More than a month after a largely bloodless coup in the West African country of Niger brought a military junta to power, the situation in the region remains fraught with the threat of war.

Negotiations between the junta and representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) seemed at an impasse after the bloc rejected the junta’s three-year timetable for the restoration of civilian government and doubled down on a threat of military intervention.

“The three-year transition is unacceptable,” ECOWAS Commissioner for Politics and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah said last week. “We want constitutional order to be restored as soon as possible.”

Although the African Union—which suspended Niger’s membership in the wake of the July 26 coup—has rejected the possibility of outside military intervention, it has left the door open to military action by ECOWAS. The union indicated it could be prepared to send troops into Niger if the talks with ECOWAS and other diplomatic efforts fail.

With the coup leaders showing no signs of bending so far, the standoff is driving insecurity to new levels in the Sahel region—where military rulers have come to power in four of its five states over the last decade despite French and US-backed assistance—says former ICWA fellow Hannah Rae Armstrong (West Africa, 2012-2014), who consults on the region from Dakar, Senegal.

Although the talks between ECOWAS and the junta seem at an impasse, it is not too late to reenergize them if both sides take a realistic view of the situation.

She described the ECOWAS reaction—which has included commercial sanctions and an electricity blockade in addition to the military saber-rattling—as “severe,” saying it seems at least partly driven by the organization’s need to assert itself to forestall future coups in member states.

The sanctions have been “incredibly hard” on average Nigeriens, she added, causing spikes in the prices of gasoline, medicines and other essentials. ECOWAS and its international partners should recognize that support for the civilian government was already weak, partly undermined by failed Western state-building efforts in the region that “created the perception that civilian governments are less accountable to their constituents than to international donors.”

The crisis is also dogged by “a common misperception that a military intervention might stave off Russian involvement,” particularly by the notorious Wagner mercenary group that has already established ties with Western-shunned juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, Armstrong believes.

In fact “the opposite is true,” she said. “Intervention would push the junta to seek Russian assistance.” The mere threat of such intervention may have already done so, she added.

Violence may still be averted. Although the talks between ECOWAS and the junta seem at an impasse, it is not too late to reenergize them if both sides take a realistic view of the situation, Armstrong noted. ECOWAS and its partners should recognize the coup for what it is in the context of Niger’s political culture, she said. Although it should not stop pushing for the restoration of civilian power, she added, it should step back from the language of ultimatums and be willing to work with the junta to find a peaceful way forward.

The junta, for its part, could make two fairly easy gestures to help defuse the tensions, Armstrong believes. It could release deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and his family, who have been in custody since the coup. And it could reevaluate its three-year estimate for the restoration of constitutional order and “offer a realistic timetable.”

With the military junta leaders of neighboring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea backing Niger’s new rulers, issuing promises of support if conflict breaks out, the stakes are high and rising.

For all the latest information about the crisis in Niger and entire Sahel region, follow ICWA’s Sahel list on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Top photo: Nigerien Armed Forces conduct exercises in 2018 (U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Runser)