Following an emergency meeting in mid-August 2023, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced that it had set a date for a military intervention in Niger to restore the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, to power following a military coup on 27 July 2023. The announcement came amid a flurry of diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis. The coup leaders soon announced a three-year transitional period for a return to civilian rule, but this may have been a tactic to buy time to convince major powers, particularly the United States and France, of the feasibility of a diplomatic solution.
ECOWAS itself is divided over the military option, as are other regional and international players. The prospect of military action is thus contingent on multiple, shifting considerations.
One factor making an intervention more likely is the strong desire of ECOWAS states to end the recent epidemic of coups in West Africa, which began in Mali in 2020 before spreading to Guinea and Burkina Faso. Other West African states fear their own destabilising coups if such actions go unpunished. Since 1990, ECOWAS has intervened to abort coups seven times; and this time, the balance of military force is tilted towards the states favouring intervention, such as Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. The Nigerian army is the fourth most powerful in Africa, with 230,000 troops and a defence budget of $3.5 billion in 2021, far outstripping that of states opposed to military action.
Another factor favouring intervention is African and international support for ECOWAS. The African Union followed ECOWAS’s lead in condemning the coup and suspending Niger’s membership. While the United States and France would prefer a diplomatic solution, they may be obliged to lend ECOWAS military assistance in the event of an intervention. Niger is a strategically significant country for both states. France relies heavily on Nigerien uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors, which supply 70 percent of its electricity. Niger is also a vital node in the fight against insurgents and militias, and both France and the US have a crucial military presence in the country and a strong interest in maintaining it.
Other factors militate against an intervention. For one thing, the coup enjoys visible popular backing, and support for military action is not universal even within pro-intervention states. The upper house of Nigeria’s parliament refused to approve an intervention, urging the president to consider other alternatives. This is in addition to strong opposition from other African states, such as Algeria, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Moreover, an intervention in Niger is likely a riskier endeavour than previous actions by ECOWAS. With an area of 1.2 million km2 and a population of 25 million, Niger is surrounded by seven countries and is a pillar in the fight against armed rebel groups. If the military intervention destabilises the situation, it will have serious repercussions for the entire region.
At this point, ECOWAS is unlikely to back down unless it obtains concessions from the coup leaders that meet its minimum demands. Meanwhile, the putschists refuse to reinstate Bazoum, given the threat this poses to their own futures. Between these two extremes, multiple scenarios are possible.
Algeria is currently conducting mediation efforts between ECOWAS and the coup leaders in Niger. It may persuade the coup leaders to reduce the transitional period, release Bazoum from their custody, and discuss the restoration of civilian rule. If Algeria succeeds in hammering out a mutually acceptable compromise from the coup leaders and ECOWAS, the chances of a military intervention will diminish. Otherwise, military action becomes more likely.
In the event of military action, ECOWAS forces may target command and control centres while avoiding large-scale engagements to take territory. To do this, they may need French and American air and intelligence support. ECOWAS could succeed in arresting the coup leaders or creating a rift in the Nigerien army, causing some sectors to abandon or turn against the putschists.
In any case, a military intervention, no matter its scale, will not necessarily achieve the objectives of ECOWAS. The coup leaders could withdraw from the capital and take Bazoum with them, making it difficult for civilian political institutions returning to power to control the country and maintain stability in the absence of a subordinate army command and unified army. Coup leaders may decide to engage in armed operations to destabilise the situation and exhaust ECOWAS forces, turning the engagement into a protracted war of attrition.
If Mali and Burkina Faso enter the war on the side of Niger as promised, the conflict could spiral into a regional war between two axes within ECOWAS, making the already troubled Sahel region more volatile and potentially destabilising neighbouring countries that were previously spared unrest.
*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic available here.