Twenty-four hours after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) released a statement offering an ultimatum to Niger’s new military government, the destabilization of the Sahel is taking another step forward. On Sunday, ECOWAS gave the coup plotters one week to return power to the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, threatening to intervene militarily in the country if these requests were not accepted. The Nigerien military responded by arresting several ministers from the previous executive, but alarms were raised after Mali and Burkina Faso issued a joint statement in response to the previous one.
This statement shows “the fraternal solidarity of the Malian and Burkinabe peoples with their brothers in Niger, who have decided under their responsibility to take their own destiny” and refuses to apply “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” sanctions against the Nigerien authorities. The fifth point of the statement warns that a military intervention against Niger will lead both countries to “adopt legitimate defense measures in aid of the armed forces of the people of Niger”. Mali and Burkina Faso, whose participation in ECOWAS is suspended together with that of Guinea Conakry due to the previous sanctions imposed on them (these three countries are also governed by military juntas that came to power after successive coups), thus confirming their support to the Nigerien coup plotters and threaten to unleash a regional war with devastating consequences.
A confrontation between ECOWAS countries is a possibility that has been building up since sanctions against the Malian government began in 2021. The organization of states, made up of a total of fifteen African nations, is in a crisis situation that threatens its dissolution, due in part to the division into two blocs (pro-French and pro-Russian) but also due to the rise of military authoritarianism affecting the area and worrying democratic governments who live in fear of being the next to fall. -Russian and dictatorial thus accuses the Franco-friendly and democratic bloc of being “puppets of the West”. Here’s how they were qualified by the captain Ibrahim TraorePresident of Burkina Faso, during the II Russia-Africa Summit held last July.
Some propagandists, both Russian and European, but also many Africans, seek to legitimize dictatorial governments at the expense of those following the democratic path. According to these propagandists, who fail to understand that depending on Russia is the same or greater burden than depending on any Western nation, the romantic and populist discourse of the ruling military is the correct discourse, in fact, a kind of liberation struggle against neocolonialism, while the governments that advocate stability in the area are puppets, tools of Europe, traitors to Africa. The moral discourse is served: romantics without reasoning skills and lovers of men in uniform jump on the bandwagon of artificial freedom while praising dictators.
You have to forget about Russia for a few minutes. If it broke out, it would be an African war in which (perhaps) external agents such as Russia or Europe would participate directly or indirectly, but which is still a war in a region divided in two and with two types of government, two types of partners international, two types of approaches to the future and two ways of remembering the past. The joint communiqué between Mali and Burkina Faso already recalls that “NATO’s unilateral intervention in Libya was what gave rise to the expansion of terrorism in the Sahel and West Africa”, and here emerges the latent anger of millions of Africans who accuse the West of the assassination of Gaddafi, a sort of African hero where Europe remembers him as a villain, and for the consequences that his death entailed in terms of spreading terrorism in the region.
Jihadism is the other big factor to consider. Each of the military coups has based its action on the ineffectiveness of previous governments in the fight against terrorism, where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are the three Sahelian nations with the greatest presence of groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Russia counts, the West counts, but the African is above all interested in surviving, beyond global conflicts, and there is no doubt that the aforementioned coups would not have happened if the jihadists had not controlled vast areas of the affected nations.
A conflict between African nations in the Sahel will have only one winner: jihadism. If already weak armies focus on fighting each other instead of facing a common enemy, the possibility of expanding the territory in the hands of terrorists is real. The victor of the conflict would then have to face an enemy who has already eluded his end for more than a decade and who should celebrate today as he watches the confrontation unfold.
For now, France has already ordered the start of the evacuation of its citizens in Niger. A first critical act that follows the authorization given to the Gauls by the deposed Nigerian government to use the military means they deem appropriate when it comes to restoring democracy in the country, and also due to the clearly anti-French position that the new government has taken military adopted . Next week will set the course for ECOWAS, but also for West Africa, for years to come.