• | 5:23 pm

Niger coup unveils diplomatic conundrum for ECOWAS, France

While it is foolhardy to predict the future, it is by now clear that the ECOWAS and France have made serious errors of judgment.

Niger coup unveils diplomatic conundrum for ECOWAS, France
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

On 26 July, General Abdourahamane Tchiani of Niger staged a coup to overthrow President Mohamed Bazoum from power. Intriguingly enough, General Tchiani held the position of chief of the presidential guard. The immediate trigger for the coup is said to be Bazoum’s announcement just two days earlier, revealing his intention to dismiss General Tchiani. Obviously, President Bazoum acted imprudently by announcing that decision without taking the required precautionary steps.

The ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) immediately voiced their opposition to the coup. The ECOWAS convened at the summit level on 30 July and issued a public and stern ultimatum to Niger’s new regime, demanding the restoration of President Bazoum to office by 6 August. Failing compliance, ECOWAS threatened military intervention. Additionally, economic sanctions were imposed on Niger by the ECOWAS, which exhibited no interest in engaging with the new regime.

France, which had ruled Niger till 1960 and still holds significant influence in the region, aligned itself firmly with the ECOWAS’s stance, albeit indirectly. The French foreign office, without spelling it out explicitly, implied that France would support any military action taken by the ECOWAS. In response, on 30 July, protesters attacked the French Embassy in Niger, setting a part of the premises on fire. On 5 August, French minister for foreign and European affairs, Catherine Colonna, held a highly publicized meeting with Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, a former prime minister who served under President Bazoum, to discuss the situation in the West African nation. 

The new regime in Niger did not take the threat of military intervention seriously. The ECOWAS has no standing army and there seemed to be no appetite for military action in the capitals of ECOWAS member-states. The president of Nigeria’s proposal for the military option was met with resistance from the country’s Senate which passed a resolution against participation in such an intervention. Burkina Faso and Mali, suspended member-states of ECOWAS and the African Union, have declared support for the coup leader in Niger, warning that any military intervention in Niger would be treated by them as a declaration of war against them. 

Although ECOWAS met after the 6 August deadline, no renewed commitment to immediate military action emerged. The prevailing opinion was to resort to diplomacy. Despite this, Niger denied entry to a delegation from the ECOWAS. Subsequently, a delegation of senior clerics from Nigeria undertook a mission to Niger, leading to announcements of Niger’s willingness to engage in dialogue, potentially opening a window of opportunity for diplomacy. However, Niger’s announcement of intent to prosecute Bazoum for “high treason” and to proceed with legal action closed the diplomatic window, at least temporarily. 

France’s role in Africa, specifically Niger, necessitates historical contextualization. France granted independence to its African colonies with apparent reluctance. Interestingly, of the 27 coups in Sub-Saharan Africa involving military takeover since 1990, 21 have taken place in ex-French colonies. France has built up a military presence in the Sahel region ostensibly for countering Al Qaida, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State, but mainly to support governments that are ‘friendly’ to its interests. This policy was pejoratively termed “Franafrique” by Francois Xavier Verschav, way back in 1998. 

Operation Barkhane, launched in 2014, stationed around 3,000 French soldiers in the region to safeguard the security of five States: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania. Burkina Faso and Mali demanded the withdrawal of French forces and Paris reluctantly complied. France terminated Operation Barkhane in November last year, acknowledging failure, yet French troops remained in Niger. Now, Niger has formally sought the departure of 1,500 French soldiers, asking France to start the withdrawal next month, leaving Paris with limited options but to comply eventually. 

The United States, which operates a drone base in Niger, has so far refrained from labeling the situation as a military coup. The reason is that under law, Washington is obliged to take a series of actions against a country where a coup has occurred. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bazoum post-coup, while Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Niger and held talks with the new regime, later describing the discussions as “very difficult”. Subsequent reports suggested that the new regime intimated to the US the possibility of executing Bazoum should the ECOWAS intervene militarily. 

Besides France and the US, Russia also maintains a presence in Africa through the private military company Wagner Group, which is supported by a few of the rulers in the region. Though it is unlikely that Russia orchestrated the coup, it stands to benefit from its outcome. So far, Moscow has warned against any military intervention in Niger. 

Anger against the former colonizers, France, remains high in Niger, and the new military ruler is clearly inclined to exploit that, as is clear from the protests at the French embassy and the order to expel French soldiers. Backing the ECOWAS threat to invade the country has done no good for France. 

To sum up, it is clear that France could have responded better to the coup. A letter signed by 94 French senators and addressed to President Emmanuel Macron aptly encapsulates the sentiment: Francafrique of yesterday has been replaced by the military Russafrique, the economic Chinafrique or the diplomatic Americafrique. (Le Monde, 9 August 2023). 

The military in Niger has appointed a fully civilian cabinet and the new Prime Minister Lamine Zeine has visited Chad. Washington reportedly will be sending a new ambassador soon. 17 Niger soldiers were ambushed and killed near the border with Mali, a sad reminder of the vulnerability of Niger and its neighbors to terrorist attacks. 

While it is foolhardy to predict the future, it is by now clear that the ECOWAS and France have made serious errors of judgment. While the US has judiciously distanced itself from France, Russia is likely to benefit from the coup as Niger strays away from the Western powers.  


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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