West Africa’s regional bloc on Wednesday said a military intervention in junta-ruled Niger was “the last resort” as Nigeria cut electricity supplies to intensify pressure on the country’s coup leaders.
Military chiefs from the grouping were meeting on Wednesday to frame a response and a delegation was in Niger for negotiations, a week after a coup shook the fragile nation and prompted ex-colonial power France to evacuate its citizens.
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders on Sunday imposed trade and financial sanctions and gave the coup leaders a week to reinstate Niger’s democratically elected president or face potential use of force.
“(The) military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality,” said Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security.
An ECOWAS team headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar was in Niger to “negotiate”, added Musah, speaking at the start of a three-day meeting of the grouping’s military chiefs in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
The current chair of ECOWAS is Nigeria, West Africa’s military and economic superpower.
It has vowed to take a firm line against coups that have proliferated across the region since 2020, most of them the outcome of a bloody extremist insurgency.
A source in Niger’s power company said Nigeria had cut off its electricity supply to its neighbor as a result of the sanctions.
“Since yesterday, Nigeria has disconnected the high-voltage line transporting electricity to Niger,” the source at Nigelec, the country’s monopoly supplier, told AFP.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, depends on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power, buying it from the Nigerian company Mainstream, according to Nigelec.
Junta-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso have warned that any military intervention in their neighbor would be tantamount to a “declaration of war” against them.
General Salifou Mody, one of the Niger coup leaders, arrived with a delegation in Mali’s capital Bamako on Wednesday, a senior Nigerien official and a Malian security official told AFP. They did not give further details.
Mohamed Bazoum, 63, was feted in 2021 after winning elections that ushered in Niger’s first-ever peaceful transition of power.
He took the helm of one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries, burdened by four previous coups since independence from France in 1960.
But after surviving two attempted putsches, Bazoum himself was overthrown on July 26 when members of his own guard detained him at the presidency.
Their leader, General Abdourahamane Tiani, has declared himself leader, but his claim has been condemned internationally.
France on Wednesday scheduled more evacuation flights from the capital Niamey following hostile anti-French demonstrations at the weekend.
By Wednesday more than 500 people had landed in Paris aboard two flights, mostly French citizens but also Portuguese, Belgians, Nigerians, Ethiopians and Lebanese evacuees.
Two final flights have been organized for Wednesday, according to the French army.
Italian authorities also said they had evacuated around 100 foreigners living in Niger, who arrived in Rome early Wednesday, with ANSA radio reporting they included 36 Italians and 21 Americans.
Germany has urged its citizens to leave, but the United States — which has 1,100 troops stationed in Niger — has opted to not evacuate Americans for now.
Under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger has had a key role in French and Western strategies to combat an extremist insurgency that has rampaged across the Sahel since 2012.
After joining a regional revolt in northern Mali, armed extremists advanced into Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015 and now carry out sporadic attacks on fragile states on the Gulf of Guinea.
Countless numbers of civilians, troops and police have been killed across the region, many in massacres, while around 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso alone have fled their homes.
The impact has contributed to army takeovers in all three Sahel countries and inflicted devastating damage to economies at the very bottom of the world’s wealth table.
France at one point had about 5,400 troops in its anti-extremist Barkhane mission, supported by fighter jets, helicopters and drones.
But that mission had to be drastically refocused on Niger last year, when France pulled out of Mali and Burkina Faso after falling out with their juntas.
Today, the reconfigured French force has around 1,500 men, many of them deployed at a major air base near Niamey.
France’s army chief of staff announced on Tuesday that a pullout was “not on the agenda”.