Supporters of Niger junta were at the weekend forced to suspend the census of willing youths seeking to volunteer to perform non-military roles in the event of an invasion by ECOWAS’s forces after been overwhelmed by the turnout, but a delegation from the West African bloc arrived in Niger and met ousted president Mohamed Bazoum on Saturday.
Both situations are playing out as the Niger Republic military Head of State, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, has declared that the country will return to civilian rule within the next three years.
He flayed the “illegal and inhuman” sanctions imposed by the ECOWAS, maintaining that Niger Republic is not looking for war, but was ready to defend itself if compelled to do so.
In a televised 12 minutes broadcast on Saturday, August 19, 2023, was short on details of the transition plan.
“Our ambition is not to confiscate power. Transition period will not exceed three years. Meanwhile, political parties are urged to submit their vision for the transition within 30 days….
“Any intervention (by ECOWAS) will open a Pandora’s Box and will not be the walk in the park some people seem to think”.
Recall that Nigerien’s coup leaders had previously rebuffed the delegation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but on Saturday the country’s Prime Minister, Ali Lamine Zeine received the team led by Nigeria’s former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Muhammad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto as well as Omar Touray, ECOWAS commission president.
They came to seek a peaceful rather than military solution to the country’s woes after army officers seized power in a coup.
Bazoum was “in good spirits”, a source close to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) told AFP — though he remains under detention and his electricity was still cut off.
He has been held with his family at the president’s official residence since the coup, with growing international concern over his conditions in detention.
The ECOWAS delegation was also in Niger for talks with the officers who seized power from Bazoum on July 26.
Led by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar, the West African representatives met with some of the senior officers who seized power, said the source, without saying if they included coup leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani.
A previous ECOWAS delegation led by Abubakar earlier this month had tried and failed to meet him, or Bazoum.
President will not be harmed
Saturday’s visit came after ECOWAS military chiefs announced they were ready to intervene to reinstate the ousted president.
ECOWAS has agreed to activate a “standby force” as a last resort to restore democracy in Niger.
But it says it favours dialogue to defuse the crisis.
A source close to Saturday’s delegation said it would send “a message of firmness” to the army officers and meet Bazoum.
ECOWAS chair and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on Friday threatened Niamey with “grave consequences” if the new regime allows Bazoum’s health to worsen, an EU official said.
Niger’s military-appointed prime minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, told The New York Times that Bazoum would not be harmed.
“Nothing will happen to him, because we don’t have a tradition of violence in Niger,” the most senior civilian in the new regime told the daily.
Niger’s new rulers have so far shown little flexibility and warned against an “illegal aggression”.
Thousands of volunteers turned out in central Niamey on Saturday answering a call to register as civilian auxiliaries who could be mobilised to support the army.
ECOWAS defence chiefs had met this week in the Ghanaian capital Accra to fine-tune details of a potential military operation to restore Bazoum if ongoing negotiations with coup leaders fail.
“We are ready to go any time the order is given,” Abdel-Fatau Musah, an ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs and security, said on Friday after the military chiefs’ meeting.
“The D-Day is also decided.”
ECOWAS leaders say they have to act after Niger became the fourth West African nation since 2020 to suffer a coup, following Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
The Sahel region is struggling with growing jihadist insurgencies linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Frustration over the violence has in part prompted the military takeovers.
ECOWAS troops have intervened in other emergencies since 1990, including civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria are expected to contribute troops to a Niger mission.
But details of any Niger operation have not been released and analysts say intervention would be politically and militarily risky, especially for regional player Nigeria.
Nigeria is already struggling to contain violence from several armed groups at home, and leaders in the country’s north have warned about spillover from Niger across the border if there is an intervention.
The coup leaders have defiantly threatened to charge Bazoum with treason. But they have also said they are open to talks.
The military-ruled governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have also said an intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war against them.
In the hours following the coup, France, which fields 1,500 troops in Niger, was asked to back a potential armed move to restore Bazoum to office, sources close to the affair told AFP, confirming a report in Le Monde daily.
“But the loyalists changed sides and joined the putschists. So the conditions were not right to meet the request for support,” the source said.
ECOWAS has already applied trade and financial sanctions on Niger, while France, Germany and the United States have suspended aid programmes.
Also on Saturday, the United States, a major partner of Niger in the fight against jihadists, said that a new ambassador had been installed in Niamey.
Kathleen FitzGibbon, a career diplomat with extensive experience in Africa, will not however officially present her letter of assignment to the new authorities in place, as Washington does not recognise them.
Meanwhile, thousands of youths answered the call by Niger Junta’s for volunteers ahead of ECOWAS invasion, but supporters of the junta were forced on Saturday to halt a census of people willing to volunteer for non-military roles because they had been overwhelmed by the numbers who turned up.
Thousands of mostly young men had massed outside a stadium in the capital Niamey hours before the scheduled start-time of the event – a sign of the strong support in some quarters for the junta, which has defied international pressure to stand down after the July 26 ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum.
“In all our calculations and our understandings, we never thought we could mobilise (this number of people),” said Younoussa Hima, co-organiser of the initiative dubbed “The Mobilisation of Young People for the Fatherland”.
“So it is really difficult for us today to do this work. That is what made us halt this census,” Hima said by the stadium after the crowds dispersed.
West Africa’s main regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on Friday said it had agreed an undisclosed “D-Day” for a possible military intervention if diplomatic efforts fail – an escalation that could further destabilise a conflict-torn and impoverished region.
Organisers of the Niamey recruitment drive said they did not intend to sign up volunteers for the army, but rather to gather a list of people willing to lend their civilian skills in case ECOWAS attacks.
But many of those around the stadium appeared keen to fight.
“They called on the youth to respond to a possible attack on our soil. And we are ready for any attack,” said blogger Tahirou Seydou Abdoul Nassirou.
“My life, I give my life to my country,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye as other young men nodded and cheered his words.
An ECOWAS delegation flew into Niamey on Saturday to hold talks with the junta, showing that efforts to resolve the standoff peacefully are still underway.
The level of support for the junta across Niger has been hard to assess, but thousands attended a previous rally at the stadium on Aug. 11 and applauded coup leaders’ vow to stand up to the bloc.
At the stadium on Saturday, 35-year-old Kader Haliou said patriotism was not the only motivation for those wanting to help the junta.
“Most of the young people who have come are unemployed. Getting registered is a blessing for us given the idleness and lack of work,” he said.
The coup and subsequent international sanctions have piled extra pressure on Niger’s struggling economy. It is one of the world’s least developed countries with more than 40% of the population living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
▪︎ Additional report by AFP & REUTERS