia.

As part of an international campaign against a long-running Islamist insurgency that expanded through the Sahel from Mali, displacing millions of people and resulting in a famine crisis, U.S., French, German, and Italian forces are stationed in Niger.

The junta in Niamey has engaged in virulent anti-French rhetoric, trying to blame France for Niger’s troubles and accusing it of a variety of abuses of sovereignty, which Paris has denied, following a pattern witnessed after the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso between 2020 and 2022.

Read also: Niger coup leaders form new govt: decree

Source Reuters
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