Why Is ECOWAS So Active in the Niger Crisis?

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The recent resurgence of the Niger Crisis has once again brought the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) into sharp focus, underscoring its growing involvement in addressing regional conflicts and political upheavals. The unfolding developments pertaining to the 2023 Niger Coup have brought to the forefront the pivotal position of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as a prominent regional actor steadfastly dedicated to the preservation of democratic principles, ensuring stability, and fostering an environment of tranquility within its member nations.

The recent military coup in Niger, however, has elicited a notably assertive response from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In a swift and decisive move, the ECOWAS has taken measures to address the escalating situation in Niger. The closure of land and air borders, coupled with the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions, serves as a clear demonstration of ECOWAS’ commitment to upholding regional stability.

Furthermore, ECOWAS has unequivocally demanded an expeditious restoration of constitutional order, leaving no room for ambiguity or delay. These actions underscore the organization’s determination to safeguard democratic principles and ensure the well-being of Niger’s people. The proactive regional response exhibited in this situation presents a notable departure from ECOWAS’s historically cautious approach to diplomacy during previous instances of political turmoil in the West African region. In this regard, on the 8th of August, a crucial gathering and discussion of military leaders from West African nations commenced in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The primary focus of their deliberations was the persistent crisis unfolding in Niger. ECOWAS has officially announced its intention to convene a meeting with the primary objective of concluding the necessary arrangements for the imminent deployment of the Standby Force.

During the meeting, General Christopher Gwabin Musa, the Chief of Defense Staff of Nigeria, expressed a resolute commitment to the principles of democracy, which form the bedrock of their values and serve as a guiding force for their actions. He also emphasized that the primary objective of our assembly is not merely to respond to unfolding circumstances, but rather to strategically devise a trajectory that culminates in the attainment of stability and the advancement of steadfastness. In this, respect it has been discerned that ECOWAS is playing an active, to some extent proactive, role to thwart the military regime led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani. Nevertheless, some analysts critically argue that ECOWAS’ involvement and intention for military deployment might provoke the rivalry between West-led ECOWAS and the Russian-led junta.

Geopolitical Resilience

The central focus of ECOWAS’s proactive engagement in the Niger Crisis stems from a deep understanding of the paramount importance of maintaining geopolitical stability and fostering economic interdependence within the region. The interconnectedness of West Africa’s historical, cultural, and economic fabric has fostered a sense of interdependence among its constituent nations, compelling them to adopt a unified approach in addressing pressing issues such as the recent Niger Coup. The potential ramifications of the coup in Niger on political stability cannot be underestimated, as it has the capacity to initiate a chain reaction of instability that could extend beyond its borders, affecting neighboring nations.

Furthermore, it is imperative to acknowledge that the region’s escalating significance as a pivotal trade hub has solidified West Africa’s position as a crucial actor within the global economic landscape. The member states of the ECOWAS have been actively engaged in a collaborative effort to maximize their economic capabilities. This endeavor has been exemplified by the establishment of two key initiatives: the ECOWAS Common External Tariff and the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme. These measures aim to foster regional integration and facilitate the free flow of goods and services among ECOWAS nations.

By harmonizing external tariffs and promoting trade liberalization, member countries are collectively striving to unlock their economic potential and enhance regional economic cooperation. Amidst the global upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the imperative of upholding a stable economic landscape has assumed utmost significance in the pursuit of regional recuperation and advancement. The interventions undertaken by ECOWAS in instances such as the Niger Coup are strategically designed to mitigate the risk of exacerbating instability within the region, while simultaneously safeguarding the collective economic advancement of member states.

Upholding Democratic Norms and Values

Over the course of the last quarter-century, the ECOWAS has strategically allocated significant diplomatic resources toward advancing the principles of democratic governance and the rule of law within the West African region. The individual or group in question has consistently expressed strong disapproval towards any instances of unconstitutional power transitions, such as military coups or attempts to undermine the electoral process. The recent coup in Niger can be interpreted as a significant blow to the established democratic framework that the ECOWAS has diligently endeavored to construct within the region.

Following the major developments toward multiparty democracy in Benin and Mali during the early 1990s, it is noteworthy that ECOWAS member nations have entered into numerous significant protocols, thereby demonstrating their commitment to the preservation of democratic principles and institutions. Niger has undeniably experienced significant advancements since its internal transformation in 2011, as evidenced by the April 2021 election, which marked a historic milestone in the nation’s political landscape. This momentous occasion symbolizes the inaugural instance of a harmonious transfer of power between two democratically elected heads of state. By contrast, the sudden coup in Niger has not only resulted in a significant setback for the country’s democratic progress, but it has also flagrantly disregarded the fundamental principles upheld by the regional organization.

