By Sam Mednick
The Associated Press
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — One week after a deadline passed for mutinous soldiers in Niger to reinstate the country’s ousted president or face military intervention, the junta has not acquiesced. No military action has been taken and the coup leaders appear to have gained the upper hand over the regional group that issued the threat, analysts say.
The West African bloc ECOWAS had given the soldiers that overthrew Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum until Aug. 6 to release and reinstate him or they threatened military action. On Aug. 10, the bloc ordered the deployment of a “standby” force to restore constitutional rule in Niger, with Nigeria, Benin, Senegal and Ivory Coast saying they would contribute troops.
But it’s unclear when, how or if the troops will deploy. The move could take weeks or months to set into motion, and while the bloc decides what to do the junta is gaining power, some observers say.
“It looks as though the putschists have won and will stay … The putschists are holding all the cards and have cemented their rule,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank.
ECOWAS is unlikely to intervene militarily and risk dragging Niger into civil war, he said, adding that ECOWAS and Western countries would instead likely press the junta to agree to a short transition period.
Europe and the United States will have little choice but to recognize the junta in order to continue the security cooperation in the region, Laessing said.
The July 26 coup is seen as a major blow to many Western nations, which viewed Niger as one of its last partners in the conflict-riddled Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert that they could work with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The U.S. and France have more than 2,500 military personnel in the region and together with other European countries have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and training for Niger’s forces.
There was still little clarity about what would happen days after ECOWAS announced the “standby” force deployment.
A meeting of the region’s defense chiefs was postponed indefinitely. The African Union is expected to hold a meeting on Aug. 14 to discuss Niger’s crisis. The group’s Peace and Security Council could overrule the decision if it felt that wider peace and security on the continent were threatened by an intervention.
The delay of the defense chiefs’ meeting to discuss the “standby” force shows that ECOWAS views the use of force as a last resort, said Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Given the likely challenges an intervention would face, (the use of force would) require a high degree of consensus and coordination not just within ECOWAS, but within the African Union and international community writ large,” he said.
But those with ties to the junta say they are preparing for a fight, especially since the soldiers are unwilling to negotiate unless ECOWAS acknowledges its leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who overthrew the president, as the new ruler.
“ECOWAS is demanding that (the junta) immediately release President Bazoum and restore him as head of state. Is this a joke?” said Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who assists Niger’s new military rulers with their communications and says he is in direct contact with them. “Whether Bazoum resigns or not, he will never be Niger’s president again.”
As time drags on, there is mounting concern for the safety of Bazoum, who has been under house arrest with his wife and son since the coup. Those close to him say his situation is deteriorating with no water, electricity and a lack of food. Niger’s junta told a top U.S. diplomat that they would kill the deposed president if neighboring countries attempted any military intervention to restore his rule, two Western officials told The Associated Press.
Most Nigeriens are trying to go about their lives as the standoff continues between the coup leaders and regional countries.
For the most part, the streets in the capital, Niamey, are calm with sporadic pockets of pro-junta demonstrations. Any pro-Bazoum demonstrations are quickly silenced by security forces.
On Aug. 13, people marched, biked and drove through downtown Niamey, chanting “down with France” and expressing anger at ECOWAS.
“Niger is in a deplorable situation. We are very happy there was a coup d’etat. Now everyone can go into the streets without a problem … (but) if ECWOAS allows people to attack Niger, it will cross a red line,” said resident Saidou Issaka.
On Aug. 11 hundreds of people, many waving Russian flags, marched toward France’s military base demanding the French leave. 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 neighboring Mali, which is also run by a military regime and cooperates with Wagner, the junta reportedly asked the mercenaries for help.
Boubacar Adamou, a tailor in the capital, said he had made at least 50 Russian flags in the weeks since the coup.
But many Nigeriens don’t have time for protests and are more focused on feeding their families.
The country of some 25 million people is one of the poorest in the world and the harsh travel and economic sanctions imposed by ECOWAS are taking a toll.
Moussa Ahmed, a food seller in Niamey, said the prices of food items such as cooking oil and rice had increased by 20 percent since the coup and there wasn’t enough electricity to power the fridges in his shop. Niger gets up to 90 percent of its power from neighboring Nigeria, which has cut off some of its supply.
Aid groups that were already grappling with the challenges of helping more than 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance say the crisis will exacerbate an already dire situation.
“We cannot overstate the impact on civilians, both in terms of humanitarian and protection needs, when military imperatives take precedence over civilian governance,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The sanctions and suspensions of development aid are expected to have a dramatic impact on living conditions for a country already under heavy strain, he said.