A month after Niger’s military takeover, it triggered diplomatic, political, and economic crises. The Niger and Gabon coups, like others, enjoy popular support despite regional calls to reinstate democracy. However, the junta responded to ECOWAS sanctions by cutting ties with Nigeria, France, and other nations. Though ECOWAS is considering using force to restore democracy, there is still a need to protect African trade and minimize economic and security consequences.
Following the failure of several peace negotiations through the ECOWAS, its current chairman, President Tinubu ordered the closure of the border between both countries, alongside other ECOWAS sanctions. The border closure and other subsequent disruptions to trade risk collapsing the $226.34 million worth of commerce between the nations.
When Nigeria partially blocked its border with Niger and other neighbours in 2019, trade decreased by 78.76 percent, from $85.98 million in 2019 to $18.27 million in 2020. According to Nigeria’s Arewa Economic Forum (AEF), the recent Nigeria-Niger border closure costs Nigeria about $13 million loss of agricultural produce on a weekly basis. Nigeria is a major importer of products from Niger, including dairy products, eggs, natural honey, and more which has been halted as a result of the “no entry- no exit” directive.
The border shutdown between northern Nigeria and Niger also endangers $1.3 billion worth of trade along the trans-Saharan road network, which connects Algeria, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Also, a long-term risk of a trade war between Niger and Nigeria could put many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) into comatose as evidenced during the 2019 border closure.
Nigeria and Niger have well-established cross-border trade links, notably for fuel. A few months ago, Nigeriens protested after Nigeria implemented total fuel subsidy removal. With the coup and ECOWAS embargo, Niger is already facing power shortages as 70 percent of its electricity comes from Nigeria. Businesses and consumers using generators face cost increases affecting local manufacturing and supermarkets. Though landlocked Niger shares borders with seven other African countries but the 1,600km-long border with Nigeria, is its most important trade route.
Freight truck drivers and other passengers are now stranded at the border post and denied entry to their respective countries due to existing sanctions and border closure directives. Mallam Aliyu Maitasamu Isah, the president of Nigeria’s onion producers and marketers, revealed that truckloads of onions, which are perishable products, have been held at the closed border for almost two weeks, with a projected loss of about $2.58 million.
Then, the military ruling council announced that Niger’sairspace would be closed to all aircraft until further notice, citing the threat of military intervention from neighbouring countries. This action further restricts the freedom of movement and leads to a surge in airfare for European carriers. There are already cases of disruptions and suspended flights. Additionally, the disruption compounds issues in African airspace, which is already dealing with geopolitical challenges like Sudan and Libya, causing flights to take detours of up to 1,000km (620 miles).
Trade relations between democratic neighbours and Niger continue to drop while the Sahel region is overrun by military leaders. In three years, seven successful coups have occurred in Central and West Africa, six happened in the Sahel region. The aftermath of the coup would hurt the country struggling with food security, just as it occurred in Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. Not to forget that coups bring back trade barriers as ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) orders embargoes and sanctions on militarised states. The restriction on the movement of goods and people across borders impacts supply chains and essential commodities.
The coup has immediate consequences in a security context, given the presence of al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated armed groups in the Sahel region. With 580,000 refugees and internally displaced individuals in Niger, including those from Nigeria and Mali, the coup raises security concerns for the area. If Niger withdraws from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), to defy Nigeria and ECOWAS, the gains accrued in countering jihadist insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin could reverse and lead to further displacement of refugees.
Moreover, the pattern of ECOWAS sanctions and embargoes in response to military coups, as seen in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and more recently, Gabon, is a worrying trend. Experts predict that the Niger coup will follow the same trend. But the push for use of force through military intervention is creating diplomatic, regional and economic crises. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea openly backed the coup leaders; with Burkina Faso and Mali pledging military support if ECOWAS intervenes. This is a reflection of ECOWAS actions and inactions.
A look at ECOWAS history and actions shows its culpability in militarised African states. Some African heads of state and army leaders held significant positions in the AU, despite their questionable policies and actions back home. For instance, former ECOWAS head Alassane Ouattara secured a contentious third term as Ivory Coast’s president. Also, ex-ECOWAS mediator Alpha Condé’s similar actions in Guinea triggered tensions and a coup that removed him during his third term. This shows how the union is lagging at implementing the AU Charter that punishes despot leaders and quells abuse and violation of human rights before it leads to military coups.
Ibrahim Anoba, an African affairs analyst, said in a recent interview that, “As ECOWAS leaders try to achieve a resolution to this problem by being our brother’s keeper, we should pursue our options as Africans and not be influenced by Europeans, Russians, or Americans.” Indeed, ECOWAS needs a different path to restoring constitutional order in Niger. The current approach further endangers intra-African trade which is just making significant headways on the continent.
Nigeriens have shown their unwillingness to negotiate with any Western or French-backed entity, hence, the need to use an African-centric approach to de-escalate the brewing regional tension before it becomes a continental issue. The coup leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani’s three-year transition plan has put its current negotiation with ECOWAS at a stalemate since the latter rejected the plan. However, rather than resort to military intervention, the West African bloc needs to continue negotiations with the junta till a win-win agreement has been reached.
Another viable diplomatic solution would be to use traditional leaders whom the coup plotters granted audience. The regional and continental unions should explore the traditional mediator route to seek for Bazoum’s release and negotiate a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
The vested international interests in the Niger coup did not go unnoticed. This could be due to the presence of uranium deposits in the country or presence of U.S. and French military bases in Niger, and the Russian advances in the region through the Wagner Group. In the midst of all these, African interests should supersede, forestalling another global humanitarian crisis as witnessed in Sudan and Libya. To reduce militarised nations, there is a need to invest in a stable political environment and infrastructure that will enhance intra-African trade and foster economic growth.
Mohammed is a master’s student at the University of East Anglia, and a Free Trade Fellow at Ominira Initiative.