In addition to the situation in Niger, it is critical to bear in mind that the recent coup has the potential to embolden anti-democratic factions and undermine established norms throughout the broader West African region. ECOWAS, drawing lessons from past events, particularly the tumultuous situations witnessed in Guinea and Burkina Faso, recognizes the rapid and consequential consequences that can arise from the erosion of democratic principles. The stance taken by the community demonstrates an unambiguous understanding that a lackadaisical reaction would convey a weakening of their dedication to upholding democracy as the exclusive and rightful means of attaining political authority. The resolute denouncement and insistence on the prompt reinstatement of the constitutional framework by it exemplify the organization’s enduring influence and its commitment to fortifying pro-democratic forces throughout the region.

Countering Regional Contagion

The recent coup is occurring within the context of a concerning trend of military takeovers that have been observed throughout West Africa in the last couple of years. In a significant turn of events in August 2020, the elected president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was ousted from power by army officers. In September 2021, a significant political development unfolded in Guinea as President Alpha Conde, who had been criticized for his repressive governance, was removed from power through a coup d’état orchestrated by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and his elite army unit.

The political developments of 2022 in Burkina Faso have raised major worries among observers. Notably, the democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, was ousted from power a mere eight months ago, marking the third coup witnessed in Africa within a span of 18 months. The series of swift and consecutive coups in West Africa has undeniably inflicted significant harm upon the region’s democratic advancements achieved since the 1990s.

The recent coup in Niger has similarly brought about serious concerns within the ECOWAS community regarding the potential acceleration of regional democratic backsliding. This worrisome development stems from the growing perception among disgruntled army factions and opposition groups that military takeovers can serve as a viable means to achieve their objectives. The recent series of governmental changes in three neighboring countries of Niger has established a concerning pattern, wherein coups d’état are becoming increasingly frequent, posing a potential threat to regional stability. Therefore, the ECOWAS is tested to solve the situation demonstrating a keen awareness of the pressing necessity for a robust and cohesive reaction to prevent Niger from succumbing to the perils of a burgeoning series of political and constitutional predicaments.

Strengthening Regional Credibility

Since 2020, three member states of ECOWAS have experienced coups, and the organization has been struggling to create clear policies in response. Military juntas have ousted governments in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, and ECOWAS has been powerless to stop the wave of illegitimate shifts in power by using its usual penalties and expulsions. However, if Niger also stays under the control of a military dictatorship, ECOWAS’s credibility as an enforcer of democratic principles and mediator of political crises is in jeopardy. ECOWAS hopes to quickly isolate the coup leaders and maintain the leverage to steer Niger back towards a civilian transitional government heading to elections by taking a strong stance from the onset of the crisis in Niger

The ECOWAS has shown its seriousness through the discussions of imposing sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but it must also continue to work with the junta and civil society to foster reconciliation and provide incentives for the peaceful restoration of constitutional order. To improve ECOWAS’ strategy and boost its credibility in preserving democracy in the face of the recent trend of coups, Niger presents a crucial test case.

ECOWAS’ Role and the Interests of the Others

Apart from all the developments, some critically argue that the role of ECOWAS may provoke the intervention of great powers like the US and Russia. Moreover, the escalation of the conflict is expected to exacerbate the already strained relations between Niger and France. The prevailing narrative propagated by the junta attributes the country’s prevailing state of insecurity and economic challenges to the actions of France. However, for some analysts, the current instability in West Africa is a warning sign that the United States risks losing the region to China and Russia if it does not alter its policy. Although this is the ninth coup in West and Central Africa in the last three years, the United States and France are just as astonished and unsure as they were during the first eight. In this respect, ECOWAS has been discerned with West-leaning approach that might provoke Russia in engaging into the crisis.

In the context of the current political landscape, it is noteworthy that both Mali and Burkina Faso, two nations currently under the control of putschists, have made it clear that they will not hesitate to take action in response to any potential intervention by ECOWAS or external military forces aimed at reinstating Bazoum. This stance underscores the complex dynamics at play, as ECOWAS comprises predominantly Western-aligned West African countries. The possibility of a full-scale invasion being invoked by these states adds another layer of tension to an already delicate situation. In light of the current geopolitical landscape, it is noteworthy that the Prime Minister of Niger has made a plea for United States intervention. This appeal comes amidst the challenging circumstances faced by the nation. Simultaneously, it is crucial to acknowledge that the ruling juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso have forged alliances with Russia subsequent to assuming power. This strategic realignment carries significant implications for the regional dynamics in Niger crisis and the overall West Africa.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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