Niger’s coup leader has proposed a three-year transition of power after meeting a delegation of West African leaders and warned that any attack on the country would “not be a walk in the park” for those involved.
General Abdourahmane Tchiani, speaking on national television late on Saturday, gave no details on the potential transition, saying only that the principles for the move would be decided within 30 days at a dialogue to be hosted by the ruling military council.
“Neither the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland nor the people of Niger want war, and remain open to dialogue,” he said after his first meeting with delegates from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the Nigerien capital, Niamey.
“But let us be clear: If an attack were to be undertaken against us, it will not be the walk in the park some people seem to think,” he said.
ECOWAS has imposed severe sanctions on Niger following the July 26 coup and has ordered the deployment of a “standby force” to restore constitutional rule in the country. The bloc said on Friday that an undisclosed “D-Day” had been agreed for possible military intervention and that 11 of its 15 member states had agreed to commit troops to the operation.
In his 12-minute speech, Tchiani claimed ECOWAS was “getting ready to attack Niger by setting up an occupying army in collaboration with a foreign army” and denounced what he called “illegal” and “inhuman” sanctions imposed by the regional bloc.
“I reaffirm here that our ambition is not to confiscate power. I also reaffirm our readiness to engage in any dialogue, as long as it takes into account the orientations desired by the proud and resilient people of Niger,” he added.
ECOWAS has taken a harder stance on Niger’s July 26 coup, the region’s seventh in three years, than it has on previous ones in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.
The bloc – despite threatening military intervention – is also pursuing diplomatic ways to reverse the power grab in Niger, a country that has strategic importance for regional and global powers because of its uranium and oil reserves as well as its role as a hub for foreign troops involved in the fight against armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
ECOWAS meets Bazoum
While Niger’s coup leaders have rebuffed previous missions, Saturday’s delegation, headed by former Nigerian head of state General Abdulsalami Abubakar, was met at the airport by the military-appointed prime minister, according to the Reuters news agency.
After meeting Tchiani, the bloc also met separately with toppled President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been held under house arrest in Niamey since the military takeover.
“We met Bazoum, we heard from him what was done to him. He told us about the problems he’s facing. We’ll take it to the leaders who sent us here,” said Abubakar. “Without doubt, the meeting has opened discussions to lead to a way to resolve this crisis.”
The ECOWAS delegation’s arrival in Niamey followed that of the new United States ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon.
A spokesman for the US State Department said the new envoy’s “diplomatic focus will be to advocate for a diplomatic solution that preserves the constitutional order” and the immediate release of Bazoum, his family and all those unlawfully detained.
The United Nations has also joined the reconciliation efforts, sending its special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simao, to Niamey on a mission to facilitate a swift and peaceful resolution to Niger’s crisis.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Niamey on Saturday, many residents said they were preparing to fight back against an ECOWAS military intervention.
Thousands of people lined up outside the main stadium to register as fighters and volunteers to help with other needs in case the military requires support. Some people said they had been waiting since 3am, while groups of youths boisterously chanted in favour of the military rulers and against ECOWAS as well as the country’s former colonial ruler France.
″I am here for the recruitment to become a good soldier. We are all here for that,” said Ismail Hassan, a resident waiting in line to register. “If God wills, we will all go.”
Events organiser Amsarou Bako claimed the military was not involved in recruiting volunteers to defend the coup, although it is aware of the initiative. Hours after the drive started, the organizers said it would be postponed, but did not explain why.
Despite the apparent public support for the coup leaders, analysts say the military has not managed to exert full control over the country.
“This junta is throwing every tactic it has heard about and seeing if it will work. They have professed to have freedom of choice, yet they have repressed all of the pro-Bazoum protests and my understanding is that there have been demonstrations or attempted demonstrations all over the country,” said Bisa Williams, who served as a former US ambassador to Niger.
“I have heard lots of reports of discontent within the military and you are seeing a lot of vulnerability in Niger right now, since so many of the armed forces have been pulled into Niamey and away from the outskirts of the other regions of the country, leaving these areas wide open,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So, there’s disorientation, there’s confusion, and I understand there’s a lot of discord in the ranks.”
Prior to the coup, Western countries had seen Niger as one of the last democratic nations they could partner with to beat back al-Qaeda and ISIL in the Sahel region, and poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into shoring up Niger’s forces.
But the political turmoil in Niger has strengthened the hand of these groups, with former fighters telling The Associated Press they have been taking advantage of the freedom of movement caused by suspended military operations of the French and US troops as well as the distracted Nigerien army.
Last week, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in an ambush by fighters. It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months. A day later, at least 50 civilians were killed in the Tillaberi region by fighters believed to be members of ISIL, the AP reported, citing an internal security report for aid groups.
“While Niger’s leaders are consumed by politics in the capital, the drumbeat of lethal jihadist attacks goes on in the countryside,” said Corinne Dufka a political analyst who specialises in the Sahel region.
“The recent attacks should motivate all parties to work for as speedy and inclusive a transition as possible so they can get back to the crucial business of protecting civilians from the devastating consequences of war,” she told the AP.