Nigeria, leader of a key West African bloc and a continental economic powerhouse, has intensified its efforts to reverse the coup gripping neighbouring Niger, presenting Abuja with opportunities as well as risks.
The ECOWAS bloc, currently chaired by Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, said on Sunday that coup leaders had a week to restore Mohamed Bazoum to Niger’s presidency after he was toppled by his presidential guard.
But the organisation took many by surprise when it threatened the possible “use of force” to restore constitutional order.
“It’s time for action,” Tinubu said.
Nigeria’s chief of staff Christopher Musa echoed the commander-in-chief, warning in an interview on RFI Hausa that if ordered, his forces were ready to intervene.
Burkina Faso and Mali, both led by military officers after coups, have warned that military intervention in Niger to restore Bazoum would be seen “as a declaration of war” against them.
Resolving the crisis is a “survival test” for regional leaders, said Confidence MacHarry, a security expert at SBM Intelligence.
“If the plotters are allowed to get away with it, other countries will live under the shadow of coups,” he said.
Tinubu lived through three decades of military dictatorship before Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 and as such is seen as critical of a coup in a neighbouring country.
Jihadism, economic crisis
As Africa’s most populous country with 215 million people, Nigeria will likely want to regain its status as a regional player as well as preventing issues on its soil.
“Nigeria would have the most to fear from Niger’s destabilisation as it shares a 1,000-mile border that Nigerian security forces are too overstretched to properly secure,” said James Barnett, a researcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Tinubu said he feared a spillover of jihadist groups into Niger and an influx of refugees.
Nigeria is already facing widespread insecurity, including criminal gangs in the centre and North-West, jihadist groups in the northeast, and separatist unrest in the South-East.
The multiple fronts are already straining the Nigerian army, one of the largest in the region that is, in reality, underfunded and under-equipped, and which is already failing to pacify the homeland.
If there is a military intervention in Niger, “Nigeria would send soldiers. It is normal,” MacHarry said.
“But the government doesn’t have the resources for that, not prepared.”
While President Bola Tinubu has made clear his determination to return Nigeria to the diplomatic map, declaring “Nigeria is back”, he still faces immense challenges at home.
Experts doubt he has the means to fulfil his ambitions at a time when the country is in the grip of a severe economic crisis.
At home, huge social anger is rumbling on, with threats of nationwide strikes and protests.
His first reforms aimed at reviving the economy have caused an inflationary surge in the country where nearly half the population lives in extreme poverty.
Tinubu was elected president of Nigeria in a vote contested by his two main opponents.
Their appeals are still being examined by the courts.
Experts doubt that Nigerian soldiers will even agree to be deployed in Niger, given the strong links between the two armies, which are made up of many Hausa — an ethnic group present across the Sahel.
“It is unthinkable that Nigerian soldiers will go into Niger and fight its soldiers which we see as our brothers,” said a senior military official who asked not to be named.
“It is most likely be a disastrous outing because the troops will not have the courage to execute the mission.”
Experts are asking whether the threat of intervention itself could resolve the crisis.
Barnett, the researcher, said that if Niger’s military wavers, a return to civilian rule is possible.
But if the junta follows through on its threat to rally the population to its cause, “things could get quite ugly”. [NAN]