West African economic bloc activates its standby force for intervention in Niger which will take weeks to assemble and fund
The West African bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), Thursday ordered the activation of a standby force for possible use against the junta that took power in Niger in July, saying it wanted a peaceful restoration of democracy but all options including force were on the table.
The threat of an invasion, though not specific, will keep tensions high in and around Niger, a uranium producer that until the coup was an important ally of the West in the fight against Islamist insurgents devastating the Sahel region.
The junta, which seized power on July 26, had defied an Aug. 6 deadline to stand down set by ECOWAS, instead closing Niger’s airspace and vowing to defend the country against any foreign attack.
After a summit of its heads of state in the Nigerian capital Abuja, the bloc pledged to enforce sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes on those preventing the return to power of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum.
President Bola Tinubu ECOWAS chair receives briefing on the standby force
“No option is taken off the table, including the use of force as a last resort,” said Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the ECOWAS chair.
“I hope that through our collective effort we can bring about a peaceful resolution as a roadmap to restoring stability and democracy in Niger,” he said. “All is not lost yet.”
An official statement was read out which included a resolution asking the bloc’s defence chiefs to “activate the ECOWAS Standby Force with all its elements immediately”.
Another resolution spoke of ordering “the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger”, immediately followed by another that spoke of restoring such order “through peaceful means”.
Security analysts said a regional force could take weeks or longer to assemble, potentially leaving room for negotiations.
Civilian questions the standby force
The bloc has planned to create a standby force of thousands of troops for years but was held back by funding delays and insufficient troop commitments, said Ikemesit Effiong, a researcher at SBM Intelligence in Nigeria.
Following a string of coups in west Africa, regional leaders planned to set up a “standby force” to restore democracy but have so far been hampered by funding.
ECOWAS Commission President Omar Alieu Touray told the U.N. Security Council last month that they were considering two options: a brigade of 5,000 troops at an annual cost of $2.3 billion or the deployment of troops on demand at an annual cost of $360 million.
Thursday’s statement did not spell out how the force would be funded, which countries would participate or how many troops and what hardware they could contribute.
The United Nations and Western powers have backed ECOWAS efforts to persuade the coup leaders to relinquish power and free Bazoum, who is being detained in his residence, but so far they have given no sign they were willing to back down.
Hours before the summit in Abuja, they named a slate of ministers in an apparent move to entrench their position and present themselves as a legitimate government.
Western countries fear Niger could follow Mali’s footsteps and seek help from Russia’s Wagner Group, which the U.S. has designated a transnational criminal organisation.
Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has welcomed the Niger coup and said his forces were available to restore order.
ECOWAS sought to project an image of resolution and unity, but the bloc is split, with suspended member states Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by military governments, vowing to defend the Niger junta.