West African leaders direct deployment of 'standby force' to restore Niger democracy

Niger coup leaders form new government

Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani, centre, staged the coup that ousted President Mohamed Bazoum in late July. Reuters
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West African leaders on Thursday directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after a coup late last month that ousted democratically elected President Mohamad Bazoum.

Following a summit, the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States officials released a communique that gave few details and failed to spell out the make-up, location and proposed date of deployment for any military intervention force.

West African heads of state met in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss next steps after Niger's junta defied the bloc's deadline of Sunday to reinstate Mr Bazoum.

Nine of the 11 heads of state expected to attend were present, including the presidents of Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. The non-Ecowas leaders of Mauritania and Burundi also participated in the closed-door meeting.

“It is crucial that we prioritise diplomatic negotiations and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach,” said Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who currently heads the bloc, said before the closed part of the meeting.

He said leaders must act with a “sense of urgency”, though appeared to retreat from the bloc’s earlier threat to use force.

Nigeria has the largest military in West Africa, but it has been bogged down in northern parts of the country fighting a stubborn insurgency composed of Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram and ISIS.

Niger was seen as the last country in the Sahel region south of the Sahara that western nations could work with to counter extremist violence that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

The international community is scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the country's leadership crisis.

It comes as Niger’s junta said it had formed a new government, two weeks after putting Mr Bazoum under house arrest.

Military leaders announced the move on state TV, naming 21 new ministers.

Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine will lead the government, with generals from the new military governing council heading the defence and interior ministries, according to the decree.

West African leaders are set to meet on Thursday to mull military action against the junta, led by former Presidential Guard Commander Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani.

Important decisions are expected from the gathering in Nigeria's capital Abuja, according to a statement from Ecowas on Tuesday.

Ecowas has already imposed sanctions on the junta following the coup, which also prompted the EU and France to slash aid to the impoverished nation.

The bloc is expected to favour diplomacy over military action on the ground, which it has said is a “last resort”.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated deep concerns for the well-being of Mr Bazoum and his family, still confined to the presidential residence.

The President has told friends he is being kept in isolation, “deprived of any human contact,” and fed dry rice and pasta. Previously, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, he described himself as a “hostage,” in his Niami residence.

Warnings and debate

The possibility of military intervention in Niger has sparked debate within Ecowas and prompted warnings from neighbouring nations and Russia.

Speaking before flying to Abuja on Wednesday, Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo said the future of the bloc was at stake following coups in four member states, namely Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Mr Bazoum remained Niger's sole recognised president and coups must be banned, he added.

Niger's neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, both ruled by military governments who seized power in coups, have said an intervention would be tantamount to a declaration of war against them.

It is the fifth coup to take place in Niger since it became independent from France in 1960.

President Bazoum's election in 2021 had helped Niger cement close ties with France and the United States, both crucial allies in the fight against growing extremism in the Sahel.

France has evacuated its citizens from Niger and suspended aid to the country, while Washington has suspended counter-terror operations and evacuated non-essential embassy staff and their families.

Experts and US officials have warned the coup will bolster terrorist groups active in the area and roll back gains made in counter-terrorism.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 1:37 PM