Following the failure of mediation in a crisis that alarmed major world powers, West African states were to decide on Friday whether to launch a potential intervention if the coup in Niger is not overthrown by the weekend.
The overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum last week—the seventh coup in West and Central Africa since 2020—has drawn a strong response from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in the war with Islamist rebels in the Sahel region, Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia.
The Dutch government became the latest Western donor to cut cooperation in protest, even though Niger is one of the world’s poorest nations and relies on aid for 40% of its budget.
The new military junta, led by 59-year-old presidential guard commander Abdourahamane Tiani, this week revoked military cooperation pacts with former colonial power France, as neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso did after their coups.
Paris shrugged that off, saying on Friday that though it had seen the statement by “some Nigerien army men”, it only recognised legitimate authorities.
France has between 1,000-1,500 troops in Niger, supported by drones and warplanes, helping battle groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State. The United States, Germany and Italy also have troops stationed in Niger.
Niger’s armed forces chief acknowledged in January that Bazoum’s cooperation with Western powers had improved security in Niger compared with Burkina Faso and Mali. But the coup could reshape the region’s fight against Islamist militants.
Detained at the presidential residence in Niger’s capital Niamey, Bazoum, a 63-year-old philosophy graduate elected in 2021, said in his first remarks since the coup that he was a hostage and in need of U.S. and international help.
“If it (the coup) succeeds, it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, backing ECOWAS’ economic and travel sanctions.
Russia, whose private mercenary Wagner group has cheered the coup, said on Friday any interference from non-regional powers such as the United States was unlikely to help and repeated its call for a return to constitutional rule.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner which has forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, last week said his forces were available to restore order in Niger.
The 15-member ECOWAS bloc sent a delegation to Niamey seeking an “amicable resolution”, but a source in the entourage said a meeting at the airport with the junta’s representatives yielded no breakthrough and they flew out in the early hours.
“All our efforts to meet with the leader of the junta failed. He rather sent five-member representatives to meet with us,” the Nigerian presidential source said.
“After the meeting that ended at midnight, they said they heard all we have said and that they will get back to us. We left Niamey immediately.”
ECOWAS has said it could authorise force if Bazoum is not back in power by Sunday. Its defence chiefs were ending a days-long meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday.
The junta has denounced outside interference and said it will resist any aggression. Tiani served as battalion commander for ECOWAS forces during conflicts in Ivory Coast in 2003, so he knows what such intervention missions involve.
Support for him from fellow juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso also undermines West African unity over Niger.
The Niger junta has cited persistent insecurity as the main justification for seizing power, even though data on attacks shows security has actually been improving.
Bazoum said the coup spelt chaos for his nation, with prices already soaring, and jihadists plus the Wagner group likely to exploit the situation.
“With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine,” he wrote.
Pro-Moscow propaganda has emerged since Bazoum’s ouster, with some Nigerien supporters of the coup waving Russian flags denouncing France and ECOWAS in a protest march on Thursday.