NAIROBI, Kenya – As the standoff over a coup in Niger deepens, Catholic leaders in Africa are cautioning against a military intervention in the West African country.
On July 26, Abdourahamane Tchiani, the general commander of the presidential guard and a former U.N. peacekeeper, proclaimed himself the leader of a new military junta in the country, after seizing power and detaining President Mohamed Bazoum.
Tensions are rising in Niger, with the international community pressuring talks and the Church calling for a voice of reason. This is the fifth coup in the former French colony, which gained independence in 1960.
In Niamey, the capital, reports indicated that citizens were storing food and other basic items, in anticipation of a military intervention threatened by the Economic Community of West African States if the new military leaders did not reinstate the president by Aug. 7. The military in Niger reacted with defiance, and the deadline has since passed. ECOWAS is a regional political and economic union of 15 African nations.
"We as (the) conference of bishops in Burkina Faso and Niger have delivered our messages that we do not support any military intervention as a solution to the current crisis in Niger," Bishop Laurent Birfouré Dabiré of Dori, president of bishops' conference of Burkina Faso and Niger told a news conference in Nairobi Aug. 9.
"The bishops in West Africa have also reinforced that they do not support ECOWA's proposal for a military intervention," Bishop Birfouré Dabiré said in answering an OSV News question.
But the coup leaders have remained stubborn, rejecting the West African country’s ultimatum and closing the country’s airspace. Tchiani, the leader of the junta, known as National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, also has rejected a diplomatic mission from the African Union and the United Nations.
His actions have since received a backing from Burkina Faso and Mali, two neighboring countries, which recently experienced similar coups. On Aug. 2, General Salifou Mody, one of the Niger officers who seized power in the military coup in late July, visited Mali amid speculation of a possible interest in the Wagner mercenary group, which has a presence in the country, CNN reported.
Seemingly, the junta also is enjoying support from the ordinary citizens. On Aug. 6, thousands of people marched through the streets of Niamey in support of the coup leader.
Niger – an uranium-rich landlocked country – was, until July 26, a key Western ally in the fight against illegal migration to Europe and jihadist groups that have plagued the Sahel region since 2012. According to reports, France has stationed up to 1,500 troops in Niger, while the U.S. has 1,100 there for the purposes of fighting the jihadists.
The country is largely Islamic with more than 98% of the 25 million population being Muslim. Catholics, Protestants and other religions constitute less than 2%.
According to Father Innocent Maganya, the director of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue and Islamic Studies at Tangaza University in Nairobi – military intervention in Niger would bring third party countries and even more chaos.
"Only … peaceful negotiations must be allowed, so that a peaceful solution is found. All diplomatic channels should be exhausted and the place of religious leaders in the process also be considered," Father Maganya told OSV News in a telephone interview Aug. 8.
"War does not solve the problem, but it worsens the situation. We need to send this message strongly," he said.
Church leaders, diplomats and analysts fear that a military intervention in Niger would turn bloody and result in the deaths of thousands, if not more, due to direct impact of the fighting or other consequences such as food shortages.
As he urged the African states to abandon the idea of using military force against the junta in Niger, Archbishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of Owerri, the president of the bishops’ conference of Nigeria, warned that using force would result in the shedding of innocent blood.
"We are begging President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to dissuade ECOWAS Heads of States to resist the temptation of going to war against the coup plotters," Archbishop Urgorji said, quoted by Vatican News Aug. 7. "We beg them to stop the imminent bloodshed that will trail the military intervention . We have wasted a lot of human blood in Africa," said the archbishop of Owerri.
Concerns that the military intervention could easily get out of hand and destabilize the whole of Sahel also have emerged. The region was already pressed down by armed groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Ordinary citizens in the region also are struggling with the devastating climate change and inflation that has led to rising costs of stable food.
"On one side, we condemn taking power by the military since this is a setback against democratic gains, but then on the other, we have foreign powers trying to impose a military solution," Father Maganya said, adding that diplomatic avenues would help avoid bloodshed.
"Using force to restore constitutional order is not the best solution. Burkina Faso has said no, Mali has said no and Chad has said no. (Therefore), Niger risks becoming a battlefield where foreign powers test their (military) muscles. On one side you have Russia and on the other you have the West," he said.
At the same time, Bishop Dabiré pointed out that the recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and now Niger resulted from political instability caused mainly by bad governance.
According to the bishop, in the crises, the Church in the region was accompanying the people so that there is a quick transition to peace and a return to normality.
"The Church does not support any coup d'etat, but is accompanying processes of transition to good governance," he said.
Bishop Jonas Dembélé of Kayes, the president of the Episcopal Conference in Mali said the bishops' conferences in West Africa had come together to address the crises, while emphasizing that evil should not add to evil.
"We are carrying the message of peace as the Church. We are urging the states to do the same. This is the same message we are bringing to the African Union as well, so that it can also take chances and promote peace in Africa," he said at the Aug. 9 press conference in Nairobi, adding that the Churches were going beyond just addressing crises at the national level to acting to prevent them within local communities.
"We also (are) calling on countries in Africa to see how they can promote democracy because at the moment it is democracy which is required in West Africa," he said.
Fredrick Nzwili writes for OSV News from Nairobi, Kenya.