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Analysis: Why is ECOWAS threatening military intervention in Niger?

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The regional bloc of West African countries has come under the spotlight since the military in Niger overthrew the elected government.

Since the military in Niger overthrew the government of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been in the news.

The 15-member regional bloc has given the military junta of Niger until Sunday (August 6) to restore Bazoum or be prepared to face military intervention. It has also imposed economic sanctions on Niamey.

But Niger and two of its neighbours – Burkina Faso and Mali – have threatened to retaliate if ECOWAS decides to use force.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are all under the control of their respective militaries. They also happen to be part of ECOWAS, the regional alliance formed in 1975. In the past two decades, ECOWAS has intervened more than half a dozen times to push out putschists and restore democracy.

But street protests in Niger, where hundreds of people attacked the French embassy on July 30, created an impression that coup leaders are standing up to Western powers, including the United States, and enjoy wide support.

“ECOWAS’s intervention is not about neo-colonialism at all. This is about the West African agency,” says Dr Alex Vines, Director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank.

“ECOWAS’s vision is not to have outside interference. That includes Russia, that includes Rwanda, that includes other African armies which are not from the region,” he tells TRT World.

What’s the possibility of armed escalation?

The threat of military intervention and a wider conflict have risen in recent days, with Senegal saying on August 3 that it is ready to send troops to Niger to restore Bazoum’s government.

Efforts to work out a diplomatic compromise appear to have stalled as an ECOWAS delegation which had travelled to Niger this week left without having met General Abdourahamane (Omar) Tchiani, the coup leader.

However, this doesn’t mean that the two sides have thrown down the gauntlet. As Vines points out, Tchiani, the head of the powerful presidential guard force, has softened his position, as evident by Thursday night’s statement that the military aims to hold elections quickly.

“Military intervention is Plan C. ECOWAS hopes that sanctions start to have some effect and diplomacy helps reach some accommodation.”

Nigeria, the region’s economic powerhouse and military leader, shares a border with Niger and can easily send ground troops across. Ghana and Ivory Coast have also been very vocal in opposing the military coup.

Is Russia connected to the Niger coup?

Analysts based in the US and European Union have expressed concern that a military rule in Niger, which is a key producer and supplier of uranium, can be easily influenced by Russia.

Last week, President Vladimir Putin hosted African leaders for a summit where he announced free grain exports to six poor countries, including Burkina Faso and Mali.

Days after the Niger coup, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner, the mercenary group Putin had used to expand influence in Libya and Liberia, offered his fighters to the Niger military.

During the riots at the French embassy, a few people can be seen waving Russia’s white-blue-red flag. However, Vines says Russia or the Wagner group don’t have any physical presence on the ground.

“Unfortunately, one of the things at which Russia has been really successful is stirring up the pot through trolling and fake news,” says Vines.

“There is certainly a very anti-French and anti-Western sentiment in the Sahelian region – there’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean the region is pro-Russia.”

Nevertheless, the Niger military leaders have been trying to project the coup as an anti-imperial project.

Niger, a landlocked country of 26 million, is a former French colony which is home to over 200 ethnic groups. Vines says the Niger coup has more to do with internal political dynamics.

Bazoum belongs to Niger’s Ouled Sliman minority, which represents only 1.9 percent of the population and doesn’t have the support of the elite in power corridors.

“He’s also got a very forceful character. So there was unhappiness on the part of the Nigerien elite. But the trigger for the coup was that he was going to retire the head of the Presidential Guard General Tchiani,” says Vines.

Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has put a new impetus into ECOWAS and its military arm, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).

“Tinubu is allergic to putschists. He was incarcerated by a military dictatorship. He dislikes them. And he needs to assert authority across the region,” says Vines.

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