ECOWAS mobilizes reserve force as Niger crisis remains unsolved

A group of West African governments mobilized a standby military force Thursday, officials said, as regional leaders meeting at an emergency summit struggled to chart a clear path out of the crisis in Niger two weeks after Nigerien generals unseated the country’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

West African leaders said at the conclusion of the summit that all options remain on the table. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who chairs the regional group of countries known as ECOWAS, said the bloc may still opt for “the use of force as a last resort.”

While the ECOWAS force was mobilized for that possibility, officials in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria where the summit took place, did not immediately address confusion prompted by their announcement, including speculation that the move may be the first step toward military intervention.

Regional analysts said they doubted any action is imminent. The announcement may have been more about “face-saving” than substantive action, said J. Peter Pham, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Although military intervention could still be possible, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, “it’s possible that this is a negotiating tactic.”

The leaders of the regional bloc on Thursday appeared to be less supportive of military action than immediately after the coup, when they imposed a deadline on the Nigerien junta, giving it one week to restore Bazoum to office. That deadline passed Sunday with no signs of a military intervention. The coup leaders, in a show of defiance, staged a massive rally last weekend and introduced a new government Thursday.

Niger is slipping away from the West

The officials attending the emergency summit did not specify which units were now being mobilized. The announcement may have referred to ECOWAS’s standby force, composed of about 2,700 members and including a western infantry battalion led by Senegal and an eastern one led by Nigeria with a composite logistics unit supporting both.

Pham said the declaration may have been meant more generally, leaving open questions about what the plan would be and who would supply such a mission. Senegal, Benin and the Ivory Coast are so far the only West African nations that have said they would provide troops for such an intervention. Nigeria presumably would as well, but Tinubu’s plan has faced opposition in Nigeria’s parliament.

Skeptics of a military intervention have pointed out that two of Niger’s neighbors, Mali and Burkina Faso, might support the Nigerien junta if ECOWAS were to send troops.

There are also concerns for the safety of hundreds of U.S. and French troops stationed in Niger, who could “potentially be in the middle of it,” Lebovich said.

Sending the 2,700 soldiers of ECOWAS’s standby force on such a mission would be “insufficient for the task at hand,” Pham said, noting that any military action could increase the risk for Bazoum, who remains held by the junta.

The Associated Press, citing two Western officials, reported Thursday that Niger’s junta had threatened to kill Bazoum in the event of a military intervention. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres also expressed concern for Bazoum’s safety.

Given the circumstances, “this would be a risky mission even if a military that was used to undertaking such operations was leading it,” Pham said.

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