By Edward McAllister
DAKAR (Reuters) – Niger’s junta has defied a Sunday deadline from West Africa’s regional bloc to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Bazoum or face a possible military intervention.
Defence chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) last week drew up a plan for the possible use of force to reverse the July 26 coup, including how and when to deploy forces, raising the spectre of further conflict in a region already struggling with a deadly Islamist insurgency.
The bloc is not divulging details, and will anyway require a go-ahead from the heads of member states before intervening, but various options – military and otherwise – may be available although all carry risk.
ECOWAS has sent troops into trouble spots before, but never in Niger and rarely with the region so divided.
Security analysts say the details of a big operation could take weeks to pull together, and that an invasion carries huge risk, including getting caught up in a drawn-out conflict and destabilising Niger and the region further.
Coup leader General Abdourahamane Tiani served as battalion commander for ECOWAS peacekeepers in Ivory Coast after a ceasefire between government and rebel forces in 2003, so he knows what intervention missions involve.
Still, some will feel they have little option.
“If they don’t go in, it will be a major problem of credibility. They have laid down a red line,” said Djiby Sow, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar.
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has told his government to prepare for options including the deployment of military personnel. Senegal has also said it could send troops.
But coup leaders in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali have expressed support for Niger’s junta, and other countries have their own security challenges.
SPECIAL FORCES OPERATION
This option would involve a slimmer ground force that would be quicker to assemble. It would likely focus on seizing key security and administrative sites, rescuing Bazoum from house arrest and restoring his government, said Ikemesit Effiong, a senior researcher at SBM Intelligence consultancy in Nigeria. ECOWAS could seek intelligence support from U.S. and French forces inside Niger.
“The timeline would be shorter and the capability already exists in the region. An operation of that nature would be more realistic,” Effiong said.
Risks still abound, though. Foreign troops guarding sites in the centre of the capital Niamey could trigger violence in a city where hundreds have taken to the streets in support of the coup – and against foreign interference.
AIDING A COUNTER COUP
Niger is a huge, ethnically diverse country, and Bazoum won the 2021 election with 56% of the vote. It is not yet clear how much support various groups will give the new leaders.
Security analysts and diplomats have also noted apparent divisions among Niger’s armed forces, who may not all be united behind the coup.
Regional powers could exploit that.
“The only operationally feasible scenario I can imagine … would be in the form of more limited support for a ‘counter coup’ by Nigerien forces,” said Peter Pham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and a former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel region. “I don’t see them coming in without that local element.”
TAKE STOCK, MAINTAIN SANCTIONS
ECOWAS has taken a stronger stance against Niger than it did against juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali that have taken power in the last three years.
That said, it could still decide to continue sanctions, hold off on intervening militarily and instead call for a return to civilian rule after elections. The junta has said it is willing to discuss that, without indicating a timeframe.
Even this option poses risks for the region, as sanctions will weaken the economy of Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, and could therefore stoke support for the junta and Islamist groups who offer money and shelter.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Additional reporting by David Lewis and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Alexandra Zavis and Kevin Liffey)