Caught between pro-West loyalists and anti-West populists, West Africa’s regional bloc has come apart.

Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, 2016. Image credit Staff Sgt. Candace Mundt for the US Army via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced on February 24 that economic sanctions instituted against the Republic of the Niger by the West African economic bloc will now be lifted. The sanctions were imposed following the July 26 coup that arrested Niger’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, and transferred power to Presidential Guard commander General Abdourahamane Tchiani, as head of a new military junta. As with the other putsches that have recently occurred in francophone West Africa as part of the so-called Junta Belt, the regime in Niger justified its seizure of power based both on the failure of the civilian government to address terrorism and on growing anger against France for maintaining various colonial-era prerogatives, facilitated by a complicit civilian political elite. The sanctions imposed following the coup included a no-fly zone, the closure of Niger’s land border with its southern neighbors Nigeria and Benin, the halting of the supply of electricity from Nigeria to Niger (which accounts for 70 percent of Niger’s electrified supply). These economic restrictions will now be lifted on “purely humanitarian grounds,” according to the recent statement made by leaders of the bloc, while a set of political restrictions against junta members will remain in place.

Omitted from the statement, however, is the inconvenient detail that the lifting of the sanctions was the only sensible option left to ECOWAS now that the junta in Niger had thoroughly called its bluff. In addition to suspending Niger from the organization, ECOWAS’ immediate response to the Niger coup included an ill-advised threat that it would consider using force to restore constitutional order if the deposed president was not returned to power within one week. 

The bloc’s leaders pushed this bellicose rhetoric even closer to the precipice after the inevitable expiry of this deadline, ordering the “immediate activation” of its intervention force, reportedly stationing some troops at the Nigeria-Niger border, and saying it had agreed on a date for possible military intervention.

The Niger junta quickly responded to these threats, mobilizing a highly effective propaganda campaign. It accused ECOWAS of turning against its own members in service to foreign powers, declaring that Niger—counting on the support of the allied military governments of Burkina Faso and Mali—was amply ready to defend against any attack on its territorial sovereignty. The statements were also followed by a series of populist maneuvers, including organizing pro-coup street demonstrations and mass rallies in stadiums in Niamey, rebuffing initial efforts by ECOWAS mediators to establish formal diplomatic channels, threatening to kill the deposed president should an invasion occur, and calling for the immediate withdrawal of French counterterrorism forces stationed in Niger. 

The latter measure in particular was much applauded in some quarters. A segment of pan-Africanist commentators (especially online) embraced the coups as the “beginning of the Africa revolution” in what has seemed a degraded version of the left-military vanguardism that was prevalent in West Africa in the 1980s. However, missing from these optimistic portraits of liberation from France, especially in the case of the Niger putsch, is both a somber assessment of the intra-elite competition that motivated the coup and the potential risks that arise from increased diplomatic ties with Russia, often uncritically embraced as an alternative to Western influence.

Rahmane Idrissa offers some explanation for this conflation, noting that: 

The elite in the Sahel, and in Francophone West Africa more broadly, traditionally tends to scapegoat the French for their own failures, relying on the familiar yet elusive concept of Françafrique. In addition, a more recent ideological brew that combines decolonial radicalism, fringe ideologies like Kemetism (a religious belief that Black Africa is heir to Pharaonic Egypt), and the prickly sovereigntism of the weak, has seeped into the public via social media networks, sometimes from sources in France’s Black community. A Russophilia that was peculiar to Mali, going back to the reign of independence leader Modibo Keita, also percolated in this mixture.

Given that a Russian- and Wagner group-sponsored “disinformation” campaign continues to capitalize on France’s many shortcomings in the region—with a Wagner leader congratulating the coup plotters for liberating themselves from their colonizers—it remains unclear how much of this online discourse was also driven by “bots.” Yet, while some stage management was clearly taking place, the junta’s populist measures did also seem to be greeted with genuine adulation among sections of the Nigerien populace and across the other junta states, sending a strong signal to ECOWAS that its forces were unlikely to be greeted as liberators should an invasion occur.

Meanwhile, among citizens of ostensibly loyal ECOWAS member states, the dominant response was far from hawkish, with most prominent voices—with few exceptions—expressing bewilderment and anger over the prospect that their governments were considering invading a neighboring country amid unresolved insurgencies and economic crises at the home front. The Nigerian senate, in a rare moment of perspicacity, reached a resolution rejecting the president’s request for approval to ready troops for an invasion. It came as no surprise, then, when media reports started to suggest in October last year that ECOWAS had commenced quietly demobilizing its forces. 

Similarly, the formal closure of land borders—which was impossible to fully enforce, since much trade and cross-border movement in the region is informal and unreported—disintegrated within months of its declaration. In December, Benin, whose Cotonou port is one of the main access points for landlocked countries in the Sahel and a major source of revenue for the country, unilaterally lifted its ban on imported goods transiting through Niger. Meanwhile, farmers near Nigeria’s northern border reportedly embraced the large-scale smuggling of grain to Niger as a more profitable alternative to formal means of trade, further intensifying food shortages, inflation, and the wider economic crisis in Nigeria. 

In addition to the fraying of trade restriction enforcement in the ECOWAS countries bordering Niger, the junta-led alliance appeared to be seizing the diplomatic initiative. On January 28, the alliance announced its withdrawal from ECOWAS, stating that the bloc had “abandoned the ideals of its founding fathers and pan-Africanism” under foreign influence, imposing “inhumane” sanctions to overthrow their military regimes. It was clear that ECOWAS’ leadership would be the first to blink, when one of ECOWAS’ founding fathers, the former Nigerian military head of state Yakubu Gowon, issued a public statement calling for ECOWAS to remove the sanctions and foster dialogue in order to quickly reverse its disintegration.

The removal of the economic sanctions on Niger is welcomed news for those who favor de-escalation, particularly after the hair-raising threat of a regional war was on the table. It was always an unlikely proposition that military intervention by ECOWAS would restore a stable democratic order in Niger or improve conditions in the region, particularly in light of the complex set of economic and geopolitical factors at play. Equally, a no-holds-barred defense of democratic norms by ECOWAS member states was likely to appear hypocritical at best following a disputed presidential election in Nigeria and a seeming attempt to subvert the timetable for elections and a democratic transfer of power in Senegal—both among ECOWAS’ more influential countries.

Nor does the junta-led populism of the Alliance of Sahel States represent a particularly enticing path forward. It does not bode well for the goal of diminishing France’s role in the region that an attempt by the junta governments to replace the French-backed CFA with a common currency immediately floundered. The continuance of a US drone base in Niger as well as rising state repression and the continued immiseration of much of the populace make it unlikely that the junta’s anti-Western rhetoric can sustain popular support for long, especially in the absence of measures that tangibly improve the material well-being of citizens. The more likely trajectory, as Rahmane Idrissa further observes in reference to Burkina Faso and Mali, is that after a year or so, “genuine support for juntas dwindles to the committed ideologues and those who have staked their future on their regime.” We are left, on both sides of the diplomatic divide, with governments that are better suited to nationalist rhetorical posturing and the imposition of restrictions on trade and cultural exchange than to envisioning meaningful avenues out of the region’s chronic security and economic crises.

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