The US has said it backs efforts to restore Niger’s “constitutional order” in the wake of a military uprising last month, after countries in the region said they would activate troops for a possible armed intervention.
In a statement published on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington stands with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in calling on Niger’s military government to step down, stressing the need for political stability and “social cohesion.”
“We echo the ECOWAS condemnation of the illegal detention of President Mohamed Bazoum, his family, and members of the government, as well as the unacceptable conditions under which they are being held, and call for their immediate release,” the diplomat added, referring to Niger’s deposed head of state.
While Blinken added that U.S. officials hoped ECOWAS would “explore all options for the peaceful resolution of the crisis,” his comments came just hours after the West African bloc said it would begin organizing military forces to restore Bazoum to power.
Bazoum was overthrown last month by rebel military commanders, who have since placed him in detention and seized control of Niger’s government.
Niamey’s new military government has defied ECOWAS demands to free the ousted president and step down, vowing to defend the country against any foreign attack. Some African states, including Mali and Burkina Faso, have aligned with the Niger junta, warning they would withdraw from the bloc and “adopt self-defense measures in support of the armed forces and the people of Niger,” in the event of an intervention.
Niger’s Neighbors Approve Military Intervention
Another media report said:
West African governments have taken the next step in trying to force the military government that took power in Niger last month to reverse their coup, ordering that the region’s armies immediately activate standby troops for a possible intervention in the uranium-rich country.
The ECOWAS ordered the force activations on Thursday and issued a statement saying it still prefers a peaceful restoration of democracy in Niger. ECOWAS had threatened to send in troops if the military government in Niger failed to restore President Mohamed Bazoum to power by last Sunday.
“No option is taken off the table, including the use of force as a last resort,” Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said on Thursday after hosting a meeting of ECOWAS heads of state in Abuja. He added, “I hope that through our collective effort, we can bring about a peaceful resolution as a roadmap to restore stability and democracy in Nigeria. All is not lost yet.”
The ECOWAS did not specify the size of the intervention force or which member states would participate. Suspended ECOWAS members Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed that a military intervention against Niger would be seen as a declaration of war against them.
Nigeria, Senegal, and Ivory Coast are among the ECOWAS members that have demanded a restoration of Niger’s former government. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara condemned the detention of Bazoum under house arrest as a “terrorist act.”
At Thursday’s summit in Abuja, he told reporters, “We do not accept, and we will not accept coups d’état. These putschists must go. If they do not let Bazoum out to be able to exercise his mandate, I think we should move ahead and get them out.”
Niger’s military government has defied the regional bloc’s demands and vowed to defend the country against any foreign attack. One of the junta’s leaders, General Salifou Moody, reportedly sought assistance from Russian defense contractor Wagner Group PMC, which has operated in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic.
France Violated Nigerien Airspace, Says Military Rulers
Niger’s military government has accused France of violating its airspace and setting dangerous terrorists loose as part of a wider plot to undermine the country’s new rulers. Paris has denied any involvement with terrorists and insisted that it legally flew a military plane into the country.
In a statement on national television on Wednesday, army officer Amadou Abdramane alleged that a French military aircraft had illegally entered Nigerien airspace, which has been closed by the coup leaders since Sunday. Abdramane also accused French forces of springing more than a dozen terrorists from jail to stage an assault on a military camp earlier that day.
“What we are seeing is a plan to destabilize our country,” Abdramane declared.
The French Foreign Ministry called Abdramane’s claims “unfounded.” In a statement, the ministry said that no terrorists had been freed, no attack against a Nigerien camp had taken place, and the French military aircraft entered Nigerien airspace under an agreement with the country’s previous government.
Niger’s military government seized power last month, ousting and detaining the Western-backed president, Mohamed Bazoum. Under the leadership of General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the new authorities proceeded to suspend a host of military and trade agreements with France and secure promises of military support from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.
Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are now all led by military governments that came to power amid popular discontent with France’s decade-long counterinsurgency operation in the Sahel region. While French troops have left Mali and Burkina Faso, France maintains a contingent of around 1,500 soldiers in Niger, while the US’ largest drone base is located in the country.
Niger’s new rulers have been threatened with military action by the ECOWAS, although the regional bloc did not act when the generals ignored its ultimatum to restore Bazoum to power on Sunday. The US and EU have cut off foreign aid to Niger, with Brussels reportedly working on sanctions as of Wednesday.
Despite its ultimatum passing unheeded, ECOWAS is still considering intervening, French radio broadcaster RFI reported on Tuesday. Nigeria is willing to contribute more than half of the forces needed for such an operation, RFI stated.
The coup leaders have warned that any military intervention from either the West or ECOWAS will be met with deadly force.
EU Preparing Sanctions Against Niger
The European Union (EU) is preparing to impose sanctions on the new military government in Niger, European sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
An EU diplomat and an official involved in formulating the sanctions confirmed the bloc was devising criteria for punishment, set to include the “undermining of democracy.”
The formula is likely to be agreed upon soon, the official told the news outlet.
“the next step would be sanctions against individual members of the military government, said to be responsible for the ousting of former president Mohamed Bazoum last month,” the diplomat said.
No date has been supplied for when these sanctions might materialize, though foreign ministers from the bloc’s 27 countries are expected to discuss potential sanctions as well as other Niger-related issues when they meet in Toledo on August 31.
The EU has suspended security and financial support for Niger in response to last month’s seizure of power by a military faction led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, cutting the country off from hundreds of thousands of euros in aid. The U.S. and Canada have also suspended some assistance programs, and several European countries – led by France, the former colonial ruler of Niger – have also cut the country off.
Credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Niger last week, just days after the country banned uranium and gold exports to France, cutting Paris off from the world’s seventh-largest producer of the nuclear mineral – and the second-largest supplier to the EU. The World Bank has also terminated public-sector payments to Niger.
Bazoum, currently in prison, has urged Washington to intervene, lest all of the Sahel “fall to Russian influence” – despite a lack of evidence that Moscow played any role in the coup.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Niger to pressure the new government, warning them against striking any deals with Russian private military company Wagner and urging them to restore the Washington-friendly status quo.
Nigeriens largely supported the coup, according to a recent survey by The Economist – 78% backed the takeover, while 73% wanted their new leaders to retain power “for an extended period” or “until new elections are held.”