Three weeks ago, as he took office as the Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, no doubt with the situation across the region in mind, condemned military rule in the strongest of terms and offered a ringing endorsement of democracy as follows: “We must stand firm on democracy. There is no governance, freedom, and rule of law without democracy. We will not accept coup after coup in West Africa again. Democracy is difficult to manage but it is the best form of government.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding, he added: “You will all agree with me that democracy and good governance are the cornerstones of peace and sustainable development of every society. I’m fully committed to deepening democracy and good governance in the region. We must strengthen our democratic institutions and ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law. I will enhance engagements with the countries in transition to ensure their quick return to democratic rule.”
The army takeover of power in neighboring Niger is an opportunity for the Nigerian leader to back up his pro-democracy and antimilitary rhetoric with action. The sixth successful coup d’état in West Africa alone in the past three years, the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum by General Abdourahamane Tchiani extends an ugly pattern that Nigeria, acting in concert with regional and foreign allies, must take urgent steps to arrest.
Excerpting from a customary playbook, General Tchiani claims that the Nigerien armed forces were forced to intervene due to “insecurity, economic woes and corruption” in the poor western Sahelian country. General Tchiani is not wrong about the dire state of affairs in the country; on the contrary, Niger’s struggles with corruption and insecurity are all too familiar. The question is whether General Tchiani and his henchmen are justified in violating the oath they took to defend their country’s constitution, and the answer is a categorical no. At any rate, an army general justifying a takeover of power on the basis of insecurity is a bit rich considering that there would be no insecurity if the same (Nigerien) army did its job properly in the first place. Having failed in their duty, General Tchiani and his henchmen have turned around to declare war on their own country. Accordingly, the more one looks at it, the more one is led to the conclusion that what has happened in Niger is nothing but an opportunistic power grab by a group of soldiers desperate to take advantage of instability in the country specifically, and uncertainty across the Sahel more broadly.
Since General Tchiani, previously linked to a 2015 coup attempt, has no qualms about violating the oath that he solemnly took, and may even be said to have called the bluff of the regional economic bloc by staging a takeover three odd weeks after Tinubu had spoken clearly and forcefully against coups d’état, the proper thing to do is to accept his challenge and stand toe to toe with him.
The earliest signals have been encouraging. President Tinubu and ECOWAS have led the chorus of condemnation, while France, the United States, and the United Nations (UN) have denounced the coup and called for the release and reinstallation of President Mohamed Bazoum. The European Union (EU) has made it clear that it “does not recognize and will not recognize the authorities resulting from the putsch in Niger” and promised to join ECOWAS in imposing severe sanctions on the military junta. Outside the sub-region, the response has been similarly encouraging, with Kenyan President William Ruto leading the way by describing the takeover as “a serious setback” to the continent.
While the strength of denunciation of the coup from various quarters is encouraging, and while the ECOWAS and EU threat of severe sanctions is welcome, it goes without saying that they cannot afford to stop there. The jury is still out on the effect of sanctions, and it is not unlikely that they might end up hurting ordinary Nigeriens more than the wayward generals and their immediate families.
In any event, what the people of Niger do not have right now is time and, with the Wagner group lurking and ready to offer its services to a beleaguered junta as it has done elsewhere in the region (Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Russia-backed Wagner mercenary group, has hailed the coup d’état, bizarrely describing it as “nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers”), a Nigeria-led coalition must move speedily to dispatch General Tchiani and restore the status quo ante in Niger. In this regard, the one-week ultimatum issued by ECOWAS to the junta after an emergency meeting in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, over the weekend is a step in the right direction. If the junta is still in place at the expiration of the deadline, force should be mobilized to remove it. There is nothing to negotiate here.
Nigeria must take the lead because it is the indisputable regional leader. Having, without any prompting, enlarged on the virtues of democracy, Tinubu can ill afford not to put his money where his mouth is. Democracy aside, from a security standpoint, Nigeria cannot allow its immediate neighbor to the north to once again fall under the sway of soldiers with no conception of modern governance. Nigeria has considerable economic and political leverage over Niger and President Tinubu should not hesitate to pull those levers. Granted, Tinubu himself is just adjusting to the rigors of his office as he faces an early challenge to his economic reforms from labor and various civil society groups. However, there is no perfect time to take a just action and the test of statesmanship is acting decisively even when, as seems to be the case here, the stars may not be fully aligned. If Tinubu fails this test, he risks being seen as all talk and no action and may rest assured of another military takeover in another corner of the region sooner or later.
There is no suggestion here that Nigeria should act unilaterally. On the contrary, the idea is for it to act in concert with other regional powers like Ghana and Senegal to muster the force (yes, force) that will dislodge the Nigerien junta.
While the immediate aim should be the removal of General Tchiani and the restoration of President Bazoum, the long-term aim should be to send a message that this is the last coup d’état in West Africa. In rapidly evolving toward a democratic security community ready to mobilize force to secure and consolidate regional democratic stability, ECOWAS should be clear in its resolve that riff-raffs sporting Abacha-esque dark goggles have no place in the region's political future. Western democracies can help with expertise and resources in the construction and consolidation of this new architecture.
The United States too cannot afford to limit itself to mere condemnation. A long-term partner with Niger in the fight against terrorism and with military personnel “almost entirely involved in the training of the Niger military and the maintenance of drone bases for surveillance purposes,” the United States has a decision to make. On the one hand, it cannot afford to simply walk away, not just because it will be walking away from “billions of dollars in security assistance” it has given Niger and other western Sahelian countries, but also because, with the Wagner group waiting in the shadows, doing so will send the message that Washington cannot be trusted when push comes to shove. At the same time, and especially considering Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s earnest promise to support “diplomacy, democracy, development, and defense” in Niger, it will find it difficult to justify channeling resources to a military junta that has basically amputated one leg of that quartet of principles. At any rate, if it decides to back a military dictator, how will it differentiate itself from Wagner?
In a nutshell, both the moral and strategic arguments favor Nigeria, ECOWAS, and Western powers. They should act decisively and restore President Bazoum to power.