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ECOWAS, Nger junta in diplomatic ping-pong

ECOWAS Envoy Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar with Niger Junta leader Gen. Tchiani

By Paul Ejime –

After weeks of stand-off, tension would appear to be easing between ECOWAS and the Niger coup makers over options for the restoration of constitutional order in that country following the 26 July ouster of elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

The Brig.-Gen. Abdourahamane-led junta had doubled down with reluctance to negotiate, accusing ECOWAS of bad faith in slamming punitive sanctions on Niger and threatening the use of force, without hearing the soldiers’ side of the story.

However, retired General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s former Head of State, who met the junta leaders and deposed President Bazoum at the weekend during his mission as ECOWAS Special envoy, has expressed optimism that “diplomacy will be successful” in resolving the impasse.

“I must say that our visit to Niger has been very fruitful and that it has opened an avenue to start talking…,” Gen. Abubakar told journalists in Abuja on Tuesday after briefing Nigeria’s President Bola Amed Tinubu, the ECOWAS current Chairman on the outcome of the mission.

“Hopefully, diplomacy will see the better of this. Nobody wants to go to war, it doesn’t pay anybody, but then again, our leaders have said if all fails and I don’t think all will fail, we’ll get… out of this mess.” Gen. Abubakar said, in reference to ECOWAS’ threat to use force as the last resort to restore constitutional order in Niger.

Gen. Abubakar, whose delegation included the ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray and Muslim leader, Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, said the coup leaders had “made their points,” which he has conveyed to the ECOWAS Chairman.

ECOWAS has rejected as “provocative and a smokescreen” the junta leaders’ three-year political transition programme, announced after the ECOWAS delegation’s visit.

President Tinubu is now expected to consult with his Heads of State colleagues to decide ECOWAS’ next move.

Meanwhile, the African Union has announced Niger’s suspension from all its activities, saying it will also assess the impact of ECOWAS measures against the junta.

The possibility for the use military force in Niger threatened by ECOWAS is growing unpopular by the day largely because of its potentially dangerous fall-out, such as grave humanitarian consequences in the landlocked poor country where ECOWAS sanctions are already biting hard on the long-suffering population in a politically volatile region,

A number of trucks laden with food and other essentials only arrived in Niamey on Tuesday from Burkina Faso, the first supply of goods to Niger following the border closure by ECOWAS member States in compliance with the regional sanctions.

Nigeria has also cut electricity supplies to Niger, further compounding the hardships on the country’s 26 million people, who have been denied the benefits of their country’s rich natural resources, such as priced uranium as a result of decades of leadership failures.

Burkina Faso and Mali, which are also ruled by the military have pledged their support for the Niamey military junta, against any external attack, amid reports that both countries had started moving weapons and military planes to Niger.

Guinea Conakry is another ECOWAS member State now under military dictatorship from 2020, as the organization appears determined to make an example of Niger in its resolve to put an end to the undemocratic drift in the region.

But there are concerns and complications in the Niger situation because of its so-called strategic interest to Western countries and America, with China, Russia and its private military company, Wagner, waiting to pounce.

America, Canada and Western countries, particularly France still have about 3,000 combined troops and military advisers, who were ostensibly supporting Niger armed forces in counterterrorism before the 26 July military takeover.

Furthermore, America’s new Ambassador arrived in Niamey a few days ago, adding to the ambivalent positions and confusing signals from competing foreign interests in Niger, and other former French colonies in Africa, where the West fears that Russia could move in swiftly to fill any vacuum, were Niger’s Western allies to quit the country.

The U.S. and its Western allies have already evacuated most of their civilian nationals from Niger, even as Washington continues to evaluate the status of the 26 July event, whether  to call it “a coup” or “an attempted coup,” given America’s rather inconsistent  policy in dealing with so-called undemocratic governments.

ECOWAS has to prioritise the interests of its estimated 400 million Community citizens and clear all doubts and perceptions that in the case of Niger, it is not being stampeded into a risky and dangerous proxy war.

*Paul Ejime is Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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