08 August 2023

Niger faces possible military action after ‘difficult’ talks with junta

08 August 2023

People in Niger are facing deepening uncertainty about whether a regional bloc will follow through on its threat to use military force to try to reinstall ousted president Mohamed Bazoum or if last-minute diplomacy will prevail.

The West African regional bloc Ecowas gave the mutinous soldiers until Sunday to release and reinstall Mr Bazoum or they threatened to use force.

Members from Ecowas, the United Nations and the African Union were expected to join talks in the capital, Niamey, on Tuesday.

On Monday, acting US deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland met the coup leaders in Niger and said they refused to allow her to meet Mr Bazoum, whom she described as under “virtual house arrest”.

She described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to her appeals to start negotiations and restore constitutional rule.

“These conversations were extremely frank and at times quite difficult because, again, we are pushing for a negotiated solution. It was not easy to get traction there. They are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed,” Ms Nuland told reporters on a call from Niamey.

Talks are expected throughout the week. Ecowas is expected to meet again on Thursday in Abuja, the capital of neighbouring Nigeria, to discuss the situation.

Niger has been a crucial partner to the US and other European countries, which viewed it as one of the last democratic nations in the vast Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, that they could partner with to fight growing jihadi violence linked to al Qaida and the so-called Islamic State group.

If deemed a coup by the US, Niger will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and other aid.

Coups have been rampant in the region in recent years.

Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have had two each since 2020, and Ecowas had little influence in stopping them.

The bloc’s harsh response to Niger, by imposing economic and travel sanctions and threatening force, is an attempt to change course but the junta does not appear open to dialogue. On Sunday, it closed the country’s airspace and accused foreign powers of preparing an attack.

Analysts and diplomats say the window for military intervention is closing and without regional support for the use of force, Ecowas and others are searching for a way out.

“A lot of the tough talk from the region and beyond is perhaps more a reflection of how they wish they had responded to previous in coups in Mali, Burkina and Guinea,” said Cameron Hudson, a former official for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Similarly, Washington and Paris will now have to make their own hard choices about working with junta leaders on counterterrorism or risk ceding hard-won ground to jihadist groups and possibly Russia, he said.

The junta, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, has been exploiting grievances among the population toward its former colonial ruler France and has asked the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, for help.

Wagner already operates in a handful of African countries, including Mali, and has been accused of committing human rights abuses.

Nearly two weeks since the coup and Niamey’s mostly quiet streets are interspersed with pro-junta rallies, anti-foreign rhetoric and residents waving Russian flags.

The ruling military has called on the population to defend the country and groups of self-organised, mostly young people gather each night at some dozen roundabouts in the capital to search cars for weapons and look for foreign forces.

It is unclear how much genuine support there is for the junta, but it appears to have rallied some civil society and political groups to its side.

“It was not the military that provoked it. It’s a consequence of political and social policy choices,” said Amadou Roufai mahaman, general secretary for the Union of Pan-African Patriots, a political opposition group.

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