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ECOWAS summit begins. Niger coup leaders remain defiant

ECOWAS chair Bola Tinubu says the regional bloc would exhaust all avenues of engagement to ensure a swift return to constitutional governance in Niger.

Nigeria's Bola Tinubu addresses West African leaders at extraordinary summit on Niger, in Abuja, Nigeria, August 10, 2023 [Screen grab/AFP]

10 Aug 2023

West African heads of state on Thursday began an emergency summit in Nigeria to discuss a new response to last month’s military takeover in Niger after the coup leaders defied their earlier threat to use force to restore democracy.

In an opening speech to heads of state of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said the bloc would be assessing solutions to the situation as the coup “poses a threat … to the entire West African region”.

“It is our duty to exhaust all avenues of engagement to ensure a swift return to constitutional governance in Niger,” Tinubu who is also head of ECOWAS, said at the summit in Abuja before a closed-door session began.

Since the July 26 overthrow of the democratic leadership, the coup plotters have refused to relinquish power and release detained President Mohamed Bazoum, ignoring an August 6 deadline from ECOWAS to reinstate Bazoum.

The meeting is happening hours after Niger’s coup leaders named a new government. Mahamane Roufai Laouali, cited as “secretary general of the government”, named 21 ministers on state television overnight without specifying any further government plans.

It is unclear if there were any representatives from Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger, whose military heads of state have sided with Niger, at the summit. However, the presidents of Mauritania – a founding ECOWAS member which withdrew from the bloc in December 2000 – and Burundi were in attendance, according to Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Abuja.

Idris said a source close to one of the mediation missions sent to Niger told Al Jazeera that the coup leaders want sanctions eased to aid the flow of medicine and food supplies and restoration of electricity.

But it remains unclear if ECOWAS will accede to any such demands as the bloc continues to seek Bazoum’s reinstatement.

“If the coup is allowed to succeed, it could dent the image of ECOWAS and make it look weak … and that could pose a serious threat to democracy, something that leaders here are eager to avoid,” Idris said.

Bazoum’s party has said the detained leader and his family are being at the presidential residence without electricity or running water and had gone days without fresh food. This led to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for “his immediate, unconditional release and his reinstatement as Head of State,” a UN spokesperson said on Wednesday.

‘A lot is at stake’

The meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, could prove a pivotal moment in the standoff. The bloc’s leaders are expected to agree on next steps, which could include military intervention – something an ECOWAS official has said would be a last resort.

Sadeeq Garba Shehu, a security analyst and adjunct professor at the Marshall European Centre for Security Studies, said the ball was in ECOWAS’s court after the coup leaders “called the bluff” on the bloc’s seven-day deadline.

“It’s a very decisive moment for ECOWAS and its leaders,” he told Al Jazeera from Abuja. Pressing ahead with the option of the use of force “is a position that is fraught with dangers and uncertainties”, Shehu said.

“First, will there be acceptance by all the members to put their money where their mouth is? How many of the ECOWAS members are ready to do that? How many are ready to finance that?” Shehu added, noting that West African leaders had to also consider domestic pressures from their countries’ own populations.

But ECOWAS could still stick to its decision to see a democratic government in place in Niamey, Idris warned.

“A lot is at stake because the way things are, people are really concerned about the spate of coups in West Africa, five in less than three years … in Burkina Faso and Mali, democratic timelines have been shifted several times and now we have Niger,” he said. “The situation in those countries has emboldened the coup leaders in Niger … and could encourage ambitious soldiers [elsewhere] to take up arms and depose democratic governments.”

‘Time for public diplomacy’

On Wednesday, former Nigerian central bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi met coup leaders in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, offering a glimmer of hope for dialogue after previous ECOWAS missions were spurned.

And after a meeting with Nigerian President and ECOWAS Chair Bola Tinubu, Sanusi told Nigerian press in Abuja that “interventions are ongoing and will continue”.

“This is a time for public diplomacy. It’s not a matter that we leave to governments. All Nigerians, all Nigeriens need to be involved to find a solution that works for Africa, for Niger, for Nigeria and for humanity,” he said.

A former emir of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, Sanusi is also a leader of the Nigerian order of the Tijaniyyah, a Sufi Muslim sect with origins in Algeria but with a large following across West Africa, including Niger.

He did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the mission to Niamey.

Any escalation would further destabilise West Africa’s Sahel region, one of the world’s poorest, where long-running violence from armed groups has displaced millions and stoked a hunger crisis.

Niger had recently fared better than its neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso in stemming the violence. It also became an increasingly important Western ally for fighting armed groups after coups in the other two countries between 2020 and 2022, led to strained relations with traditional partners.

ECOWAS, the UN and Western countries have been putting pressure on the coup leaders to stand down, while military governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have said any military intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war on them.

In Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, resident Issouf Ouedraogo felt it made no sense for his country’s new leaders to support the Niger coup because the contexts were different.

“Burkina was in a situation of degradation and acute insecurity,” he said in reference to the frustrations that stoked two coups there last year.

“Niger, on the other hand, was in a stable situation,” he noted.



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