War looms over the horizon for West Africa as ideologically-opposed forces led by Nigeria and Niger spar over influence and the right to govern. 

The unstable region, labeled by some commentators as the ‘Coup Belt’ for its pervasive pattern of military-led regime change, was thrown into chaos this summer by Niger. On July 26, 2023, the democratically-elected government of Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum was suddenly toppled by the Presidential Guard, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani. 

The Presidential Guard accused Bazoum of incompetence and failure to defeat a decade-long Islamic insurgency native to the region. Sources close to the now-ousted president indicate Bazoum planned to remove Tchiani from military command.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Niger is a member, demanded the reinstatement of Bazoum, threatening sanctions and “the use of force” against the regime. Niger’s military junta reacted negatively, rallying nearby Mali and Burkina Faso — also recent victims of regime change — to their defense.

ECOWAS is no stranger to military force; since the 1990s, ECOWAS has militarily intervened in the Ivory Coast (2003), Liberia (2003), Guinea-Bissau (2012), Mali (2013), and The Gambia (2017). However, the current crisis in Niger is complicated by the rampant Islamic insurgency and military defiance of Mali and Burkina Faso. 

Mali fell to a military junta in a 2021 coup and Burkina Faso suffered devastating back-to-back coups in 2022. ECOWAS responded leniently to these developments, utilizing economic sanctions and suspending the member-states’ participation in the bloc. However, this failed to return democracy to Mali and Burkina Faso. Changing tact with Niger, the former have stiffened their resistance to the bloc’s democratic principles.

The current standoff has no precedent in the region. When ECOWAS previously intervened in its member-states, the respective targets stood alone. Witnessing this pattern, the military strongmen of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger threaten to unravel democracy in the region through their defiance. 

Nigeria, also a victim of the region’s Islamic insurgency, stands tall as Africa’s largest and wealthiest democracy. Rebuking the trend toward military autocracy in West Africa, Nigeria forms the backbone of democracy in the region. With the Islamic insurgency, opportunistic military commanders have scapegoated democratic leadership as “weak” in the face of terrorism. 

Shortly after the coup, ECOWAS unleashed an ultimatum for Niger to return to civilian leadership or face military intervention. The deadline was set for August 6th and passed without the much-anticipated outbreak of war. 

On August 10th, ECOWAS met and set plans for a “D-Day” and ordered its members to mobilize their armed forces. Non-ECOWAS members Burundi and Mauritania — which left the bloc in 2000 — also attended the summit. In response, Niger’s junta threatened to kill ousted president Mohamed Bazoum. 

As tensions abruptly mounted, they cooled somewhat, though still lingering. As August continued without an invasion, Niger mobilized its armed forces, illegally arrested French diplomatic staff, and Burkina Faso’s junta authorized the support of Niger in the event of war. 

French President, Emmanuel Macron also entered the fray, denouncing the Nigerien regime as “illegitimate authorities.” This was on the heels of France evacuating over 1,000 EU citizens, including Romanian nationals.

Meanwhile, the Niger crisis has evolved into a diplomatic proxy for the United States and Russia to spat over influence in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin — who is tied down in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war — offered diplomatic support for Niger and its allies. US President Joe Biden remained publicly quiet on the issue but met with ECOWAS leaders to discuss the possible invasion of Niger.

As August turned to September, pro-coup demonstrations erupted in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Waving Russian flags, protestors blockaded French barracks in the city, demanding the evacuation of what they deemed ‘colonial’ influences. The French troops are stationed to aid Niger in its fight against Islamic terrorism; the withdrawal of French aid may signal the worsening of the ongoing guerilla war. Emmanuel Macron warned the evacuation of French forces would transform Niger into a failed state

Relief for wary West Africa seems far in the distance as the drums of war continue to beat in Niger and ECOWAS. Time will tell whether this crisis is resolved peacefully or with iron and blood, but the unprecedented standoff marks the climax of the recent string of coups across the continent. 

As ECOWAS and the juntas beat their chests, the African nation of Gabon also fell victim to a coup on August 30th. With this, The Central African Republic cemented a strongman autocrat as ‘president,’ and civil war lingers in Sudan between rival military forces. As these events unfold, the continent is destabilizing and regional support for democracy becomes increasingly muffled. Whatever the resolution, it is a challenging era for democracies globally, and nowhere is this more bitter than in Africa.

First-year Richie Dockery is a Contributing Writer. His email is rdockery@fandm.edu.