Tough decisions await the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after the military junta in Niger defied its ultimatum to reinstate the deposed President, Mohamed Bazoum.
The regional bloc had issued a seven-week ultimatum to the junta, but the military leaders are not budging and have taken decisions that demonstrates their firm resolve to retain power.
ECOWAS heads of state are now preparing for another meeting on Thursday to discuss ways to restore democracy after its deadline elapsed August 6 and dome tough options which the regional bloc may consider include military intervention, stiffer sanctions and diplomacy.
Last week, when ECOWAS defence chiefs met in Abuja to discuss strategies to restore democracy to the Niger, they vowed to do anything within capacity to reinstate the ousted President, noting that “nothing is off the table” including military intervention.
At the meeting, which was shunned by Defence Chiefs from Mali, Niger, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso, and Guinea , the military chiefs resolved that it was time for the ECOWAS to go beyond barking and show that “we can bite.”
Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security speaking at the meeting recalled that heads of states of member states had agreed to activate the ECOWAS standby force to restore democracy where it is threatened.
But, security experts who spoke to BusinessDay said diplomacy remains the best option before the ECOWAS and not military intervention. Mike Ejiofor, former director general of the Department of State Security Services warned that invading Niger will do more harm than good with serious implications for Nigeria.
According to him, military intervention will strain Nigeria’s relationship with Niger, and Nigeria does not have the economic and military for war.
“If ECOWAS decide to go to war, Nigeria will bear the brunt, we have our own internal security challenges which may also escalate”, he said.
“ECOWAS should look more at the political and diplomatic solutions. I don’t expect them to renew the ultimatum for obvious reasons. When they arrive at a diplomatic solution to prevent humanitarian crisis that would be better. When the sanctions begin to bite harder many will troop to Nigeria creating humanitarian crisis for us” he further said.
Nigeria is the largest country in the ECOWAS bloc and principal financier of the bloc. It will be difficult for ECOWAS to carry out military intervention without the full support of Nigeria.
Ajuri Ngelale, special adviser to President Bola Tinubu on media and publicity, speaking during an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday evening disclosed that the commission is focused on a diplomatic approach before resorting to the use of force as a last option.
But the military junta appears to be resisting efforts for diplomatic solution. They snubbed the Acting US Deputy Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, and denied her access to the coup leader, Abdourahmane Tchiani and ousted President.
Again, on Tuesday evening, the ECOWAS revealed that the junta shunned a tripartite peace mission from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), and the United Nations (UN). The delegation was the latest diplomatic mission from African countries.
Some hours after, President Bola Tinubu ordered heavier financial sanctions through the Central Bank of Nigeria on entities and individuals related to or involved with the military junta in Niger.
Ngelale explained that the additional sanctions is a demonstration that the commission is ready to explore diplomatic options
“Let us be clear, there has been a firm ultimatum that was based on a mandate that has been backed by ECOWAS protocols which have been in place for years and the ECOWAS member heads of state will not back down from upholding the protocols as agreed by all member states. We are determined to ensure that civilian democratic governance is sustained on the continent”, he said.
“We are not taking the kind of simplistic approach that some international media have chosen to take which is that ‘either you must go in or you’re not serious or you stay out and you’re not serious,’ we do not accept that simple narrative. We are determined to leverage on all elements of our power regionally to ensure that happens and that is not limited only to military intervention. Although military intervention has not and will not be taken off the table”, he further said.
But, experts maintain that diplomacy is the way to go. Freedom Onuoha, a security expert and professor of political science at the University of Nigeria, said ECOWAS started off on a wrong footing in the first instance by imposing and ultimatum, which according to him removes the possibility of diplomacy.
“ECOWAS made a major fundamental mistake by imposing that ultimatum, knowing fully well that it is impracticable , so that’s their major diplomatic blunder”, he said.
“What ECOWAS can do now is to look at potential leverages it can have with the junta to find a more diplomatic solution rather the emphasis on military intervention”, he urged.
Onuoha said a possible option is to open discussions with countries and actors that are important to Niger such as Russia and Algeria
He said now that the junta has already fallen back on the wagner group for potential regime protection, would mean that any conversation that has to do with ECOWAS diplomatic approach to resolving the problem would also need to bring on board someone with a very strong influence on the operations of the Wagner group.
The Wagner group is a Russian state-funded private military company controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former close ally of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia
“Whatever will be the strength of that junta a is where you will attack them”, he said.
“I don’t think military option is the best right now. ECOWAS needs to leverage diplomacy, bring in Russia, and other actors that may be of support to the junta. Algeria may also be very important. Because anything you want to do against the junta and you don’t have the buy in of Burkina Faso and Algeria may prove extremely peculiar to be able to achieve within the shortest period. ECOWAS needs to be more creative in thinking of a diplomatic approach”, he further said
Onuoha noted that though the statistics, in terms of military hardware, personnel, is against the junta, there is however ” a lot of difference between numbers and reality on the battle field, and if Niger goes up in flame, a lot of countries in West and Central Africa will feel the heat.”
However, Tinubu’s efforts, who is also the chairman of the ECOWAS at deploying military is being frustrated after Nigerian lawmakers rejected the move, and sought for diplomatic approaches.
President Tinubu has since been exploring options to restore democracy. He has met with governors of five Nigerian states sharing boundary in a bid to restore democratic governance.