What can we expect from Sunday’s ECOWAS summit on Niger?

On December 10, the heads of state of ECOWAS, the West African organisation, once again addressed the situation in Niamey. More than four months after first holding President Mohamed Bazoum hostage, ECOWAS continues to favour diplomatic channels and the use of sanctions.

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FILE PHOTO: Nigeria's newly declared winner of 2023 presidential election, Bola Tinubu speaks at the National Collation Centre in Abuja, Nigeria, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Esa Alexander/File Photo

On Sunday, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who holds the rotating presidency of the regional organisation, received his counterparts in Abuja and reaffirmed ECOWAS’ unreserved support for President Bazoum and its refusal to recognize the authority of General Abdourahmane Tiani, the transitional President of Niger.

The heads of state of the West African organisation decided upon a committee that will negotiate Niger’s transition to democratic order with the military leaders of Niger, the negotiation which will in turn lessen the organisation’s economic sanctions imposed on the country.

While mediation remains the preferred route, according to the entourage of several West African presidents, ECOWAS continues to demand the release of Mohamed Bazoum, his wife and son, all three detained in Niamey, as a precondition for negotiations, a condition expressed once again in early December by Nigeria’s head of diplomacy, Yusuf Tuggar.

Earlier, Nigeria proposed freeing Bazoum and allowing him to fly to a third country as a step toward talks on lifting sanctions, but Niger’s military leaders rejected this, seeking Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe as a mediator. ECOWAS left the option of military intervention on the table, although analysts deem it increasingly unlikely.

The West African leaders convened in Nigeria also to discuss the escalating crisis in their region. With four countries succumbing to military rule since 2020 and the Sahel jihadist conflicts posing increasing risks, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) faced new challenges. Recent attempted coups in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau added to the turmoil.

The withdrawal of French military forces from the Sahel, spanning the region along the Sahara desert, heightened concerns of conflicts spreading southward to Gulf of Guinea states such as Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast.

Exiled Niger Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou attended the Abuja summit, potentially indicating ECOWAS’s firm stance on Niamey. Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee discussed ways to support Niger’s return to democratic rule and enhance Sahel security.

In a separate incident, armed attackers staged a coup attempt in Sierra Leone, resulting in 21 casualties. Guinea-Bissau also reported a coup attempt, with clashes between the national guard and the presidential guard’s special forces.

Since the departure of French troops, military regimes in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, facing jihadist violence, have formed an “Alliance of Sahel States,” drawing skepticism from Tinubu, who sees it as a diversion from the pursuit of democracy and good governance.

ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray, in the summit opening, criticized the military authorities in Niger for holding onto untenable positions, detaining President Bazoum, and impeding the flow of aid into the country.

The new junta that took power in Niger, formerly a key Western partner in the Sahel conflict, demanded the departure of French troops, while the U.S. still maintained military personnel in the country. Talks with the regime in Niamey stalled, as ECOWAS called for Bazoum’s immediate return to power. However, the rulers in Niamey detained Bazoum and proposed a transition back to civilian rule lasting up to three years.

The summit addressed delayed or uncertain transitions to civilian rule and elections in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, as well as Niger. Tinubu emphasized the need to engage with countries under military rule based on “realistic and short transition plans”.

ECOWAS resolved to establish a committee comprising leaders from Togo, Sierra Leone, and Benin to initiate discussions with the Niger junta, aiming to reach an agreement on a concise transition plan and actively contribute to the swift reinstatement of constitutional order.

ECOWAS stated that, depending on the results of the committee’s engagement with the Niger junta, the authority would gradually alleviate the sanctions imposed on Niger. The regional body also emphasized that in the event of non-compliance by the Niger junta with the outcomes of the negotiations, the sanctions, including the potential use of force, would be upheld.

To date, all attempts at mediation by ECOWAS have been met with a refusal to talk.

If it has stalled for over four months, the resolution of the Niger case could be decisive for the future of ECOWAS. Unable to impose its authority on the Malian, Guinean and Burkinabe transitions, and losing influence in West Africa, the organisation is more fragile than ever.

 

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