A delegation from West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc arrived in Niger and met ousted president Mohamed Bazoum on Saturday, as they sought a peaceful rather than military solution to the country’s woes after army officers seized power in a coup.
Bazoum was “in good spirits”, a source close to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) told AFP, though he remains under detention and his electricity was still cut off.
He has been held with his family at the president’s official residence since the coup, with growing international concern over his conditions in detention.
The ECOWAS delegation was also in Niger for talks with the officers who seized power from Bazoum on July 26.
Led by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar the West African representatives met with some of the senior officers who seized power, said the source, without saying if they included coup leader General Abdourahamane Tiani.
#Niger: An ECOWAS delegation led by Gen . Abdulsalami Abubakar has arrived Niamey for the second time since after the coup. 📷: Tarnane Foudai pic.twitter.com/KsuO1rQ25y— Mahdi Garba (@MahdiGarba) August 19, 2023
A previous ECOWAS delegation led by Abubakar earlier this month had tried and failed to meet him, or Bazoum.
President will not be harmed
Saturday’s visit came after ECOWAS military chiefs announced they were ready to intervene to reinstate the ousted president.
ECOWAS has agreed to activate a “standby force” as a last resort to restore democracy in Niger.
But it says it favours dialogue to defuse the crisis.
A source close to Saturday’s delegation said it would send “a message of firmness” to the army officers and meet Bazoum.
ECOWAS chair and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on Friday threatened Niamey with “grave consequences” if the new regime allows Bazoum’s health to worsen, an EU official said.
Niger’s military-appointed prime minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, told The New York Times that Bazoum would not be harmed.
“Nothing will happen to him, because we don’t have a tradition of violence in Niger,” the most senior civilian in the new regime told the daily.
Niger’s new rulers have so far shown little flexibility and warned against an “illegal aggression”.
Thousands of volunteers turned out in central Niamey on Saturday answering a call to register as civilian auxiliaries who could be mobilised to support the army.
ECOWAS defence chiefs had met this week in the Ghanaian capital Accra to fine-tune details of a potential military operation to restore Bazoum if ongoing negotiations with coup leaders fail.
“We are ready to go any time the order is given,” Abdel-Fatau Musah, an ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs and security, said on Friday after the military chiefs’ meeting.
“The D-Day is also decided.”
The Sahel region is struggling with growing jihadist insurgencies linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Frustration over the violence has in part prompted the military takeovers.
ECOWAS troops have intervened in other emergencies since 1990, including civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria are expected to contribute troops to a Niger mission.
But details of any Niger operation have not been released and analysts say intervention would be politically and militarily risky, especially for regional player Nigeria.
Nigeria is already struggling to contain violence from several armed groups at home, and leaders in the country’s north have warned about spillover from Niger across the border if there is an intervention.
The coup leaders have defiantly threatened to charge Bazoum with treason. But they have also said they are open to talks.
The military-ruled governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have also said an intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war against them.
In the hours following the coup, France, which fields 1,500 troops in Niger, was asked to back a potential armed move to restore Bazoum to office, sources close to the affair told AFP, confirming a report in Le Monde daily.
“But the loyalists changed sides and joined the putschists. So the conditions were not right to meet the request for support,” the source said.
ECOWAS has already applied trade and financial sanctions on Niger, while France, Germany and the United States have suspended aid programmes.
Also on Saturday, the United States, a major partner of Niger in the fight against jihadists, said that a new ambassador had been installed in Niamey.
Kathleen FitzGibbon, a career diplomat with extensive experience in Africa, will not however officially present her letter of assignment to the new authorities in place, as Washington does not recognise them.