West African summit backs diplomacy in Niger coup crisis

AFP , Thursday 10 Aug 2023

West African leaders on Thursday said they firmly supported diplomacy in the search to end the crisis in Niger, stepping back from a threat to intervene militarily in the coup-stricken country.

Motorists drive past the National Assembly in Niamey on August 7, 2023.
Motorists drive past the National Assembly in Niamey on August 7, 2023. AFP


"We prioritise diplomatic negotiations and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach," said Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, chairing an emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja.

The 15-nation bloc is struggling to stem military takeovers that have now swept through four of its members in three years.

Their summit came four days after the expiry of an ultimatum to Niger's coup leaders to reinstate the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, who was detained by guards on July 26.

But the regime ignored the deadline.

"Regrettably, the seven-day ultimatum we issued during the first summit has not yielded the desired outcome," Tinubu acknowledged.

"We must engage all parties involved, including the coup leaders, in earnest discussions to convince them to relinquish power and reinstate President Bazoum," he said.

"It is our duty to exhaust all avenues of engagement to ensure a swift return to constitutional governance in Niger."

The coup leaders on Thursday signalled further defiance by appointing a new government.

The 21-member cabinet will be headed by Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, a civilian, with generals from the new military governing council at the defence and interior ministries.

The possibility of military intervention in Niger, a fragile nation that ranks among the world's poorest, sparked debate within ECOWAS and warnings from neighbouring Algeria as well as Russia.

Niger's neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, both ruled by military governments that seized power in coups, also declared an intervention would be a "declaration of war" on their countries.

Hopes for 'real discussions'

On Tuesday, a bid to send a joint team of ECOWAS, UN and African Union representatives to Niger's capital Niamey was rejected by the coup leaders.

But in a twist on Wednesday, a former emir of the Nigerian city of Kano said he had met with the coup leaders to help mediate the crisis.

Sanusi Lamido Sanusi told Nigerian state television he had spoken to coup leader General Abdourahamane Tiani and would deliver a "message" to Tinubu, though he was not an official government emissary.

"We came hoping that our arrival will pave the way for real discussions between the leaders of Niger and those of Nigeria," said Sanusi, who is known to be a close friend of Tinubu.

Current ECOWAS chair Nigeria is taking a hard line against last month's coup, the fifth in Niger since independence from France in 1960.

Speaking before flying to Abuja on Wednesday, Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo said the future of ECOWAS was at stake following coups in four member states -- Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and now Niger.

Bazoum remains Niger's sole recognised president and coups must be banned, he added.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres joined a chorus of concern about 63-year-old Bazoum, saying that he and his family were reportedly living in "deplorable living conditions".

CNN reported Wednesday that Bazoum was being kept in isolation and given meals of only plain rice and pasta.

Unstable Sahel

Countries in the Sahel are battling a jihadist insurgency that erupted in northern Mali in 2012, spread to Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015, and is now causing jitters in states on the Gulf of Guinea.

The bloody campaign has been devastating for those three countries, which have turbulent histories and rank among the poorest nations in the world.

Niger has the misfortune of facing a double jihadist insurgency, both in its southwest and also from militants crossing into the southeast. Across the region, thousands of civilians, police and soldiers have been killed. I

Bazoum's election in 2021 had helped Niger cement close ties with France and the United States, which have major bases and troop deployments in the country.

France last year withdrew its forces from Mali and Burkina Faso after falling out with their military leaders, refocussing its anti-jihadist strategy on Niger.

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