A west African regional political grouping has reiterated it is prepared to intervene militarily in Niger following last month’s coup, describing the country’s detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, as a hostage.
Ecowas’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, made the comments as military chiefs of staff from the bloc met in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, on Thursday and accused Niger’s military junta of “playing cat and mouse” with the grouping by refusing to meet its envoys.
The meeting in Accra, which had originally been planned for last weekend, was called to discuss details of the standby military force authorised by Ecowas when a deadline to release Bazoum and restore democracy expired.
While Musah emphasised that armed intervention was a last resort should diplomatic efforts fail, he said a military operation remained on the table, amid scepticism over Ecowas’s willingness to intervene despite strong recent language.
“The military and the civilian forces of west Africa are ready to answer to the call of duty,” he told assembled heads of defence staff from member states meeting at the Camp Burma military base in Accra.
He listed past Ecowas deployments in the Gambia, Liberia and elsewhere as examples of readiness.
“If push comes to shove we are going into Niger with our own contingents and equipment and our own resources to make sure we restore constitutional order. If other democratic partners want to support us they are welcome,” he said.
Musah strongly criticised the junta’s announcement that it had evidence to put Bazoum on trial for treason. The UN, EU and Ecowas have all expressed concerns about the conditions of his detention.
“The irony of it is that somebody who is in a hostage situation himself … is being charged with treason. When did he commit high treason is everybody’s guess,” Musah said.
Musah added that all of the blocs’ members, except for those under military rule and Cape Verde, had agreed to provide troops.
Echoing Musah, Nigeria’s chief of defence staff, Gen Christopher Gwabin Musa, told the meeting: “Democracy is what we stand for and it’s what we encourage. The focus of our gathering is not simply to react to events, but to proactively chart a course that results in peace and promotes stability.”
While little detail has been publicly disclosed over a potential Niger operation, other than expectations that Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria would contribute troops, the meeting is expected to focus on the practicalities of deployment if ordered, not least by those countries that do not share a border with Niger.
Despite the strong language, a number of key countries that have said they would supply forces are facing domestic political pushback over the proposed intervention, including Nigeria and Ghana.
Nigeria’s senate has expressed objections, while opposition parties in Ghana have questioned the legal basis for an intervention under the country’s constitution.
Another stumbling block is the African Union. The AU’s peace and security council met in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Monday for talks on the crisis in Niger. There were reports that a reportedly “difficult” meeting had rejected the proposed Ecowas intervention, with southern and northern African countries said to be “fiercely against any military intervention”, according to a diplomat who spoke to French media.
While Ecowas in theory does not require the AU’s approval, historically it has often moved in step with the AU.
The US Department of State has also indicated that it would prefer the crisis to be resolved peacefully if possible.
The Accra meeting of the top Ecowas commanders on Thursday and Friday comes after fresh violence in Niger, where jihadists killed at least 17 soldiers in an ambush.
Jihadist insurgencies have gripped Africa’s Sahel region for more than a decade, breaking out in northern Mali in 2012 before spreading to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
Those countries – all Ecowas members – have since had military takeovers, driven in part by mounting anger at government failures to stem the bloodshed.
Agencies contributed to this article