Niger coup: Anxiety, defiance as ECOWAS schedules meeting after ultimatum expires

Niger, a nation in tension as it awaits the decision of regional bloc ECOWAS after the ultimatum given to the country’s military junta to restore the elected government of Mohammed Bazoom or face possible use of force expires.

24 hours after, west African leaders say they will hold a summit on the crisis in in the Nigerian capital Abuja this week Thursday. “The ECOWAS leaders will be considering and discussing the political situation and recent developments in Niger during the summit,” the 15-nation bloc said on Monday. ECOWAS had issued its ultimatum at a previous summit in Abuja on July 30, warning it did not rule out the “use of force” in Niger.

In the streets of Niamey on Monday, people appeared defiant and voiced support for their military rulers.

“If we wish, we support them today because they are there for our benefit. They are fighting, they are fighting for our integrity, our dignity, our sovereignty” Samaïla Abdouraïm, a vendor said. “If it’s the opposite, we’re not going to, we’re not going to leave them too because we are the people, we’re the ones who decide.” Abdouraim added.

“Let the country manage its sovereignty. We are asking for that. We want to be free, independent. Like what the texts said. Freedom too. Everyone to express themselves as they want. And that is the problem with democracy today: we do not allow everyone to express themselves.” says Alhassane Adamou, an  administrator in the city.

No foreign troops were visible on the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, after the deadline came and went on Sunday. Just before the ultimatum expired on Sunday, the country’s military rulers closed the Sahel country’s airspace and warned any attempt to enter it would meet with an “energetic and immediate response”. A source close to ECOWAS said an immediate military intervention to restore Bazoum was not being envisaged at this stage.

“We are not worried because we rely on our army. The Nigerian army is not an army to be neglected. They are responsible people. We all know them about the community in the space of the Union, the African Union. We know them, they are not people to be neglected, really.” Ousséini Tiani, a mechanic in Niamey told our correspondent.

Neighbouring Mali nevertheless said it and Burkina Faso — which have both been suspended from ECOWAS over their own military coups — were sending a joint official delegation to Niamey to show “solidarity (with) the people of Niger”. They have said military intervention would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

Italy urged ECOWAS to extend the deadline and seek a diplomatic solution, with a similar call from Germany.

“A solution must be found. It’s not set that there is no way other than war,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told La Stampa newspaper.

– Constitutional order –

Algeria, which shares a long land border with Niger, has also cautioned against a military solution, which President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said would be “a direct threat” to his North African country.

Senators in regional heavyweight Nigeria urged everyone to focus on the “political and diplomatic option”.

Just before the ultimatum expired on Sunday, Niger’s military rulers closed the Sahel country’s airspace and warned any attempt to enter it would meet with an “energetic and immediate response”.

They said there had been a “pre-deployment in preparation for intervention” made by two Central African countries, without naming them, and warned: “Any state involved will be considered co-belligerent.”

Former colonial power France, with which Niger’s new rulers have broken military ties, said it would “firmly” back whatever course of action ECOWAS took after the deadline expired.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara called on Sunday on the coup leaders to stand down.

“We condemn the attempted coup in Niger, which poses a serious threat to peace and security in the sub-region,” Ouattara said, adding it was “essential” to “constitutional order” that Bazoum be allowed to govern.

The Niger coup was the latest of several to plague Africa’s Sahel belt since 2020.

The country has played a key part in Western strategies to combat jihadist insurgencies that have plagued the Sahel since 2012, with France and the United States stationing around 1,500 and 1,000 troops in the country, respectively.

France has already evacuated hundreds of its citizens from Niger since the coup, and on Sunday, Italy’s defence ministry said it had flown 65 military personnel from Niger, along with 10 US military personnel.