A delegation from regional nations arrived in Niger in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to reach a peaceful solution with mutinous soldiers who overthrew the country’s president last month, according to a report by Aljazeera last night.
A plane carrying the delegation reportedly landed in the capital Niamey at about 1pm (12:00 GMT), yesterday, a day after the bloc’s military chiefs said they were ready to intervene to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum.
Niger’s governing military council confirmed the arrival of the ECOWAS representatives, headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar.
A previous ECOWAS delegation led by Abubakar earlier this month tried and failed to meet Bazoum and the coup leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani.
Representatives from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, came to Niamey and joined efforts by United Nations Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simao, who arrived on Friday, in trying to facilitate a resolution to the continuing crisis.
On Friday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Simao would meet the military rulers and other parties to try and 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,” Dujarric said.
On August 10, ECOWAS ordered the deployment of a “standby force” to restore constitutional rule in the country.
The soldiers who overthrew democratically elected 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.
‘Putschists won’t be holding their breath’
On Friday, the ECOWAS commissioner for 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 do not 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.
“The D-day is also decided. We’ve already agreed and fine-tuned what will be required for the intervention,” Aljazeera quoted Musah as saying.
Although he did not disclose the specific day, he added that “we are ready to go any time the order is given.”
Defence chiefs held a two-day meeting in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the deployment of a standby force to Niger as directed by the heads of state.
Musah said the bloc is still preparing a mediation mission to Niger, “so we have not shut any door.”
“Let no one be in doubt that if everything else fails, the valiant forces of West Africa, both the military and the civilian components, are ready to answer to the call of duty.”
But for Cape Verde, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, most of ECOWAS’s 15 member-states are prepared to contribute to the joint force, he said.
On Friday, Niger’s state television said Mali and Burkina Faso 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 said.
Immediately after the coup, the bloc gave the military government 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 programme at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank.
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,” said Laessing.
‘We will all go’
On the streets of the capital on 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 or fighters, and to help with other needs in case the military government requires support. Some parents brought their children to sign up; others said they’d been waiting since 3am while groups of youths boisterously chanted in favour of the military leaders and against ECOWAS and the country’s former colonial ruler France.
3 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.”
The humanitarian situation in the country is also on the agenda. Before the coup, nearly three 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 growing attacks linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, and poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into shoring up Niger’s forces.
Since the coup, fighters have been taking advantage of the freedom of movement caused by suspended military operations by the French and Americans and a distracted Nigerien army focusing efforts on the capital.
Last week, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded during an ambush. 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 suspected ISIL fighters.
“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,” said Corinne Dufka a political analyst who specialises in the Sahel region.
“In due time, Nigeriens and their partners should look long and hard at why and how democracy in Niger faltered.”