16 August 2023

Nigeriens urged to volunteer to help junta amid invasion possibility

16 August 2023

Nigeriens are preparing for war against regional countries threatening to invade, three weeks after mutinous soldiers ousted the nation’s democratically-elected leader.

Residents in the capital, Niamey, are calling for the mass recruitment of volunteers to assist the army in the face of a growing threat by the West African regional bloc, Ecowas, which says it will use military force if the junta does not reinstate the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum.

Ecowas has activated a “stand-by force” to restore order in Niger after the junta ignored a deadline to reinstate and release Mr Bazoum.

The initiative, spearhead by a group of locals in Niamey, aims to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country to register for the Volunteers for the Defence of Niger, to fight, assist with medical care, and provide technical and engineering logistics among other functions, in case the junta needs help, according to Amsarou Bako, one of the founders.

“It’s an eventuality. We need to be ready whenever it happens,” he said.

The recruitment drive will launch on Saturday in Niamey as well as in cities where invasion forces might enter, such as near the borders with Nigeria and Benin – two countries which have said they would participate in any military intervention.

Anyone over 18 can register and the list will be given to the junta to call upon people if needed, said Mr Bako. The junta is not involved, but is aware of the initiative, he said.

Regional tensions are deepening as the stand-off between Niger and Ecowas shows no signs of defusing, despite signals from both sides that they are open to resolving the crisis peacefully.

Last week the junta said it was open to dialogue with Ecowas after rebuffing the bloc’s multiple efforts at talks, but shortly afterwards charged Mr Bazoum with “high treason” and recalled its ambassador from neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Ecowas defence chiefs are expected to meet this week, for the first time since the bloc announced the deployment of the “stand-by” force.

It is unclear when or if the force will invade, but it would probably include several thousand troops and would have devastating consequences, say conflict experts.

Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company, said: “A military intervention with no end in sight risks triggering a regional war, with catastrophic consequences for the vast Sahel that is already plagued by insecurity, displacement and poverty.”

Niger was seen as one of the last democratic countries in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, and a partner for Western nations in the effort to beat back growing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State group (IS).

France, the former colonial ruler, and the United States have approximately 2,500 military personnel in the region which train Niger’s military and, in the case of France, conduct joint operations.

Coups in the region have been rampant and the one in Niger is seen by the international community as one too many.

But analysts say the longer this drags on, the probability of an intervention fades as the junta cements its grip on power, likely forcing the international community to accept the status quo.

A diplomatic solution is likely, with the main question being how much military pressure is applied to make it happen, a Western official said.

On Tuesday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said there was still space for diplomacy to return the country to constitutional rule and said the US supported Ecowas’s dialogue efforts, including its contingency plans.

The new US ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, is expected to arrive in Niamey at the end of the week, according to an American official.

The United States has not had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years. Some Sahel experts say this has left Washington with less access to key players and information.

While regional and western countries scramble for how to respond, many Nigeriens are convinced they will soon be invaded.

The details of Niger’s volunteer force are still vague, but similar initiatives in neighbouring countries have yielded mixed results. Volunteer fighters in Burkina Faso, recruited to help the army battle its jihadi insurgency, have been accused by rights groups and locals of committing atrocities against civilians.

Bako, one of the heads of the group organizing Nigerien volunteers, said Niger’s situation is different.

“The (volunteers in Burkina Faso) are fighting the Burkinabe who took weapons against their own brothers … The difference with us is our people will fight against an intrusion,” he said.

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