A delegation from regional nations arrived in Niger on Saturday afternoon in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to reach a peaceful solution with mutinous soldiers who ousted the country’s president last month.
The representatives from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, came to the capital, Niamey, and joined efforts by the United Nations special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simao, who arrived on Friday, in trying to find a resolution to the ongoing crisis.
On Friday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Simao would meet with the junta and other parties to try to facilitate a swift and peaceful resolution to Niger’s crisis.
“What we want to see is a return to the constitutional order. We want to see the liberation of the president and his family, and restoration of his legitimate authority,” he said.
On August 10, the Economic Community of West African States ordered the deployment of a “standby force” to restore constitutional rule in the country.
The soldiers who overthrew Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum in July have quickly entrenched themselves in power, rebuffed most dialogue efforts, and kept Bazoum, his wife and son under house arrest in the capital.
ECOWAS troops ‘ready to go’
On Friday, the ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said 11 of its 15 member states agreed to commit troops to a military deployment, saying they were “ready to go” whenever the order was given.
The 11 member states don’t include Niger itself and the bloc’s three other countries under military rule following coups: Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter two have warned they would consider any intervention in Niger an act of war. On Friday, Niger’s state television said that Mali and Burkina Faso had dispatched warplanes in a show of solidarity.
Friday’s announcement is the latest in a series of empty threats by ECOWAS to forcefully restore democratic rule in Niger, conflict analysts say.
Immediately after the coup, the bloc gave the junta seven days to release and restore Bazoum, a deadline that came and went with no action.
“The putschists won’t be holding their breath this time over the renewed threat of military action,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank. Meanwhile, the mutinous soldiers are cementing their rule and appointing loyal commanders to key units while ECOWAS has no experience with military action in hostile territory and would have no local support if it tried to intervene, he said.
“Niger is a very fragile country that can easily turn, in case of a military intervention, into a failed state like Sudan,” Laessing said.
ECOWAS used force to restore order in a member country in 2017 in Gambia, when longtime President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after he lost the presidential election. But even in that case, the move had involved diplomatic efforts led by the then-presidents of Mauritania and Guinea, while Jammeh appeared to be acting on his own after the Gambian army pledged allegiance to the winner of the election, Adama Barrow.
Also on Saturday, the new United States Ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, arrived in the capital, said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the State Department. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years.
FitzGibbon will focus on advocating for a diplomatic solution that preserves constitutional order in Niger and for the immediate release of Bazoum, his family, and all those unlawfully detained, Miller said. Her arrival does not reflect a change in the U.S. policy position, he said.
Many residents side with junta
On the streets of the capital Saturday, many residents said they’re preparing to fight back against an ECOWAS military intervention.
Thousands of people in Niamey lined up outside the main stadium to register as volunteers, fighters and to help with other needs in case the junta requires support. Some parents brought their children to sign up; others said they’d been waiting since 3 a.m., while groups of youths boisterously chanted in favor of the junta and against ECOWAS and 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.”
Event organizer Amsarou Bako said the junta was not involved in finding 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 didn’t explain why.
Millions hungry, thousands displaced
The humanitarian situation in the country is also on the agenda of the U.N.’s West Africa and Sahel special representative.
Before the coup, nearly 3 million people were facing severe food insecurity and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, according to CARE, an international aid group. Economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS after the coup, coupled with the deteriorating security, will have dire consequences for the population, CARE said.
Previously, Western countries saw Niger as one of the last democratic nations they could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and they poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into shoring up Niger’s forces.
Since the coup, former jihadis told The Associated Press that militants have been taking advantage of the freedom of movement caused by suspended military operations by the French and the U.S. and a distracted Nigerien army that is focusing efforts on the capital.
Last week, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 injured during an ambush by jihadis. 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 extremists believed to be members of the Islamic State group, according to an internal security report for aid groups seen by the AP.
“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 specializes 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. In due time, Nigeriens and their partners should look long and hard at why and how democracy in Niger faltered,” she said.