Picture: AFP – Members of the Armed Forces of Senegal met on the sidelines of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Head of States and Government extraordinary session in Abuja, this week. West African leaders held an emergency summit on the coup in Niger on Thursday and to activate a force for possible military intervention after the new Nigerien military rulers defied an ultimatum to restore the elected president to office and pressed ahead with appointing a new government.
By REUTERS and AFP
West African leaders were weighing their next moves yesterday as they seek to overturn a military coup in Niger that has rocked the region but also triggered a groundswell of support in the country. Niger’s military imprisoned President Mohamed Bazoum last month and assumed power, drawing condemnation from international powers and raising the spectre of further conflict in the impoverished Sahel region of West Africa which is already overrun by a deadly Islamist insurgency.
The regional bloc Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) decided to activate a task force this week, drawing on troops from across the region for a possible military intervention to undo what was the seventh coup in West and Central Africa in three years. At stake is not just the fate of Niger – a major uranium producer and key Western ally in the fight against the Islamists – but also the concerns of global powers with key strategic interests in the semi-desert zone. French, US, German and Italian troops are stationed in Niger to repel local affiliates of al-Qaeda and Islamic State that have killed thousands and displaced millions across the Sahel.
Western powers fear Russian influence could grow stronger if the junta in Niger follows Mali’s example by ejecting Western troops and inviting in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group. Thousands of people gathered in Niger’s capital on Friday to demonstrate in favour of the coup. The rally began at a French military base in the capital Niamey and then protesters with signs and flags spread onto surrounding streets. “Long live Russia”, one protester’s sign read. “Down with France … Down with Ecowas”.
Regional army chiefs were set to meet in the coming days. It was not yet clear how long the Ecowas force would take to assemble, how big it would be, and if it would actually invade. The organisation stressed that all options were on the table, and it hoped for a peaceful resolution. Security analysts said the force could take weeks to set up, potentially leaving room for negotiations. The West African leaders deferred a crisis meeting yesterday on dealing with the coup in Niger after approving the deployment of a “standby force to restore constitutional order” as soon as possible.
The Chiefs of staff from member states of the West African bloc were scheduled to attend a meeting on Saturday in the Ghanaian capital Accra but later indefinitely suspended it for “technical reasons”. Sources said the meeting was originally set up to inform the organisation’s leaders about “the best options” for activating and deploying the standby force. “The military option seriously envisaged by Ecowas is not a war against Niger and its people but a police operation against hostage takers and their accomplices,” Niger’s Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said yesterday.
Ecowas is determined to stop the sixth military takeover in the region in just three years and has severed financial transactions and electricity supplies and closed borders with landlocked Niger, blocking much-needed imports to one of the world’s poorest countries. Niger’s new leaders have accused former colonial power France, a close Bazoum ally, of being behind the hardline Ecowas stance. Niger’s junta scrapped defence agreements with France last week, while a hostile protest outside the French embassy in Niamey on July 30 prompted Paris to evacuate its citizens.
Fears for Bazoum
The EU and the AU joined others in sounding the alarm for Bazoum on Friday. UN rights chief Volker Turk said Bazoum’s reported detention conditions “could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of international human rights law”. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that the “coup plotters must face harsh consequences should anything happen” to Bazoum or his family. Top US diplomat Antony Blinken said he was “dismayed” by the military’s refusal to release Bazoum’s family as a “demonstration of goodwill”.
A source close to Bazoum said: “He’s okay, but the conditions are very difficult”. The coup leaders had threatened to assault him in the event of military intervention. Human Rights Watch said it had spoken to Bazoum earlier this week. The 63-year-old described the treatment of himself, his wife and their 20-year-old son as “inhuman and cruel”, HRW said. “I’m not allowed to receive my family members (or) my friends who have been bringing food and other supplies to us,” the group quoted him as saying. “My son is sick, has a serious heart condition, and needs to see a doctor,” he was quoted as saying. “They’ve refused to let him get medical treatment.”
Under pressure to stem a cascade of coups among its members, Ecowas had previously issued a seven-day ultimatum to the coup leaders to return Bazoum to power. But the generals defied the deadline, which expired last Sunday without any action being taken. The coup leaders have since named a new government, which met for the first time on Friday.
Since 1990, the 15-country bloc has intervened in six of its members at times of civil war, insurrection or political turmoil. But the possibility of intervention in deeply fragile Niger has sparked debate within its ranks and warnings from neighbouring Algeria as well as from Russia. Moscow, whose influence in the region has grown, said a military solution “could lead to a protracted confrontation” in Niger and “a sharp destabilisation” across the Sahel.
The president of Ecowas member, Cape Verde, Jose Maria Neves, spoke out against military intervention on Friday and said his country was unlikely to participate in such a campaign. Military-ruled Ecowas nations Mali and Burkina Faso have warned an intervention would be a “declaration of war” on their countries. General Salifou Mody, Niger’s new defence minister, made a brief visit to Mali on Friday, according to a Malian presidential adviser speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coup is Niger’s fifth since the landlocked country gained independence from France in 1960. Like Mali and Burkina Faso, the country is struggling with a brutal jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives, forced many people from their homes and undermined faith in government.
Reporting from Reuters and AFP