When, last Wednesday, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu ordered the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) to cut power supply to the country’s northern neighbor, Niger, it seemed all but certain that he would follow through with his earlier threat to use military force should General Abdourahmane Tchiani fail to comply with a one-week Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ultimatum to hand over power to the ousted democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. Tchiani, head of his country’s presidential guard, had struck on July 28, citing, among other factors, “the harsh reality of insecurity in Niger.”
The presidential order to the TCN to cut off electricity to Niger, which reportedly relies on Nigeria for up to 70 percent of its electricity needs, was among a raft of measures intended to send a clear message to the putschists that West Africa’s sixth coup since 2020 would not stand. Two days after the power supply to Niger was cut off, defense chiefs from ECOWAS countries met in Abuja to draw up plans for a possible military intervention if the Sunday deadline passed without compliance from the Nigerien junta. Even as he appeared to draw a line in the sand, Tinubu, significantly, did not close the door to talks, sending top Nigerian functionaries, including former military head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar, to the Nigerien coup leaders (the delegation to Niamey was rebuffed), and Niger’s neighbors to the north, Libya and Algeria. The latter and Nigeria jointly share more than 1,500 miles of border with Niger.
However, if all indications pointed to the possibility of a military intervention as the week drew to an uncertain close and the deadline for the junta to restore President Bazoum approached, the course of events over the weekend was such that, contrariwise, it became almost certain that military intervention in Niger would have to be shelved.
A number of factors combined to put the idea of military action to reverse the overthrow of President Bazoum in jeopardy. First was the state of affairs in Niger itself. Although the announcement of the takeover was greeted with initial protests, the mood seemed to change sharply over the course of the week following the ECOWAS ultimatum. On Sunday, a large crowd waving Nigerien and Russian flags thronged the 30,000-capacity Seyni Kountche Stadium in Niamey, the Nigerien capital, for a rally in support of the self-styled National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). Whether or not this was a manufactured crowd (there is scant evidence it was), the fact that it was larger and more vocal than the initial protests against the takeover—which petered out as soon as they started—is not insignificant. More perplexing is the fact that a cross-section of the Nigerien public, channeling long-held anti-French (anti-Western more broadly) grievance, appears to hold France responsible for the coup even as it welcomes it as a blow against foreign intervention in the country’s domestic affairs.
If the ascendant mood in Niamey was increasingly defiant, the situation in Nigeria was also changing. On Friday, following a letter to the Nigerian national assembly notifying it of ECOWAS’ resolution to “seek the return of the democratically elected government” in Niger, the Northern Senators Forum (NSF) released a statement in which it cautioned against the use of military forces until all diplomatic avenues were exhausted, noting that Niger shares borders with seven northern states whose citizens would be “negatively affected” in case Tinubu decided to press on with military intervention. If there was any doubt that the northern senators’ intervention was motivated in part by religious considerations (the inclusion of the widely respected Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Abubakar, in the three-man delegation to Niamey suggests that ECOWAS and Tinubu were sensitive to this all along), it was vacated after a subsequent statement by the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), “the umbrella group of the Nigerian Muslim community,” who warned, “against the pursuit of military action as a means to restore democracy.” Niger’s population is 98 percent Muslim, the great majority of whom, like the Muslim population in northern Nigeria, are Sunni.
From a Nigerian point of view, the fate of military intervention to dislodge the Nigerien coupists appears to have been sealed after a Nigerian government think tank, Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience (OSPRE) released a 12-page document warning against “a military intervention aimed at regime change in Niger” that it feared would be “costly and infeasible and would lead to catastrophically counterproductive consequences for West Africa.”
As a sidebar, the mobilization of religious solidarity against military intervention in Niger (and ipso facto, in defense of military takeover) throws up the scepter of religious intervention in politics. More specifically, it raises difficult questions about the relationship between conservative Islam and democratic politics in the Sahel and Muslim majority countries across Africa. For instance, was Nigeria’s attitude towards the successful coups d’état in Mali and Burkina Faso respectively influenced by religious sympathy? Whatever the answer, ongoing events underscore the need to be attentive to the all-important but typically neglected religious dimension of foreign policymaking.
The obvious winner from all of this is the CNSP, which signaled its intention to dig in with the indefinite closure of the country’s airspace. Another winner is Wagner, the Kremlin-backed mercenary group. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s congratulatory message to the coup planners was the only jarring note amid universal denunciation, and media reports last week suggested that the Nigerien junta may have approached Wagner for help.
The Tinubu administration, while not exactly left with egg on its face, confronts an urgent need to maintain Nigeria’s respect and authority across West Africa, while repairing the chasm that has opened up between its democracy-favoring rump on the one hand, and military-led dissidents on the other. Tinubu faces the unenviable task of reining in the dissidents, even as he must remain an outspoken advocate for democratic norms.
Western countries are similarly caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they (France especially) must be sensitive to lingering resentment towards “colonial influence” in the region, even though the embrace of Russia, a colonial power in its own right, means that the “anti-colonial” feeling is ultimately selective. At the same time, having made substantial material and moral investments, particularly in efforts to stabilize the region against Islamist insurgents, they can ill afford to pull out. Over two decades, the United States has spent an estimated $3.3 billion dollars in security assistance to the Sahel.
In the long term, the most profitable diplomatic arrangement for the region is a mutually respectful Afro-Western partnership, one firmly anchored on a non-negotiable commitment to democracy and human rights. As it always does, the aura of novelty around the soldiers is bound to wear off, and ordinary Nigeriens will discover that anti-Western schadenfreude only goes so far in shielding against abuse and corruption.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.