By Taiwo Abiodun-Oni
The socio-political crisis and recent coup in Niger Republic have led to a nuanced interplay of interests, not only within Niger but also within the larger ECOWAS community, the West, and Russia. The democratically elected President, President Bazoum, was a western ally, playing a vital role in the fight against militant Islamists and also forming a crucial economic partnership. In contrast, post-coup, there has been a marked shift towards Russian alignment.
Historically, Niger has had a complex relationship with France, its former colonizer. The lingering neo-colonial influences, especially the economic exploitation of Niger’s rich uranium deposits, have created a deep-seated resentment against the French. This discontent is evident in the rise of pro-Russian sentiment among the populace and the increasing anti-French protests, especially after the redeployment of France’s Barkhane forces to Niger. The deposition of President Bazoum, a democratically elected leader and notable ally of Western countries, has dramatically altered Niger’s geopolitical dynamics. Historically, the intricate relationship between Niger and its erstwhile colonizer, France, was marked by ongoing resentment largely fuelled by perceived neo-colonial economic exploitation, notably in relation to uranium mining. The recent coup, alongside the withdrawal of French Barkhane forces, has seen a marked rise in pro-Russian sentiment, suggesting a possible shift in Niger’s foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Russia’s involvement has yet to be seen in a tangible way. At this point, it appears to be more of an emotional inclination rather than an active geopolitical alignment. Yet, it could signal a paradigm shift in Niger’s foreign policy, raising potential concerns for the West and ECOWAS.
ECOWAS, with Nigeria playing a pivotal role, has long upheld the principles of democracy and the rule of law, as embedded in the ECOWAS treaty and the Constitutive Act of the AU. The recent coup in Niger is a challenge to these principles, prompting the need for a decisive response from the regional body.
Nigeria, as the regional heavyweight, shares a long border with Niger, making the crisis in Niger a national security issue for Nigeria. Despite the regional and international laws emphasizing the respect for democratic principles and the rule of law, the historical antecedents show that these laws have not deterred coups in West Africa. Hence, ECOWAS, backed by its constituent members like Nigeria, must take decisive steps to enforce these laws, not just in rhetoric but in action.
The current socio-political upheaval and recent coup d’etat in the Niger Republic provide an interesting case study for the application of international law, particularly regarding the principles of democracy, sovereignty, and non-intervention, as laid out in the United Nations Charter and further expounded in various regional and international instruments.
However, the concept of non-intervention under international law, which can be found in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, dictates that no country can intervene in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. Therefore, any overt involvement by Russia would constitute a violation of international law, unless conducted under the auspices of international law principles, such as the Responsibility to Protect.
The role of regional organizations in maintaining regional peace and security has been emphasized in the UN Charter (Chapter VIII) and reiterated in various international law instruments. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with Nigeria as a prominent member, has an important role to play in the crisis. The ECOWAS Treaty, alongside the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), emphasises the principles of democracy and rule of law, which have been seemingly violated in Niger.
Nigeria, sharing a long border with Niger, has a vested interest in the resolution of the crisis, both as a matter of national security and as a demonstration of its commitment to regional stability and democracy. To fulfil its obligations under international law, Nigeria must undertake a diplomatic course of action that upholds these principles within the ECOWAS framework.
Despite these international legal frameworks, the effectiveness of their application has been questioned. History illustrates the failure of these instruments to prevent coups in West Africa, suggesting a need for a more comprehensive mechanism for enforcing these laws, both regionally and internationally.
Western nations, with their established interests in Niger, also have responsibilities under international law. They must balance their strategic interests – such as access to Niger’s uranium deposits – with their commitments to democracy and regional stability. Upholding the principle of non-intervention, while fostering democracy, necessitates a delicate diplomatic balancing act.
In light of the current circumstances, several potential scenarios could play out as a result of ECOWAS’s ultimatum to the military head of state in Niger. Below are potential reactions, each drawing upon historical precedents in ECOWAS interventions and the framework of international law.
Scenario 1: The military junta acquiesces and reinstates the ousted President
This would be the most desirable outcome for ECOWAS, reflecting a successful application of peaceful diplomatic pressure. Historically, ECOWAS successfully utilized such tactics in the 2017 Gambian political crisis when President Yahya Jammeh was persuaded to step down and leave the country, enabling Adama Barrow to assume the presidency following a fair election.
Scenario 2: The military junta disregards ECOWAS’s ultimatum and retains power
In this situation, ECOWAS might leverage its mutual defense pact under Article 58 of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty and Article 4(g) of the AU Constitutive Act, which allows for military intervention in member states under specific circumstances, including situations of serious and massive violations of human rights and democracy. An analogous precedent can be drawn from the Sierra Leone civil war in 1997, when ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) intervened militarily to restore the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. However, the success and subsequent ramifications of such intervention would depend on a variety of factors including the potential loss of lives, infrastructural damages, the reactions of regional and global powers, and the resilience of the junta.
Scenario 3: ECOWAS launches non-military punitive measures
Should the junta ignore the ultimatum, ECOWAS could decide against immediate military intervention, opting instead to escalate non-military punitive measures. This could include enhanced economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, or strengthening the blockade. The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance provides for sanctions against member states that breach democratic principles. In 2010, following a coup in Niger, ECOWAS imposed targeted sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes against junta members, successfully contributing to a return to democratic governance.
Scenario 4: The military junta calls for elections
If the junta ignores the ultimatum but calls for new elections, ECOWAS will need to decide if this move satisfies their mandate for the restoration of democracy. However, the precedence is ambiguous. After the 2008 coup in Guinea, the junta organized elections in 2010 which were considered free and fair, resulting in a lifting of ECOWAS sanctions. However, ECOWAS might insist on the reinstatement of President Bazoum, given that he was democratically elected and his term has not yet expired.
Each of these scenarios carries distinct implications for the application of international law, regional stability, and the overall geopolitical dynamics of the West African region.
Finally, Under the leadership of President Bola Tinubu, Nigeria must navigate the crisis in a way that balances its commitment to regional stability, democracy, and its own national security interests. The crisis offers an opportunity for President Tinubu to solidify his foreign policy credentials by spearheading an effective response within the ECOWAS framework.
Also, the ongoing crisis in Niger presents significant challenges for the application of international law, particularly the principles of democracy, sovereignty, and non-intervention. It highlights the need for more robust mechanisms for enforcing international laws and deterring violations. The regional approach, under the ECOWAS framework, guided by Nigeria, offers a potential pathway to restore democracy in Niger and send a deterrent message against military coups, thereby safeguarding regional stability and the principles enshrined in international law.