Will Niger’s Neighbors Intervene?
ECOWAS has threatened armed intervention but a lack of popular support in Nigeria and bellicose rhetoric from Mali and Burkina Faso could make the bloc think twice.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: ECOWAS lets intervention deadline pass in Niger, the state of Senegal’s opposition, and a new state of emergency in Ethiopia.
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Can Niger’s Coup Be Reversed?
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), chaired by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, had given Niger’s coup leaders until Sunday to reverse their military takeover or face forceful intervention. Coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani has said he will not bow to pressure to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who is being held in the Nigerien capital Niamey.
But ECOWAS military intervention was doubtful after Nigeria’s Senate on Saturday rejected sending troops. Nigeria has the largest army in the region and a better equipped air force, but there was little appetite among the country’s politicians to engage in war with their neighbor. ECOWAS has scheduled another emergency meeting for this Thursday.
Nigeria’s last ECOWAS-driven intervention was in 2017, when the bloc, led by then-Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, sent Senegalese and Ghanaian troops into Gambia to forcibly remove dictator Yahya Jammeh, who had refused to concede an election defeat.
Senegal and Ghana’s troops were supported through a naval blockade and surveillance flights by the Nigerian army, which resulted in Jammeh loyalists stepping aside. The Nigerian army was also deployed to Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s under an ECOWAS mandate.
Tinubu, who has been heading ECOWAS for less than a month, is eager to project credibility and decisiveness at home and abroad. Faced with the likelihood of worsening security challenges along his country’s northern border should Niger descend into chaos, Tinubu is less likely to choose softer diplomacy as Nigeria did after coups in Burkina Faso and Mali.
A volatile junta-run Burkina Faso has already impacted security in Ghana’s border towns. And Niger hosts almost 200,000 refugees who fled extremism in northern Nigeria, where seven states share a border with Niger.
Following the Niger coup, Tinubu deployed the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammadu Sa’adu Abubakar, who holds enormous influence in West Africa’s Muslim community, as part of an ECOWAS delegation to Niger led by Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s former military head of state, who oversaw Nigeria’s transition to a democratically elected government in 1999. The delegation and U.S. envoy Victoria Nuland spoke with junta members but were denied access to Tchiani and Bazoum.
It is not clear whether Bazoum could easily be reinstated after a two-week stalemate and rising criticism from Nigeriens claiming he had become a puppet of France—a charge amplified by the junta. In Niamey, thousands rallied in support of the coup, carrying Russian flags.
French President Emmanuel Macron appears to be presiding over the fall of France’s quasi-empire across Africa. Niger’s coup reinforces a domino effect of military run-governments stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. All but Sudan are ex-French colonies. Hatred of France has intensified in Chad, where Paris props up the military government. And Russia’s Wagner Group, eagerly waiting in the periphery, is more than happy to exploit each putsch for its own interests. Of the 27 coups in Africa (excluding north Africa) since 1990, 78 percent have occurred in Francophone states, according to one BBC analysis.
Warnings with neo-colonial overtones issued from Paris have not helped. France “will not tolerate any attack against France and its interests” in Niger, a statement from Macron’s office said. “They have until tomorrow to renounce this adventurism, these personal adventures, and restore democracy,” added French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on Saturday. France has been very vocal in backing ECOWAS threats of military action, which has only served to unnerve citizens and politicians across ECOWAS countries.
“They have to keep quiet, to be silent as much as possible; every single word they pronounce is used against them,” said Moussa Mara, Mali’s former prime minister. “But this is the French attitude, unfortunately; they are not able to keep quiet.”
At the same time, coups are all too familiar in Niger. Bazoum’s election in 2021 was the first democratic transition of power since the country’s independence from France in 1960. Since his election, Bazoum had cut the size of the presidential guard headed by Tchiani and begun scrutinizing budgets of Nigerien security forces. Tchiani’s actions, thus, are nothing more than a power grab; there are rumors that Bazoum had sought to remove him.
Western countries regarded Niger as a strategic ally in efforts to beat back jihadists linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel region. Niger hosts a U.S. drone base, and redeployed French and European forces ousted from Mali. Niger’s military expenditures reached more than $202 million in 2021, and until the coup, the country was the recipient of the most U.S. military assistance in West Africa.
A militarized solution alone is unlikely to solve the security challenges Niger is facing, the root causes of which begin with global exploitation, poor social governance, and rights violations by the government.
After France, Nigeria is one of Niger’s biggest economic partners, a crucial stick for Tinubu to wield should he choose. Landlocked Niger, despite being bigger in landmass, is almost entirely dependent on Nigeria’s vast trade routes for food security; meanwhile, Nigeria receives 97 percent of Niger’s livestock production and trade exports. Previous trade flow bans in Nigeria have resulted in sharp declines for the Nigerien economy. Tinubu has already cut electricity to Niger, which depends on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power.
