Defense ministers from the member states of the West African ECOWAS regional bloc convened in the Nigerian capital of Abuja to address the recent military coup that took place in neighboring Niger.
At the same time, a delegation from ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — was in Niger to carry out negotiations with the junta.
“The ECOWAS commission president would have loved to be here [in Abuja], but as we speak, they are in Niger as part of a high-level delegation led by former Head of State of Nigeria General Abdulsalami Abubakar to negotiate,” an ECOWAS official said.
West African leaders have been discussing the option of intervening in Niger after the military junta overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum — marking the sixth coup in the ECOWAS region since 2020.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, said the “military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality.”
“There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite,” he told reporters in Abuja.
However, leaders from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which are ruled by military juntas that have fostered closer ties with Russia, have previously warned the bloc against intervening militarily in Niger.
A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, said soon after ECOWAS’ comments that threats of intervention “will not help ease tensions or calm the domestic situation.”
“It’s very important to prevent a further deterioration of the situation in the country,” Zakharova said, calling for an “urgent national dialogue” aiming to restore civil peace and the rule of law.
ECOWAS has also imposed sanctions on Niger. On Wednesday, Nigeria cut its electricity supply to Niger, accounting for around 70% of Niger’s power, the French AFP news agency reported. Rolling power outages were reported in Niger.
Western influence in region dwindling
The West African bloc has been unable to halt the spread of democratic backsliding as military coups oust elected leaders across the Sahel, especially in countries hit hard by ongoing Islamist insurgencies.
Niger had been a key Western ally in the region, with other military-ruled states having sought closer relations to Russia, even allowing access to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
Following last week’s coup, Western states have been considering what their response will be. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday about the developing situation.
“The UK and Germany have both condemned the recent attempts to undermine democracy, peace and stability in the country,” Sunak’s office said in a statement.
France, Spain and Italy put on flights to evacuate Europeans and some Nigeriens from the country, with the first French planes landing in France on Wednesday morning.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Wednesday that 40 German citizens had been helped out of Niger so far “with the help of our French friends,” adding that more would be leaving later in the day.
Germany, the US and Italy also have soldiers in Niger involved in counterinsurgency and training operations. German and other European operations in neighboring Mali have begun winding down as the military junta takes an increasing anti-Western stance.