The Threat of Sahelian Secession from ECOWAS and Implications of Niger Republic Flight Restrictions.

In an era marked by geopolitical complexities and security concerns, the February 6, 2024, release by the military government of the Niger Republic reiterated its ban on flights coming from and going to Nigeria while also outlining measures aimed at safeguarding its airspace to address potential threats emanating from neighbouring states. By delving into the specifics of this directive and its implications, we can glean insights into the evolving security landscape of the West African sub-region.

Firstly, to provide clarity, on February 6, 2024, Niger reiterated its September 2023 Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) as part of its reciprocal ban on flights to or from Nigeria, stating that Nigerian flights cannot land in Niger. However, the restriction does not affect commercial flights that fly over Nigerien airspace without landing there. It emphasised the need for ADB-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) or radar transponders (for surveillance and communication) to remain on for any flight taking place in the Niger Republic airspace. On the other hand, military, operational, and special flights are only permitted with prior authorization from competent authorities.

Notable timelines leading to the February announcement:

  • Recall that on July 26, 2023, the Military Junta took over the Niger Republic. 
  • In early August, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed its strictest sanctions, these included suspension of financial transactions, freezing of the country’s assets in external banks, and closing of air & land borders with other member states. The sanctions were accompanied by a warning of use of force if Niger’s coup leaders failed to reinstate ousted President Mohammed Bazoum within a week of the announcement.
  • The Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development had, on August 2, 2023, directed the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) enforcing a no-fly zone on all commercial flights between Nigeria and Niger. 
  • Niger announced the closure of its airspace on August 6, 2023, citing the threat of military intervention from neighbouring countries after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened military action to restore the elected President Mohamed Bazoum, who had been overthrown.
  • The airspace was reopened on September 4, 2023, for commercial flights but remained closed to all military, operational, and other special flights unless receiving prior authorization. However, on September 24, 2023, Niger’s military rulers banned “French aircraft” from flying over the country’s airspace, including those of the airline Air France, due to a political dispute.
  • On September 16, 2023, the military leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed a mutual defence pact under the Liptako-Gourma Charter, termed the Alliance of Sahel States, created to establish a collective defence and mutual assistance framework.
  • Burkina Faso, the Republic of Mali, and the Republic of Niger, in a joint statement on January 28, 2024, made public their decision to leave ECOWAS immediately
  • On January 29, 2024, NAMA restated the suspension, which exempted over-flight aircraft passing through Niger airspace, aircraft in a state of emergency, and special flights, which require authorization from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development. Associated restrictions on commercial flights between Nigeria and Niger comply with directives from ECOWAS. 

The flight restrictions also restrict flights from any nation from passing through Nigerian airspace on their way to Niger and limits flights from Niger from overflying Nigeria and vice versa. However, aircraft in an emergency, special flights approved by the Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace, and flights from foreign nations that cross Nigerien airspace will be allowed to utilise Nigerian airspace.

The ramifications of this directive extend far beyond the realm of aviation, casting a shadow over diplomatic relations and regional cooperation. The apparent aim to deter potential military incursions from Nigeria underscores the heightened security concerns prevalent in the region. Evidence of international flights re-routing to avoid potential misinterpretation of the directive highlights the immediate impact on air travel patterns and safety protocols. 

Moreover, the prospect of increased demand for alternative flight routes underscores the dynamic nature of security challenges in the region.

In an exclusive interview with General Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the military junta in the Niger Republic, held on February 12, 2024, his assertion regarding the Sahel countries’ disengagement from the ECOWAS further underscores the geopolitical tensions at play. 

As the diplomatic relationship between Nigeria and Niger strains under the weight of security imperatives, the broader implications of this directive cannot be overstated. Beyond the aviation sector, the ripple effects of heightened tensions may disrupt regional stability and cooperation, potentially impeding ambitious infrastructure projects like the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline. The completion of the pipeline project pledged to be completed in 2030, seeking to boost the two nations’ gas exports and revenue, cannot be affirmed as delays from the pull-out can affect the project. Similarly, the railroad from Kano to Maradi, marked for completion in 2025, can also be delayed due to the ongoing dispute.

The two states have been fighting Islamist extremist militants around Lake Chad. This growing tension can impair counter-terrorism efforts under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which is comprised of Lake Chad Basin states, including Cameroon, Benin, Nigeria, and Niger. Other security cooperation includes dismantling organised crime networks involved in illicit economic activities and cross-border crime, drug and human trafficking, the illicit trade of natural resources, and gender-based violence. 

Terrorist GroupBase of operationsActivitiesAffiliations
Jamat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daawah wa al-Jihd (JAS) also known as Boko Haram.Nigeria, Niger, and CameroonInsurgency, Kidnapping, bombings, and attacks on hard and soft targetsIslamic State (allegedly)
Boko Haram Splinter groupsNiger, Chad, Nigeria, and CameroonInsurgency, Kidnapping, bombings, and attacks on hard and soft targetsJAS (formally), Various Local affiliations.
Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).Nigeria, NigerInsurgency, Kidnapping, bombings, and attacks on hard and soft targetsIslamic State (ISIS)
AnsaruNigeriaKidnapping, attacks on security forces, and Western interestsAl-Qaeda (Formerly)Islamic State (Allegedly)
Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM)Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and ChadInsurgency, Kidnapping, smuggling, bombings, and attacks on hard and soft targetsAl-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Islamic State—Sahel Province (ISSP), formerly Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS)Mali, Niger, and Burkina FasoInsurgency, Kidnapping, bombings, and attacks on hard and soft targetsIslamic State

There is also the conjecture that this may significantly affect individuals who rely on cross-border trade in Nigeria and could cause food insecurity in the North East and North West regions of Nigeria. In navigating these complexities, a proactive approach to security coordination and diplomatic dialogue remains paramount to safeguarding mutual interests and fostering enduring regional peace and stability. Due to rising economic challenges and insecurity on both ends of the spectrum, there remains a crucial impact on human welfare and social reform, especially for refugees and vulnerable populations caught in limbo.

It is assessed as credible that the ban on flights and closing of borders between the two states will have a significant impact on regional security and stability. The restrictions continue to exacerbate tension and make coordinating security operations difficult, given the lingering prospect of military confrontation at hand. There is also a risk of internal unrest in both Niger and Nigeria due to deteriorating economic constraints tied to border restrictions.

The consensus at the moment is the failure to exhaust all available diplomatic means and the negative impact of a relatively unsuccessful threat of military intervention, which not only created more hostility but also forced the Sahelien trio to seek alternative support, the inability to direct narrative to the major issue; which is the refusal of the military junta in the three countries to hand over power to democratically elected governments created opportunities for external parties such as Russia to exploit and draw in a broader geopolitical conundrum to our backyard, spouting fears of proxy wars. 

If the situation is left to fester, the long-term implications might see the growing decline of democratic rule in the sub-region especially with political instability at varying levels, as we have seen in Senegal, for example, and growing anti-French rhetoric tied to information warfare. To avoid further tension, which bears the prospect of conflict, we have at our disposal strong socio-cultural and military ties to leverage in fostering dialogue, compromise, and possible agreement, taking into consideration that respect the sovereignty of both parties and allow for a peaceful resolution and redirection back to democratic rule. This is essential to avoid the continued fragmentation of ECOWAS. The upcoming Muslim month of Ramadan is offering a face-saving opportunity that ECOWAS can capitalize upon to recalibrate and offer an olive branch to allow for the resumption of a diplomatic rapprochement with the trio of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali.