As the seven-day ultimatum from West African leaders to the army in Niger to reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum comes to an end, crucial decisions must be made on both sides.
Last Sunday evening, the Ecowas regional bloc, led by President Bola Tinubu of neighboring Nigeria, said the junta has a week to restore constitutional order or possibly use force.
Sanctions have already been imposed on the coup leaders and electricity supplies from Nigeria have been cut off, along with borders, meaning no more goods arriving and the landlocked country unable to access ports.
But as political, diplomatic and military tensions mount, what might happen when the deadline passes?
1) Deadline has been extended
One option is for Ecowas leaders to extend the deadline.
This has the danger of being seen as a downhill climb, but the heads of state could save face by saying diplomatic efforts have made progress and want to give them more time.
The problem at the moment is that Ecowas’ attempts to mediate have not borne fruit. A delegation sent to Niger on Thursday returned within hours with seemingly little evidence.
Meanwhile, the junta ramped up its rhetoric against both the West and Ecowas. It announced it was cutting diplomatic ties with Nigeria, Togo, the US and France, and said it was canceling military agreements with France that allow the former colonial power to station some 1,500 soldiers there.
And President Bazoum, who is being held by the military, used grim language in a Washington Post article. He described himself as a “hostage” and called on the US and the entire international community to help restore constitutional order.
2) They agree on a timetable for a transition
To try to cool things down and find a middle ground, the junta and Ecowas were able to agree on a timetable for a return to democratic rule.
This could include the release of President Bazoum and other political prisoners to keep talks going and potentially buy more time. This has been a major demand from those who condemned the coup in Africa and elsewhere.
The West African bloc has already approved democratic transitions in Niger’s neighbors in the Sahel region, Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which have been taken over by the military in recent years.
But the negotiations have been fraught with problems, with election deadlines pushed back and it is still not guaranteed that the transfers of power will actually take place.
Sudan, which created a mixed civil-military government in 2019 to pave the way to democracy after a coup, offers a different model. But that country’s collapse into bitter conflict between rival military leaders offers a cautionary tale.
3) Military intervention
West African leaders did not say force would certainly be used if President Bazoum was not reinstated, but left it open as a possibility.
Nigerian officials have described it as a “last resort”. President Tinubu said there could be a military intervention “to enforce compliance from the military junta in Niger if they continue to be recalcitrant”.
Ecowas has used military force to restore constitutional order in the past, for example in the Gambia in 2017 when Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing elections.
But the calculation to continue this time would be much more difficult.
First, Niger is geographically the largest country in West Africa, while The Gambia is a small strip of land surrounded by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean, so sending troops would be a completely different prospect.
Second, the regional power of Nigeria, which is in charge of President Bazoum’s reinstatement, is facing numerous security challenges domestically, so sending a significant portion of the army to Niger would be a gamble.
Third, both Mali and Burkina Faso have said that military intervention in Niger would be seen as a “declaration of war” and that they would defend their fellow coup leaders.
It therefore threatens to turn into a large-scale regional war, especially if the Nigerien population resists foreign intervention. Although it is impossible to know how they would react.
Nigeria and Niger share many historical and ethnic ties, with people on both sides speaking the same language, so this could make some Nigerian troops reluctant to fight if it came to that.
Countries such as Algeria, Niger’s neighbor to the north, China and Russia have called for restraint and continued use of dialogue to defuse tensions.
However, after a three-day meeting in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Ecowas defense chiefs say they have prepared a detailed military intervention plan for regional leaders to consider.
Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Benin have all said they are ready to send troops to Niger if Ecowas so decides.
Nigeria alone has about 135,000 active troops, according to the Global Fire Power index, while Niger has about 10,000, but that certainly doesn’t mean an invasion would be easy.
All sides would undoubtedly favor a peaceful solution, but Ecowas is keen to show its resolve as it has failed to prevent a wave of coups d’état in the region over the past three years.