West African nations were to determine on Friday an intervention plan if Niger’s coup is not overturned by the weekend after mediation failed in a crisis troubling global powers.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a hard stance on last week’s toppling of President Mohamed Bazoum: the seventh coup in West and Central Africa since 2020.
Given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in a war with Islamist rebels, Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia.
Western donors have cut support in protest, even though Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations and relies on aid for 40% of its budget. Regional countries have imposed economic sanctions that residents said were starting to bite.
The new military junta, led by former presidential guard commander Abdourahamane Tiani, this week revoked military cooperation pacts with former colonial power France, as neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso did after their coups.
Paris shrugged that off, saying on Friday that though it had seen the statement by “some Nigerien army men”, it only recognised legitimate authorities. French officials also said that Niger’s ambassador to Paris was still in place, after the junta said it had ended her post.
France has between 1,000-1,500 troops in Niger, supported by drones and warplanes, helping battle groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel region. The United States, Germany and Italy also have troops stationed in Niger.
Niger’s armed forces chief acknowledged in January that cooperation with Western powers had been helping in the fight.
The junta has cited persistent insecurity as its main justification for seizing power, but data on attacks shows security had actually been improving.
Detained at the presidential residence in Niger’s capital Niamey, Bazoum, 63, who was elected in 2021, said in his first remarks since the coup that he was a hostage and in need of U.S. and international help.
“If it (the coup) succeeds, it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, backing ECOWAS’ economic and travel sanctions.
The 15-member regional bloc sent a delegation to Niamey on Thursday seeking an “amicable resolution”, but a source in the entourage said a meeting at the airport with the junta’s representatives yielded no breakthrough.
“All our efforts to meet with the leader of the junta failed,” the Nigerian presidential source said, adding they flew out in the early hours.
ECOWAS has threatened to use force if Bazoum is not back in power by Sunday. Its defence chiefs were ending a days-long meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday.
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu told his government to prepare for options including deployment of military personnel, in a letter read out to the Senate on Friday.
The junta has denounced outside interference and said it will resist any aggression. Tiani, 59, served as battalion commander for ECOWAS forces during conflicts in Ivory Coast in 2003, so he knows what such intervention missions involve.
Support for him from fellow juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso also undermines West African unity over Niger.
Russia, whose private mercenary Wagner group has cheered the coup, on Friday repeated its call for a return to constitutional rule.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner which has forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, last week said his forces were available to restore order in Niger.
Bazoum said the coup spelt chaos for his nation, with prices already soaring, and Islamists plus the Wagner group likely to exploit the situation.
“With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine,” he wrote.
Pro-Moscow propaganda has emerged since Bazoum’s ouster, with some Nigerien supporters of the coup waving Russian flags denouncing France and ECOWAS in a protest march on Thursday.