Arresting the coup ‘epidemic’ in West Africa


THE July 27 military takeover of government in Niger Republic continues the recent anomalous trend in the Sahel that has seen the overthrow of democratic administrations in Mali and Burkina Faso. It is the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa, undermining democratic progress in one of the world’s poorest regions. The international community should isolate the usurpers in Niamey, sending a clear message that violent takeover of government is unacceptable.

As a corollary, while the vigorous push-back by ECOWAS member states led by President Bola Tinubu is the right call, it should be firm, strategic, and realistic. It should avoid premature recourse to armed intervention as it is already threatening. Bluntly, Nigeria cannot afford any foreign military adventure at this time.

The pretentions of Niger’s ambitious soldiers ring familiar. Citing insecurity, poor governance and mishandling of the Islamist insurgency, troops from President Mohamed Bazoum’s own Presidential Guard arrested him and announced his overthrow. Its chief, Abdourahamane Tchiani, has announced himself as head of state, and by Tuesday, the mutineers had detained over 140 politicians.

As expected, the putsch has attracted global condemnation, including from the African Union, United Nations, European Union, and ECOWAS. The West African regional bloc has imposed a battery of sanctions. It also issued a seven-day ultimatum to the coup plotters to reinstate the president; rather rashly, it threatened to deploy military force to reinstate Bazoum, who is still being detained.

Rising from an emergency meeting in Abuja chaired by Tinubu on July 30, ECOWAS announced a lockdown of the land and air borders between member countries and Niger. It similarly suspended all commercial and financial transactions and froze all service transactions, including financial and energy transactions, and assets of Niger Republic in all regional central banks.

Although Niger has recently enjoyed its longest democratic rule since independence, it has faced a constant threat of coups. When Bazoum was elected president in 2021, there was an attempt about 48 hours before his inauguration. It failed as presidential guards fought off the coup plotters.

Security experts say developments in the land-locked country point to the deep fissures in the country and a military that has not fully embraced democracy. Beyond the stock excuses for the takeover, other factors at play include ethnicity, the presence of foreign forces, and the weakness of regional bodies.

Despite the increase in foreign forces and military bases there, the leadership could not stop insurgent attacks. Insurrectionist groups operating in the country include al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, and Boko Haram. Thousands have been killed and many more displaced in the last decade.

In addition to insecurity and economic stagnation, ethnicity, and legitimacy dogged Bazoum, a member of Niger’s ethnic Arab minority.  Some, including elements of the larger ethnic groups that dominate the military, see him as a foreigner despite his securing 56 per cent of the vote in the 2021 election, having been sponsored by the former President Mahamadou Issoufou’s party.

The presence of foreign military troops and bases in the country causes widespread resentment. Niger has been a key ally of Western countries in the fight against insurgency in the region. In 2019, the US opened a drone base in Niger despite protests, while the surge in French forces angered influential segments of the populace.

Failure by ECOWAS and the African Union to take a firm stance against past military power seizures in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali emboldened the Nigerien military, though they had vowed sanctions on the three countries.

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International responses to the Sahel crises, led largely by France, the US and UN, have focused primarily on armed counter-terrorism such as France’s Operation Barkhane, an approach that has led to wider violence, human displacement, and destabilisation.

A more effective approach should be led by credible and accountable institutions rooted that meet the basic needs of people and communities.

Coups have been succeeding because African leaders subvert democracy, rig elections, extend presidential term limits and are incompetent, presiding over economic ruin, mass poverty, and insecurity.

The Nigerien situation could set the region on fire, if not properly handled. ECOWAS should immediately drop its hasty threat of deploying military force. Tinubu’s penchant for taking actions without thorough rigour and sober analysis of blowback is playing out. The National Assembly, and military and security establishment should warn him that Nigeria, which provides over 70 per cent of ECOWAS funding, will, militarily, and economically bear the brunt of any sub-regional armed intervention in Niger.

Nigeria’s military is over-stretched and conducting internal security operations in all the 36 states today, including against well-armed international terrorists, bandits, pirates, and secessionists. It would be extremely foolish to engage in any foreign war, especially one with Niger. With Nigeria in economic and security crises, the military option is off limits.

Niger is a key ally in the war against terrorism in Nigeria and the sub-region, and currently, says UNCHR, hosts about 300,000 Nigerian refugees on its territory that were displaced by terrorist insurgency.

Success in regional intervention relies on unanimity, but ominously, the juntas in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali vowed to view ECOWAS military incursion in Niger as a declaration of war and to defend their fellow coup plotters in Niamey. Clearly, any precipitate step could further destabilise a region that Western analysts have identified as part of a “new frontier” of global terrorism.

Poor diplomacy by ECOWAS and the AU could push the four renegade regimes further into the embrace of Russia and its notorious Wagner mercenary army, with disastrous consequences for Africa. They should opt for intelligent, adaptable diplomacy to further isolate the military juntas and keep foreign powers away.

Military coups in Africa create instability, and hamper socioeconomic development; they undermine democratic governance, civil liberties, promote human rights abuses, and erode public trust, and investor confidence.

The enduring antidotes to them are good governance, strong civil institutions, fidelity to the rule of law, and accountability. Africa’s leaders should imbibe these principles. Tinubu should control his impetuosity. The usurpation in Niger should not stand.


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