Niger: another challenge for the West African alliance

A general view of billowing smoke as supporters of the Nigerien defence and security forces attack the headquarters of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), the party of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, in Niamey on July 27, 2023. The head of Niger's armed forces on July 27, 2023 said he endorsed a declaration by troops who overnight announced they had taken power after detaining the country's elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. "The military command of the Nigerien armed forces... has decided to subscribe to the declaration by the defence and security forces... in order to avoid a deadly confrontation between the various forces," said a statement signed by armed forces chief General Abdou Sidikou Issa. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the recent coup in Niger, the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS or ECOWAS in English) has once again resorted to sanctions against a member. In the past, these actions have often been ineffective, revealing the alliance’s weakness.

The Economic Community of West African States has warned Niger that it had a week to restore constitutional rule after last Wednesday’s coup. Otherwise, the organization “will take all necessary measures to restore it,” including the possible use of force, he said.

Niger is the fourth ECOWAS country to fall into the hands of coup plotters in recent years. While the alliance’s reaction was unusually harsh, the question remains what it can do.

An important economic alliance

ECOWAS or ECOWAS was founded in 1975, in Nigeria, with the signing of the Treaty of Lagos, revised in Cotonou, Benin, in 1993. The alliance has 15 member states with 400 million people living in just over five million kilometers square, making it one of the largest regional economic communities in Africa. In size, it roughly corresponds to the former French colonies in West Africa, but also includes two former Portuguese colonies and a handful of Anglophone countries, including Africa’s leading economy, Nigeria.

On its website, ECOWAS paints a vision of a “borderless” region that gives its people “access to overflowing resources” and allows them to live “in dignity, peace and security.” The emphasis is placed on a common economic space. The eight francophone countries in the region have a common currency, the CFA franc, which, like its Central African counterpart, is pegged to the old French franc and thus to the euro. A general monetary union of all ECOWAS countries and decoupling from the euro have been under discussion for years, with little progress so far.

Powerlessness in the face of terror

The regulations also cover peacekeeping missions. In the 1990s, the ECOWAS countries sent troops to end the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This Community also intervened in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. When Gambian President Yahya Jammeh refused to hand over power to his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow, in 2017, the alliance sent soldiers.

Over the past decade, Islamist insurgents in the Sahel have posed a new challenge to the region. Many military operations with international participation have failed to solve the problem, to the dismay of the populations of the poorest countries of the Sahel, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. That helped the military usurp power there between 2020 and 2023.

Joint military force

In 2022, the ECOWAS countries agreed to establish a permanent joint force. In the past, smaller alliances involving individual ECOWAS countries, such as the G5 alliance of Sahel states, have met with little success. Experts warn that without adequate funding, the force is doomed to be ineffective. “It is not enough to raise an army,” says Abdoulaye Sounaye of the Leibniz Center for Modern Oriental Studies. “You have to make it effective: how does it intervene, does it get involved in combat, how is it financed?” Voluntary funding from member states has not worked so far, he told DW.

What influence does ECOWAS have?

The crisis in the Sahel is also a crisis in ECOWAS. After Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, the putschists have now taken over Niger. The treaty between the member states includes various sanction options for these situations.

The alliance can restrict freedom of movement by closing borders and canceling flights. You can also block accounts and money flows in the CFA currency area. One of the harshest measures is the suspension of membership. This has been done with the four member states whose legitimate governments were overthrown.

Bounty Diallo, a scientist in Niger’s capital Niamey, said the sanctions in Mali and Burkina Faso have failed to change the minds of the government or the people, despite economic pressure. And he concludes that “to think that things will be different in Niger and that the government will relent in a week or two is wishful thinking.”