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Nigerian threats to Niger junta undone by fierce domestic opposition

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Bola Tinubu, barely two months into the job as Nigeria’s president, has led regional efforts to reverse last month’s coup in neighbouring Niger, if necessary by force.

But with a deadline for Niger’s new junta come and gone, Tinubu’s gamble already looks reckless to some, with one Lagos-based newspaper accusing him of “dangerous warmongering”.

Opposition to military intervention, which has come from across Nigeria’s political spectrum, has complicated Tinubu’s efforts to find a way out of the unfolding crisis and re-establish Nigeria as a regional force.

The crisis, sparked by the ousting of Niger’s democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum, leaves Tinubu grappling with his first foreign policy dilemma both as Nigeria’s president and as leader of the Economic Community of West African States, in whose name the ultimatum to Niger’s junta was made.

“Just as Iraq and Afghanistan defined George W Bush, Niger could define Tinubu’s presidency,” said a senior official from the president’s ruling All Progressives Congress party. “Most of what he’s doing is on the hoof rather than a carefully considered assessment of the situation.”

As Ecowas leaders prepare to gather on Thursday to consider their response to the now-expired deadline for coup leader General Omar Tchiani to return to constitutional order, the growing opposition in Nigeria has limited its options.

A large crowd in Niamey
Supporters of the military coup in Niger demonstrate in the country’s capital Niamey on Sunday © AFP/Getty Images

An Ecowas deployment would rely heavily on Nigeria’s military, the region’s most powerful army.

Yet Tinubu needs parliamentary approval for foreign troop deployments — unless there is an “imminent threat” to Nigeria’s security. Although his party holds a majority in parliament, he has struggled to drum up support for a military operation.

Senators, particularly those from northern states bordering Niger, have urged Tinubu and Ecowas to “exhaust” diplomatic options — wary of the impact of a military intervention on their communities. Trade along the 1,600km frontier has largely ground to a halt since the border was closed on Ecowas’ orders last week.

“We take exception to the use of military force until other avenues are exhausted,” said Suleiman Kawu, a senator from the northern state of Kano. “The consequences will be casualties among the innocent citizens who go about their daily business.”

An influential northern lobby group has also advised Ecowas to continue talks with the junta, saying military action would destabilise “peaceful coexistence” with its “brotherly neighbour” Niger.

Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria adviser at the International Crisis Group think-tank said there were “long and strong historical and cultural ties between the far north of Nigeria and Niger”. The Hausa, who make up more than half Niger’s population, are also the dominant ethnic group in northern Nigeria.

“People in those areas don’t think a military operation would augur well for the continuation of those relations,” Obasi added.

Military intervention that would destabilise Niger also has the potential to worsen the insecurity in Nigeria’s already unstable north, where Boko Haram and an Islamic State affiliate operate. Troops from Niger work with their Nigerian counterparts to combat both terror groups.

Many in Nigeria have said Tinubu should spend more time worrying about problems at home, rather than those across the border in Niger.

The president’s options are further limited by the lack of a functioning cabinet. The Senate only approved his nominees this week, and ministries are yet to be assigned.

Nigeria’s main opposition, the People’s Democratic party, has also voiced strong objection. Bala Mohammed, a PDP state governor, said Tinubu should “not go into any form of war” and that “all tools of dialogue and diplomacy” should be deployed.

The editorial in Punch newspaper this week that accused Tinubu of warmongering also said it would be “foolhardy” for Nigeria to “contemplate any large-scale foreign military deployment” beyond its peacekeeping commitments.

Cheta Nwanze, partner at SBM Intelligence consultancy in Lagos, said the tight margin of Tinubu’s election victory in February and court challenges to it also meant he lacked a strong mandate among Nigerians.

Another element of the internal opposition stemmed from Nigeria’s poor economic health, which Tinubu campaigned to fix. “It would cost a lot of money to intervene and Nigerians are asking why we should spend all that money,” Nwanze said.

Burkina Faso and Mali, two suspended Ecowas members run by military regimes, have threatened to help defend Niger if it is attacked, while Algeria, Niger’s northern neighbour but not part of the bloc, has opposed military intervention.

Ecowas is likely to keep turning the screw on the junta through further sanctions on the new regime, but west African leaders have little room for manoeuvre.

Obasi of Crisis Group said “the best of all the bad options” could be for Ecowas to reach a negotiated deal for a quick transition to democratic rule, with the junta also making concessions in exchange for sanctions relief.

The cost of food and basic goods has shot up since Ecowas nations closed their borders to landlocked Niger, already one of the world’s poorest countries.

“The sanctions and aid cuts will create a difficult situation in Niger and that is a recipe for instability. The junta needs to be persuaded to show some flexibility to re-engage with the rest of the world rather than pursuing the isolationist path they seem to be toeing,” Obasi said.

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