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The Niger Dilemma: The Case for Military Intervention Amid Destabilisation Concerns  

12 Sep 2023
By Dr Muhammad Dan Suleiman
UN, ECOWAS partners kick-off Western Accord 2016. Source: U.S. Army Southern Europe /

As the international community grapples with restoring democratic governance in Niger after the 26 July coup, many factors point to a possible military action there in the future. But any intervention must first address the burden of what it might mean for stability in the Sahel region.

Following a coup in Niger in July that overthrew elected president Mohamed Bazoum, the West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), vowed to use all means including the threat of military force to restore pre-coup arrangements.

Niger’s junta—buoyed by its friends in Mali and Burkina Faso, also led by military juntas—has refused to heed ECOWAS calls. The regional bloc, however, is not the only key actor in the crisis, and any assessment of the possibility of military intervention must consider several others. These include Niger’s strategic significance, Western interests, Russian presence, the junta’s resolve against international pressure, and popular anti-Western sentiments.

These considerations point to a possible military action in the future. However, it will likely be more about entrenched positions and less about restoring constitutional rule. In any case, any intervention must first address the burden of what it might mean for stability in the Sahel region.

The case for ECOWAS

Despite its problematic handling of the coup, ECOWAS does have good reasons for threatening force in Niger. With a series of coups destabilising West Africa, the bloc has a compelling case to act decisively to deter future coup attempts.

Last week, the military of Gabon staged a coup that ousted Ali Bongo who – along with his father before him – ruled Gabon for more than half a century. This coup, a month after Niger’s, is a stark reminder for action before more nations in the ECOWAS region fall. Failure by the Niger junta to make acceptable concessions could strengthen ECOWAS’s case for sterner action to address what is looking more like a series of coups.

An intervention funded, controlled, and led by ECOWAS will, therefore, be the most legitimate path for military action in Niger. However, given the bad precedents it has set with past coups in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso, the bloc lacks the moral right to intervene in Niger. Neither does it appear to have the financial resources or the backing of its people.

ECOWAS’ contradictory stance—threatening force while using diplomatic means and not declaring war—rebuffs its agenda on Niger. This, and more signs of a diplomatic solution, shows an ECOWAS-led intervention is even more unlikely.

Intervention: entrenched positions colliding

But Niger is different from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, where ECOWAS did not threaten force. The Niger crisis has an outsized global impact, and Niger is where Russia’s influence in the Sahel meets the strongest opposition from Western countries. A top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has blamed Russia for instigating the Niger coup, while the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin celebrated it.

Diplomatic manoeuvring in Western capitals show that Western countries have taken Niger more seriously, with US official visits, including appointing an ambassador to handle the crisis. Niger is home to two US military bases and over 1,000 troops. It houses 1,500 French soldiers, whose presence in Niger has become increasingly untenable. Altogether, there are approximately 3,000 Western troops in Niger.

Although there is still no concrete evidence of Russian involvement in Niger’s coup, with Niger’s alliance with the pro-Russia Mali, it will make strategic sense for Western actors to prefer some form of intervention to regain leverage. France, for instance, has already indicated its support for military intervention.

There are several signs it might be harder to get the Niger junta to be less combative and more cooperative. First, the junta is not alone; it has the backing of Mali and Burkina Faso as well as the tacit support of others, such as Guinea and Algeria. Secondly, there appears to be popular support for the junta. And, while the junta knows that ECOWAS cannot intervene on its own, it is hopeful of having powerful global actors to help it.

The strongest indications that the junta may not be friendly enough are its daring decisions since it has taken power. It has accused France of destabilising Niger, severed ties with Western countries, terminated agreements, cut amenities to the French Embassy in Niamey, and given a French ambassador 48 hours to leave.

A permutation of an uncompromising anti-West stance of the junta, and Western actors’ unwavering desire to keep the status quo, makes a future intervention likely.

Intervention: a prolonged endeavour  

It has been argued that Niger is West Africa’s greatest security challenge, not only because it is a regional problem, but also it is a global one. A military action against Niger will, therefore, be much more complicated than past ECOWAS interventions and stabilisation missions, such as in Gambia in January 2017 and Guinea-Bissau in 2022. Niger shares its borders with seven other countries. This is in stark contrast to Gambia, which is bordered by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean.

Niger’s population is more than five times that of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau combined. It’s land area of almost 1,270,000 km2 is more than hundred times Gambia’s 11,300 km². Niger’s military size of over 20,000 is more than two times those of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau combined (totalling approximately 8,000). Niger’s military is also highly trained—mainly by their erstwhile Western partners France and the US. On top of this, Niger’s military would also enjoy a force multiplier effect of support from equally highly trained and emboldened Mali and Burkina Faso militaries.

Despite Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire already promising troops, the firepower of any ECOWAS intervention will not enjoy Nigeria’s total commitment. The glory days of Nigeria’s leadership of West Africa seem to have passed, with the Senate more recently rejecting a request to send troops into Niger. Neither do Nigerians support military intervention.

For all these reasons, Niger can marshal a strong military resistance against intervention—whether ECOWAS- or Western-led.

The burden of what might follow

There is a real possibility of a future military action in Niger. However, given the geopolitical dimensions of the Sahel region, the support for the Niger junta, and the nature of the balance of military power, any intervention would not be a short campaign.

Interventions, additionally, exacerbate human development challenges. They destroy infrastructure and disrupt access to basic needs like health, education, and water. A security vacuum will also likely emerge, meaning more extremist groups and violence, and transnational criminal activity. Intervention will also kill business and investor confidence and stall development.

Any decision to intervene must, therefore, first address the burden of what it might mean for security and development going forward. With Niger and the Sahel region already dealing with some of the world’s harshest socio-economic and political challenges, entrenched positions must give way for cooperation and diplomacy. This will be the most geopolitically viable solution and the best outcome for all involved.

Dr Muhammad Dan Suleiman is an African politics analyst and West Africa security researcher. He is a research associate and IR lecturer at Curtin University, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.