Niger’s military junta says it is severing military agreements with France, its former colonial ruler, firing some of the previous government’s key ambassadors and warning citizens of the West African nation to watch for foreign armies and spies. A regional delegation’s efforts at negotiation quickly deadlocked.
The junta’s announcement on state television late Thursday deepens the post-coup isolation for what had been the United States’ and allies’ last major security partner in the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara Desert that Islamic extremist groups have turned into the global center of terrorism.
With two days remaining before a deadline set by the West African regional bloc to release and reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum or face possible force, Bazoum in a plea published in a Washington Post opinion piece said, “I write this as a hostage” and urged the U.S. and partners to help.
The junta’s announcement brought further skepticism about any deal. It said it was terminating the military agreements and protocols signed with France and announced the end of functions for Niger’s ambassadors to France, the United States, Togo and neighboring Nigeria, which is leading ECOWAS efforts on dialogue.
“All aggression or attempt at aggression against the state of Niger will see an immediate response and without warning,” said a spokesman for the coup leaders, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, with the exception of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, which have expressed support for the coup. Mali and Burkina Faso have said such an intervention would be a declaration of war against them.
France’s Foreign Ministry responded that Paris only recognizes “the legitimate Nigerien authorities,” dismissing the move by coup leaders. France reiterated its call for “the re-establishment of the democratic institutions of Niger,” the ministry said.
Bazoum wrote that Niger’s security situation had been improving before the coup, in contrast to neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso that are led by military juntas, but said that’s now at risk because Niger would lose aid from foreign partners and extremist groups would take advantage of the country’s instability.
“In our hour of need, I call on the U.S. government and the entire international community to help us restore our constitutional order,” he wrote.
France has 1,500 military personnel in Niger, which had been envisioned as the base for counterterror operations in the region after anti-French sentiments grew elsewhere.
The U.S. has 1,100 military personnel in Niger, including at a key drone base, and indicates it’s reluctant to leave, especially with the growing influence of the Russian private military group Wagner in the Sahel.
“Interference by non-regional powers is unlikely to change the situation for the better,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a comment on Bazoum’s plea. “Of course, we are concerned about the tension that is now emerging in the region, and, as before, we stand for the speedy return of this situation to the constitutional track without any damage, without a threat, most importantly, to human lives.”
ECOWAS has been unsuccessful in stemming coups and is trying to change course with Niger in a region that has seen five of them in the past three years – two each in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, fulfilling a legal requirement, informed lawmakers on Friday of the ECOWAS intention to intervene militarily in Niger if the coup leaders “remain recalcitrant.”
But there are risks that any intervention could get Bazoum killed, said James Barnett, a researcher specializing in West Africa at the Hudson Institute. “You would have to have a very surgical rescue operation to ensure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Another concern is that the junta might arm civilian militias to resist any intervention. “Already they’ve been using the threat of an intervention to try to bolster their legitimacy and rally the population around the flag, quite literally by organizing some major rallies,” Barnett said. “I fear the junta would gladly use its own people as cannon fodder or human shields, and ECOWAS militaries don’t have a good record when it comes to avoiding collateral damage.”
Analysts said they’re not putting much faith in talks.
“I don’t expect mediation efforts to bear fruit in the short term. The junta is digging in … Seems like uncharted territory,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
Many people in Niamey didn’t appear concerned that ECOWAS will use force, while others wondered why the regional bloc hasn’t had the same resolve to tackle extremist violence.
“If ECOWAS has an army it could mobilize 1,000 soldiers per country … 15,000 soldiers. If ECOWAS was serious, why didn’t it consider mobilizing 15,000 soldiers to help Mali, Burkina and Niger, which are undergoing insecurity?” said Annassa Djibrilla, president of the Dynamic Citizen activist group.
Niger’s roughly 25 million people live in one of the poorest countries in the world, and any cuts in foreign aid could be disastrous. Already, citizens are feeling the effects after ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger and froze Nigerien assets held in regional central banks.
The bloc’s sanctions include halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90% of its power from Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Earlier this week, power transmission from Nigeria to Niger was cut off, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
There have been fears the junta could limit the export of uranium from Niger, which contributes 5% of the global share, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Some residents in Niamey said things can hardly get worse.
Abdou Naif lives in a makeshift community on the side of a road with some 140 other people, unable to pay rent or find work. “Our suffering is already enough,” he said.
– Sam Mednick, AP writers Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria; Elaine Ganley in Paris; Carley Petesch in Chicago and James Heintz contributed. AP News