Financial sanctions have also been put in place by ECOWAS and the United States. Tinubu has ostensibly closed Nigeria’s border with Niger, but crossings on foot are practically impossible to control. Any trade sanctions that Nigeria imposes would inevitably impact ordinary Nigeriens, who consistently rank among the world’s poorest people, a fact unlikely to encourage Niger’s citizens to support foreign intervention.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Aug. 9 to Tuesday, Aug. 15: U.S. Global Diversity Export Initiative Business Mission to Africa takes place in South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Thursday, Aug. 10: West African leaders meet in Abuja, Nigeria, for an ECOWAS summit to discuss Niger’s coup.
Monday, Aug. 14 to Friday, Aug. 18: 19th session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment is held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Thursday, Aug. 17: Southern African heads of state attend a Southern African Development Community summit in Luanda, Angola.
Tuesday, Aug. 22 to Thursday, Aug. 24: South Africa hosts the 15th BRICS Summit.
What We’re Watching
Senegal elections. Senegal’s parliament voted to restore the right of two opposition figures, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, to stand in next year’s presidential election just after authorities arrested the leading opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko, which bars him from running, sparking protests and an internet blackout.
In July, the Senegalese government dissolved Sonko’s party, the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF), claiming that it had “frequently called on its supporters to take part in insurrectionary movements.” Sonko’s lawyer was recently arrested in Mauritania and extradited to Senegal. Sonko, who is popular among Senegal’s youth, is facing criminal charges, including plotting an insurrection.
Parliament voted to allow all people who had been convicted but then pardoned or received amnesty to run for public office, which allows Sall and Wade to run. They were prevented from standing for election in 2019.
Atrocities in Sudan. Sudanese civilians are “suffering unimaginable horror every single day,” according to a report from Amnesty International. The non-governmental organization (NGO) documented widespread looting and attacks on civilian installations such as hospitals and churches since war broke out in April between Sudan’s army, headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The report also details sexual violence against women and girls. More than half of the population in West Darfur state is “facing acute hunger,” according to the United Nations.
Ethiopian state of emergency. Ethiopia on Friday declared a six-month state of emergency in the country’s second-largest region, Amhara, following days of clashes between the national army and local fighters from the northern region. The Fano militia backed federal troops in the two-year civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, but the relationship has grown tense since the federal government announced in April that it was dismantling regional forces across the country.
Ethiopian Airlines canceled flights to three towns in Amhara—Dessie, Gondar and Lalibela—after Fano fighters took control of the airport in Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government could be trying to avert another Tigray-style civil war. Abiy said in April the decision to disband regional forces and integrate them into the federal army and police would create unity.
This Week in Tech
Data collection ban. The Kenyan government has launched a multi-agency investigation into the practices of Worldcoin, the artificial intelligence project from OpenAI founder Sam Altman. The start-up offers free cryptocurrency tokens or digital ID to people who agree to have their eyeballs scanned through orbs placed around New York, London, Tokyo, Nairobi and elsewhere.
On Aug. 2, Kenya became the first country to suspend Worldcoin’s data collection, citing concerns around citizens’ biometric information being in the hands of a private company. “The other issues include lack of clarity on the security and storage of the collected sensitive data (facula recognition and iris scans) [and] inadequate information on cybersecurity safeguards and standards,” according to a statement from the Communications Authority of Kenya. Worldcoin tokens worth around 7,000 Kenyan shillings (about $49) were offered to Kenyans in exchange for iris scans, and according to local media reports, more than 350,000 Kenyans had signed up in the first week after launch
Chart of the Week
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promise of grain supplies to six African allies has been a front-page story in international media after Russia ended an agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain to leave Black Sea ports. But the deal was of little significance, as wheat is not a major staple in most of Africa, excluding northern countries.
Africa was not the main beneficiary of the Russia-Ukraine Black Sea Grain Initiative, operational data from the United Nations shows. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, alone accounts for 50 percent of all African wheat imports from Ukraine. The U.N. data reveals China, Asia and Western Europe benefited most from Ukrainian grain and oilseeds; Africa accounted for just 12 percent. But the scrapped initiative could push up global food prices, impacting Africa along with the rest of the world.
What We’re Reading
EU border agency violations. Andrei Popoviciu reports for In These Times on the increased use of the European Union’s border security agency, Frontex, across West and Northern Africa’s internal borders to intercept boats heading toward Europe through high-tech surveillance distribution, police trainings, development programs, and joint operations. Frontex is the EU’s best-funded agency, receiving a budget of around $823 million in 2022; but it has faced allegations of cover-ups of human rights violations and evidence of illegal pushback, according to documents from OLAF, the EU anti-fraud agency, that were leaked by a source outside the agency.
Wrongful raids in Ghana. An investigation by Chiara Francavilla, Kwakye Afreh-Nuamah, and Kyenkyenhene Boateng for BBC Africa Eye claims Ghanaian children have been wrongly taken from their families in armed operations supported by the U.S.-based NGO International Justice Mission, which works under Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act.
The BBC found cases in which children were forcibly taken with “scarce-to-no evidence of trafficking”; the reporters also covertly filmed conversations with International Justice Mission staff who alleged they had to maintain set quotas of victims and prosecutions every year and were “denied pay rises or were at risk of being sacked if they did not reach these targets.” International Justice Mission responded that it does not determine whether a case is pursued or individuals arrested and prosecuted.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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