West Africa Does Not Need Another War
ECOWAS has many reasons NOT to attack the new military junta in Niger.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is an important economic and political grouping of 15 West African countries. The ECOWAS countries cover an area of 5.1 million Square Kilometers (almost 2 million Square miles), and have a total population of 424 million (35% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)) in 2022, up 37.2% from 309 million in 2010.
ECOWAS is a source of critical mineral and other resources important to the world. The Republic of Guinea, for example, had the world’s largest bauxite reserves (7.4 billion tonnes) or 24.7% of the global reserves in 2020. In addition, Niger had the seventh of largest reserves of uranium with 439.4 thousand tonnes in 2019, while Nigeria (in 2022) had 37 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the 12th largest in the world.
At the continental level, ECOWAS is a Regional Economic Community (REC) and pillar of RECs of the African Economic Community (AEC), an African Union organization which promotes economic development in Africa. ECOWAS is also important in Africa by virtue of the political, economic and military power of Nigeria. Nigeria with a GDP of about $2 trillion in 2022 was the largest economy in Africa. In addition, Nigeria accounted for a third of Africa’s proven natural gas reserves in 2022, and its military strength ranked third in Africa (behind Egypt and South Africa).
Despite its potential and significance, ECOWAS has been plagued by many security and political challenges. In particular, terrorist incidents in the region increased 3.1% from 252 in 2015 to 774 in 2014, compared to a 2.8% increase over the same period for SSA. Over the same period, Burkina registered 103-fold, and 284-fold increases in the number of terrorist incidents and fatalities, respectively. Similarly, Mali recorded a 5-fold increase in the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks from 181 in 2015 to 944 in 2022.
Despite a trend toward democracy and good governance, ECOWAS countries experienced 79 coups d’etat between 1990 and 2021, resulting in the region being called a “coup belt.” While no coup was reported in the ECOWAS countries between 2015 and 2019, there have been 10 coups (including coup attempts) between 2020 and 2023. Furthermore, ECOWAS countries experienced 38 army mutinies or 73.1% of mutinies in SSA, between 1990 and 2012, with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger accounting for the majority, 36.8%, of the total number of mutinies in ECOWAS countries.
The coup pandemic has been particularly acute in the former French colonies, and Sahelian countries of ECOWAS, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The three countries accounted for 20% of the 79 coups in ECOWAS between 1990 and 2021. Mali and Niger have also borne the brunt of the fight against separatist movements, and all three countries have, with help from the US and France, been engaged in a long fight against Islamic militants.
Against this background, the democratically elected President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown by the military on July 26, 2023. Ironically, Bazoum participated in a meeting of four ECOWAS heads of state held a week earlier to address the security and peace situation in the region.
No sooner had the military junta in Niamey declared that Bazoum had been overthrown than the ECOWAS Commission condemned it. ECOWAS held an Emergency Summit of its Heads of State and Government on July 30, 2023, and rejected the overthrow of Bazoum. ECOWAS also called for the immediate re-instatement as President of Niger, and threatened the use of force if their demands were not met within one week.
Since then, the military junta in Niger has consolidated its position by naming a new transitional government, and announced a three-year transition to democratic rule. ECOWAS, on the other hand, mobilized and decided on a D-Day for a military intervention in Niger to restore Bazoum to power. ECOWAS, however, needs to take note of some risks which collectively and individually make the option of war against Niger a bad choice.
The four-country (Senegal, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria) ECOWAS military coalition is certainly militarily no match for Niger. While Nigeria is ranked 39th out of 145 countries in terms of military strength Niger is ranked 119th. Furthermore, Nigeria has about 135 thousand active military personnel, while Niger has 10,000. In addition, Niger has only 8 combat-ready aircraft, while Nigeria has 86 combat-ready aircraft, including 8 fighter jets. That said, it is worth noting that military might alone is no guarantee for victory, as the United States learned in Afghanistan.
Military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea (all of which are under ECOWAS sanctions) have pledged their support to the junta in Niger, led by Brigade General Abdourahamane Tchiani. Although, these countries are militarily weak, and have their own internal security problems, their involvement in Niger’s response to an ECOWAS attack could further destabilize the sub-region.
An ECOWAS military intervention in Niger is also unacceptably risky because it might hatch more coups. A study of 66 military mutinies between 1990 and 2012 in Africa showed that 77% of the 13 mutinies were related to deployments on multinational peace operations. Many of these mutinies develop into coups, the very problem an ECOWAS military invasion of Niger is supposed to end.
Niger could also use Turkish-made armed drones that were purchased, oddly enough, by Bazoum from Turkey to destabilize the sub-region. For example, the Nigerien junta could supply these drones to terrorist groups in Nigeria and other ECOWAS countries to create even more insecurity in the sub-region, just as the overthrow of former Libyan leader Gaddafi did.
Niger junta has asked Russia’s Wagner Group to help it fight an ECOWAS military attack on Niger. Although the Wagner Group has been decapitated, with the death of its leader in a plane crash, Russia might still help prop the Nigerien junta. This would intensify the counter-productive Russia-US rivalry in the Sahel, increase the risk of a catastrophic defeat of ECOWAS forces, and result in needless losses of lives and property.
ECOWAS should re-consider its decision to use military force to restore democratic rule to Niger. ECOWAS should continue to use non-military means, especially the sanctions (e.g. closure of borders, ban on all commercial flights, and the cessation of the delivery of utilities to the country) it has imposed on the junta in Niger to force it to relinquish power. Niger is land-locked, and mainly relies on Benin and to a lesser extent Togo and Nigeria for overseas trade freight. These countries oppose the military junta in Niamey and would enforce the ECOWAS blockade on Niger.
In the event that Burkina Faso and Mali (both land-locked) and Guinea want to help the junta in Niamey evade the blockade against them, ECOWAS should impose sanctions on them too. Mali relies on Senegal for 70% of its import and export freight, while Burkina Faso relies on Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Ghana for its external trade freight. Although Guinea is on the Atlantic Coast, its coastline of 320 Km can be blockaded by ECOWAS using Nigerian naval assets.
Given the great risks in an ECOWAS military attack on Niger, and that ECOWAS can impose a strong and effective blockade against the Niger junta, ECOWAS should not attack Niger. Instead, ECOWAS should opt for a peaceful and strictly enforced blockade of Niger — no matter how long it takes to bear fruit.
What ECOWAS needs now is more peace, and not another war.