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Niger tense as ECOWAS ultimatum to junta set to expire

August 6, 2023

Niger's military junta has remained defiant despite ECOWAS threatening to attack. The regional bloc had said the military had until Sunday to return power to the democratically elected president.

Junta member Mohamed Toumba holds a microphone as he speaks to supporters of the coup in Niamey, Niger, Sunday
Niger's military leaders have no intention of giving up power despite the threat of ECOWAS military interventionImage: Sam Mednick/AP Photo/picture alliance

The military rulers of Niger have so far refused to relinquish power as demanded by defense ministers from the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) who set a Sunday deadline for the release and return to power of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum.

Bazoum, who was democratically elected in February 2021, was detained and removed from power in a military coup on July 26. He has remained in custody since that time.

The overthrow, the seventh in the region in three years, still came as a surprise for Western allies and African neighbors alike. The Sahel region has been the scene of Islamist violence and Western powers have viewed Niger as an ally in the fight against Jihadist militia groups. 

One of the poorest regions in the world, the Sahel, and Niger in particular, also happen to be rich in raw materials like uranium and oil, making it attractive to global powers such as the US, EU, China and Russia.

Deadline nears for Niger junta to reinstate ousted president

Junta digs in heels in face of ECOWAS threat

On July 30, ECOWAS defense chiefs agreed to take military action if the junta did not meet its demands within one week's time and return the country to normal constitutional order.

But on Saturday, the junta, led by the former head of the presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who named himself president after announcing the suspension of the constitution and dissolution of government institutions, continued its move to consolidate power by appointing military insiders to key government positions.

On Sunday evening, the junta announced it had closed Niger's airspace until further notice as a precaution against the threat of ECOWAS action. 

The junta has also seen support among some of the country's youth, who have begun to band together into a citizens' militia. German news agency DPA on Saturday reported groups of youths setting up roadside checkpoints at intersections.

Those same youths are said to have been behind pro-junta demonstrations that have taken place in the capital Niamey since the coup.

On Sunday, supporters of the junta, now rebranded as the "National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland" (CNSP), gathered at Niamey Stadium in a show of support. AFP journalists reporting from the scene said the 30,000-seat venue was nearly full, with supporters waving Russian flags and pictures of the coup leaders.

A group of junta-supporting youths gather at a traffic intersection in Niamey, Niger
Youths have begun banding into citizens' militia groups to protect 'against spies and foreign forces'Image: AFP

Junta supporters and Russian allies say coup marks break with colonialism

The ECOWAS ultimatum has triggered fears of a further escalation of violence in a region rife with Islamists as well as Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.

Supporters of the coup have framed the situation as the ultimate break from the country's colonial past, taking aim at ECOWAS as an instrument of Western imperialism and at France, from which Niger gained independence in 1960.

"What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers. With colonizers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago," wrote Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin on the messaging app Telegram shortly after the coup.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has said Paris has no intention of withdrawing its 1,500 troops from the country and warned junta leaders to take the ECOWAS threat seriously. Tchiani and the junta officially announced a severance of cooperation with France on Thursday.

The United States currently has some 1,000 soldiers stationed in the country, Germany has a continent of roughly 100 troops on the ground.

The situation in Niger mirrors that of Mali, which also saw foreign soldiers ordered out of the country after a military coup in 2021. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso — which saw a military coup in 2022 — have both threatened to come to Niger's aid should ECOWAS make good on its threat of military intervention.

France's Foreign Ministry on Sunday evening announced the suspension of all development and budgetary assistance to Burkina Faso after the Sahel country joined Mali in stating that any military intervention against Niger's military junta would be considered a "declaration of war."

ECOWAS has also threatened crippling sanctions that have already led to mass power cuts and soaring food prices. The regional leaders said they will offer a statement on the situation on Sunday evening.

An ECOWAS mediation delegation was forced to leave Niger Thursday without being allowed to meet with junta leader Tchiani.

Ecstatic supporters of the military junta in Niger fly the flags of Russia and Niger as they wave into the camera and dance
Supporters of the junta gathered at Niamey Stadium on Sunday waving Russian and Nigerien flags as the ECOWAS deadline nearedImage: AFP

Neighbors divided over potential ECOWAS intervention

Niger's northern neighbor Algeria, which is not an ECOWAS member, has warned that an invasion of the country of 26 million residents could lead to a further destabilization of the region, whereas ECOWAS member and regional economic and military powerhouse Nigeria has been pushing for action against those who orchestrated the coup.

The scale of such an operation presents serious challenges to ECOWAS, though the group has undertaken similar actions in the past, most recently in 2017, when ECOWAS forces moved into Gambia when President Yahya Jammeh refused to relinquish power after being voted out of office.

Speaking with DW on Saturday, Oluwole Ojewale, an analyst and program coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar, Senegal, said that diplomacy would likely "triumph over the application of force in Niger."

"I think the deadline is going to be extended for further diplomacy," he said.

Ojewale offered hope that a military confrontation could be avoided due to the sheer difficulty of conducting operations in Niger, saying he believed, "that is not going to be the final option because of the potential humanitarian consequences."

Anxiety grows in Niger as deadline approaches: Olisa Chukwumah reports from Lagos, Nigeria

js/dj (dpa, Reuters)