West Africa’s main bloc has agreed on a “D-day” for possible military intervention to restore democracy in Niger after generals toppled and detained President Mohamed Bazoum last month.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed on Friday to activate a standby force as a last resort if diplomatic efforts fail, a senior official said without disclosing when that is.
“We are ready to go any time the order is given,” ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah said during the closing ceremony of a two-day meeting of West African army chiefs in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
“The D-day is also decided. We’ve already agreed and fine-tuned what will be required for the intervention,” he said, emphasising that ECOWAS was still seeking to engage peacefully with Niger’s military leaders.
“As we speak, we are still readying [a] mediation mission into the country, so we have not shut any door.”
The defence chiefs met to fine-tune details of the potential military operation to restore Bazoum if ongoing negotiations with the coup leaders fail.
“Let no one be in doubt that if everything else fails, the valiant forces of West Africa, both the military and the civilian components, are ready to answer to the call of duty,” Musah said.
Military officers deposed Bazoum on July 26 and have defied calls from the United Nations, ECOWAS and others to reinstate him.
Most of ECOWAS’s 15 member states are prepared to contribute to the joint force, except Cape Verde and those also under military rule – Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea – a bloc official said on Thursday.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Accra in Ghana, said that any possible military intervention against Niger’s coup leaders by ECOWAS still faces “many political and legal hurdles before it could ever be implemented”.
“These include approval by parliaments and legislative bodies of participating West African states, a number of which, including regional powerhouse Nigeria, have already said no to any potential military action yet,” Stratford said.
Mutaru Mumuni, executive director at the West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, told Al Jazeera that ECOWAS appeared to be sending “mixed and confusing” signals regarding Niger.
According to Mumuni, the bloc has said that the military option is a last resort and that it has opened the door for dialogue and negotiation. But, at the same time, the bloc also seems focused on military intervention, which would be “very unpopular”, he said.
“There isn’t any goodwill within the local space for any war or military intervention in Niger,” Mumuni added.
Bazoum, whose 2021 election was a landmark in Niger’s troubled history, has been held with his family at the president’s official residence since the coup, and international concern is growing over his conditions in detention.
ECOWAS has a poor track record in stemming the region’s rampant coups. Neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali have each had two within three years.
Niger’s coup was seen by the international community and ECOWAS as one too many. In addition to threatening a military invasion, the bloc has imposed severe economic and travel sanctions.
But as time drags on with no military action and a standstill in negotiations, Niger’s military leaders are becoming entrenched in power, leaving ECOWAS with few choices.
But any use of force would further destabilise West Africa’s impoverished Sahel region, which is already engaged in a decade-old battle with armed groups.
Niger also has strategic importance beyond West Africa because of its uranium and oil reserves and role as a hub for foreign troops involved in the fight against the armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).