Niger's military leadership wants rapid agreement with Ecowas

Prime Minister appointed after coup says deal could be struck with bloc in 'coming days'

Niger's Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine speaks during a press conference in Niamey on September 4, 2023. Niger's military-appointed prime minister on September 4, 2023 said he saw hopes of a deal with the West African bloc ECOWAS, which has threatened to use force to restore civilian rule after a coup in July. (Photo by AFP)
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A deal between Niger and the West African bloc Ecowas could be seen in the “coming days”, the country's military-appointed Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine said on Monday.

The Economic Community of West African States has threatened to use force to restore civilian rule in Niger and imposed hefty sanctions after soldiers overthrew Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president, on July 26.

Mr Zeine also said efforts were being made for French forces to leave Niger after ties spiralled following the military takeover.

“We have not stopped contacts with Ecowas, we are continuing contacts. We have good hopes of reaching an agreement in the coming days,” Mr Zeine told a press conference in Niamey.

“We are bracing to be attacked at any time. Every preparation has been taken. It would be an unjust war. We are determined to defend ourselves if there is an attack.”

Ecowas has warned several times of a military intervention to reinstate Mr Bazoum should diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis fail.

A key requirement is a timeline for returning to civilian rule.

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who is also the current chairman of Ecowas, last Thursday suggested it could take nine months, as happened in his country in the late 1990s.

“The President sees no reason why such cannot be replicated in Niger, if Niger's military authorities are sincere,” the Nigerian presidency said.

Algeria, Niger's influential northern neighbour, has proposed a six-month transition.

The military rulers have so far not responded to the suggestions, having previously spoken of being in power for three years.

Ecowas has taken a hard line on Niger following a series of coups in the region since 2020.

The military have taken power in Mali and Burkina Faso where, like Niger, losses among the armed forces are surging in the face of a long-running insurgency by extremists.

A putsch also took place in Guinea in 2021 after the country's octogenarian president, Alpha Conde, ran for a third term in office, a move that opponents said breached constitutional limits.

Mr Zeine said, without elaborating, that “contacts” were under way “that should enable a very swift withdrawal of French forces” from the country.

But, he said, Niger wished “to maintain co-operation with a country with which we have shared an enormous number of things”.

Tensions between Niger and its former colonial power and ally in the fight against insurgents ratcheted up after France stood by the ousted Mr Bazoum.

Paris has refused to acknowledge the coup leaders as the legitimate government and ignored announcements cancelling military agreements with and a threat to expel its ambassador.

France has around 1,500 troops in the Sahel state, many of them deployed at an airbase near the capital Niamey.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied outside the base at the weekend to demand they leave, responding to a call by a pro-coup civilian coalition.

Mr Zeine said that as a result of the renunciation of military accords on August 3, the French troops in Niger are now “in a position of illegality”.

One of the accords required a one month notice period, military sources said.

Meanwhile, Niger reopened its air space on Monday after imposing a flight ban on August 6 in response to the Ecowas threat, the official news agency ANP said.

Some flights to Niamey were permitted in that time, with special authorisations.

Air France told AFP that it would resume flights over Nigerien territory from Tuesday morning, although its air services to and from Niamey would remain suspended.

Separately, the Chinese ambassador in Niger said that Beijing hoped to play a “mediating role” in the political crisis, in comments broadcast on Nigerien television.

“The Chinese government intends to play a role of good office, of mediator … to find a political solution to this Nigerien crisis,” said Jiang Feng, Chinese ambassador to Niger. China “always supports African countries to resolve their problems the African way”, he added.

China is a major economic partner for Niger, particularly in the energy sector, including building the longest oil pipeline in Africa.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 9:56 AM