Supporter of Niger junta says region needs to accept new regime or risk war

Supporter of Niger junta says region needs to accept new regime or risk war

The only way to avoid conflict between soldiers who ousted the president in Niger and regional countries threatening an invasion to reinstate him is by recognising the new regime, says an activist linked to the junta.

Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who supports Niger’s new military rulers in its communications and says he is in direct contact with them, told AP there will be no dialogue with regional countries until they acknowledge the new head of state.

Nearly three weeks ago mutinous soldiers led by the head of the presidential guard, Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani, overthrew the West African country’s democratically elected president, claiming they could do a better job of securing the nation from growing violence linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Gen Tchiani was declared in charge of the country.

The West African regional bloc, Ecowas, has threatened to use military force if President Mohamed Bazoum, who took office two years ago, is not released and reinstated. However, the junta has dismissed its warnings and refused most attempts at dialogue.

“There is only one option, accepting the regime or war,” said Mr Saidou. “It is finished for Bazoum, you must forget about him. It is finished, it is a waste of time trying to restore him. It is not possible,” he said.

On Thursday, Ecowas said it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after its Sunday deadline to reinstate Mr Bazoum expired.

It’s unclear when, or where the force will be deployed, but analysts say it could include up to 5,000 troops from countries including Nigeria, Benin, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

While the bloc says it wants mediation to prevail, multiple attempts by Ecowas, as well as others, have yielded little.

Last week a proposed visit by Ecowas, the UN and the African Union was rejected citing “evident reasons of security in this atmosphere of menace” against Niger.

A day earlier acting US deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland met members of the junta but could not speak to Gen Tchiani or see Mr Bazoum.

Representatives of the junta told her that Mr Bazoum would be killed if Ecowas invaded Niger, according to two Western military officials who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Niger soldiers declare coup on national TV

Niger soldiers declare coup on national TV

Many Western nations saw Niger as one of the last democratic countries in the Sahel region, the vast expanse south of the Sahara, that they could partner with to beat back the growing jihadi threat.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into providing equipment and training for Niger’s military by specialised French and US forces, all of which could now be used by the junta to tighten its grip on power.

The military regime is already entrenching itself, appointing a new government and stoking anti-French sentiment towards its former colonial ruler, to shore up support.

On Friday, hundreds of people protested outside the French military base in the capital, Niamey, chanting “down with France” and waving Russian flags.

Mercenaries from the Russian-linked Wagner group already operate in a handful of other African countries and are accused of committing human rights abuses. Earlier this month during a trip to neighbouring Mali, which is also run by a military regime and co-operates with Wagner, the junta reportedly asked the mercenaries for help.

“We don’t agree with France. We want France to leave our country and go to their country. This is Niger, not France,” said Souleymane Djibo a demonstrator.

Days after Ecowas’ order for the standby force to deploy, it’s still unclear what that entails or if they’ll invade. The African Union Peace and Security Council could overrule the decision if it felt that an intervention would threaten wider security on the continent, say analysts. The African Union is expected to meet Monday to discuss Niger’s crisis.

Some Sahel experts say the insistence on force is a cover to spare Ecowas from the embarrassment of having made a threat with no real capacity or notion of how to execute it.

“The bloc is acting like a poker player who tried (to) bluff and, when called on it, raised the stakes to buy time. In both card games and in geopolitics, when one tries to bluff, one is rarely so lucky as to have an opponent fooled into folding,” said Peter Pham, former US special envoy for West Africa’s Sahel region and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Still, if fighting does ensue, the most battle-experienced and best-equipped militaries in West Africa either belong to Niger, or are sympathetic to it, such as Mali and Burkina Faso. Both countries have opposed the intervention and sent delegations to Niger to discuss joint defence efforts.

Italian, other European and US citizens evacuated from Niger arrive at Rome’s Ciampino Airport. Reuters

Activist Mr Saidou said no matter how Ecowas plans to invade, be it by land through neighbouring Benin or Nigeria or by air, any attack on the palace will result in Mr Bazoum’s death.

While he didn’t confirm a deliberate plan to murder the now-ousted president, he said that if an invasion began soldiers would kill him. “There is no one among the soldiers still loyal to Bazoum,” he added.

He dismissed reports that Mr Bazoum’s conditions under house arrest in his presidential compound were dire and said he had access to medical care if needed and still had his phone, a sign that no one wanted to harm him. He did not say how he had knowledge of the president’s condition.

Mr Saidou said Mr Bazoum was being kept for his own security and the only way for him to be released was for Ecowas to accept that his time in office was finished.

Those close to the president, however, paint a much starker picture.

Since the July 26 coup, Mr Bazoum has been confined with his wife and son to the basement of his presidential compound, which is surrounded by guards and is cut off from supplies of food, electricity, water and cooking gas. Niger’s ambassador to the US, Mamadou Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, told the AP that the junta is trying to starve Mr Bazoum to death.

On Friday, UN human rights chief Volker Turk said he was extremely concerned about Mr Bazoum’s rapidly deteriorating condition, calling the family’s treatment “inhuman and degrading” and in violation of international human rights law.

Updated: August 12, 2023, 11:52 AM

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