Efem Nkam Ubi, Acting Director of Research and Studies, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs

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Military intervention by Ecowas in Niger will cause two major casualties 11 Oct 2023

On 26 July 2023, a military coup in the Republic of Niger removed its democratically elected government. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) proposed a military intervention in the country. Military intervention occurs when a government or a group of countries, sometimes under a multilateral organisation, intervenes in the affairs of another sovereign nation. The goal of the intervention could be to overthrow a country's leader and government, known as regime change. It could also be a specific action aimed at affecting trade, elections, or other domestic affairs of the target state.

Four days after the coup in Niger, Ecowas convened an Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the subregional bloc, to address the political situation in the country. The summit extensively discussed the overthrow of constitutional order in Niger by members of the Presidential Guard and the unlawful detention of the legitimate Head of State, President Muhammed Bazoum, as well as members of his family and government.

In line with the Ecowas and African Union protocols on the principle of zero tolerance for unconstitutional changes of government, the final communique of the extraordinary summit resolved, amongst others, that if its demands are not met within one week, it will take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in Niger. Such measures might include the use of force.

A second of such summit held on 10 August 2023. This time, the communique, inter alia, directed the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff of Ecowas to immediately activate the bloc’s Standby Force, mobilise all its elements, for subsequent deployment to restore constitutional order in Niger Republic.

It is important to note that many of Ecowas' decisions regarding regional security challenges are in line with the protocols it has established. For example, the protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security of 1999 and the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance of 2001 provide a framework for preventive diplomacy initiatives, such as fact-finding missions, quiet diplomacy, diplomatic pressure, and mediation, to prevent conflicts. These protocols also outline the conditions under which military intervention can be used. In this case, a military intervention can only occur by a majority decision, and only against the will of the target countries if there is a violation of human rights, the rule of law, democratic principles, or other similar conditions.

Even though the proposed military intervention decision of the Ecowas leadership may not be at variance with its regional protocols, it nevertheless raises questions about its contradiction with a) Article 2 (4) of the United Nations (UN) which expressly prohibits the threat or use of force and which calls on all member states to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of other States; b) Article 33 of the UN Charter, which underscores peaceful dispute resolution, promoting negotiation and mediation under the Security Council guidance; c) the provision of the AU Constitutive Act, that stipulates that military intervention would only be possible if sanctioned by the United Nations Charter; and d) Article 1 of Ecowas Protocol A/SP1/12/01 on Democracy and Good Governance, which stresses the need for armed forces to be apolitical and non-partisan in politics. Contradictorily to the above principles, however, Article 4 of the African Union Constitutive Act of 2000 grants the AU the right to intervene in member states to prevent human rights violations and uphold democracy.

States have repeatedly violated the prohibition on the use of force by intervening in the internal affairs of other states. This raises questions about the effectiveness of principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity in today's global political landscape. It is worth pondering whether the proposed military intervention in Niger will violate the sovereignty of a state, which is equivalent to violating the sovereignty of all states. The proposed military intervention by Ecowas has demonstrated that the willingness to intervene in the affairs of other states has not diminished in contemporary international relations.

However, never before has a multilateral institution made any interventions for a regime change in Africa such as Ecowas’ proposed intervention to restore constitutional order through the use of force within one week in the Republic of Niger. Undisputedly, this call for military intervention may be perceived as an effort to assert its authority after years that the Ecowas had been seen as losing its efficacy and utility in the subregion. Nevertheless, a military intervention for a regime change in the region seems to me a call to collective suicide. The cons of intervention far outweigh the pros. The proposal placed the organisation between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.

Indeed, there is serious concern about the future of Ecowas if it proceeds with military intervention ostensibly to establish constitutional order. There are two possible scenarios that could play out, and both are negative. The first scenario is that the military intervention will lead to the destruction of the Ecowas. The chaos that would ensue after such an intervention would undermine the existence of the West African body, leading to many alliances being formed within the subregion. The proposed intervention no doubt will redefine and reconfigure West Africa and the Sahel. It will deepen the security challenges there, thereby creating an acutely chaotic situation that will place West Africa and the Sahel as the world's epicentre of anarchy – a free-for-all situation.

The report of the UN Security Council (S/2023/490) on 30 June 2023 should serve as a warning signal for the Ecowas. The report highlighted the dire humanitarian and security situation in West Africa and the central Sahel. The situation has continued to deteriorate, and it is expanding southward to coastal countries with predictable disastrous impacts. By purporting to restore a situation, Ecowas may be allowing the interplay in international politics to create a precarious situation that may go beyond redemption. And exploitations and economic crimes thrive on insecurity.

In the second scenario in which the intervention does succeed; it would further mean that the traditional rule of non-interference and non-intervention embedded in many multilateral conventions will become a dead letter. For the developing world, especially African countries, this would mean the “death of sovereignty and territorial integrity” and the effectiveness of many states. International and multilateral institutions are likely to begin to take over issues that previously preoccupied the states.

In conclusion, Ecowas' proposed military intervention represents a significant shift from its traditional approach to resolving crises and conflicts. The community must continually question its motivations and priorities for every action decided, keeping the welfare of the people of its member states in focus. Ecowas should always ask the question, "Cue bone (for who’s good)?" before taking any action. A cautious approach is essential to prevent a helpful situation from turning into an uncanny one.

If the proposed action was being instigated by foreign influence and great power rivalry, the different governments in the West African community needed to be careful. Great power rivalry is not in the interest of individual African states; it is the selfish and national interests of the military superpowers that they are pursuing.

The good news is that Ecowas has shied away from implementing its threat. While the ego of its leadership may have been bruised, the subregion has avoided a potentially calamitous military intervention.

Efem N. Ubi, PhD, is Associate Professor and Acting Director of Research and Studies at Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, Nigeria. He is a Non-Resident Fellow, Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua, China.