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Sunday, May 19, 2024

WEST AFRICAN LEADERS BEGIN TALKS ON NIGER AS JUNTA STANDS FIRM

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NIAMEY/ABUJA, (REUTERS) – West African heads of state discussed their response to last month’s military takeover in Niger at closed-door talks in Nigeria on Thursday after the junta defied their earlier threat to use force to restore democracy.

The meeting is taking place hours after Niger’s coup leaders named a new government, forcing their agenda before the summit.

Since the July 26 power grab, the junta has rebuffed diplomatic overtures and ignored an Aug. 6 deadline from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Bazoum.

Mahamane Roufai Laouali, cited as “Secretary General of the Government”, named 21 ministers on state television overnight without specifying any further government plans.

Three leaders of the military takeover were named ministers of defence, interior and sports.

Former Finance Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, who had been named prime minister on Monday, was appointed finance minister for the new government. Niger’s previous government had 43 ministers and none were military officers.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern about Bazoum and his family after his party reported that they were being detained at the presidential residence without electricity or running water, and had gone days without fresh food.

“The Secretary-General… once again calls for his immediate, unconditional release and his reinstatement as Head of State,” a U.N. spokesperson said on Wednesday.

The meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, could prove a pivotal moment in the standoff. The bloc’s leaders are expected to agree on next steps, which could include military intervention – something an ECOWAS official has said would be a last resort.

MIXED FEELINGS

In nearby Senegal, where the government has said it could send troops if needed, people’s views about a military intervention differed.

“As long as we act to restore peace I’m a supporter,” Lansanna Diedhiou said near a weekly market in the capital Dakar. “The objective of the organization is … to act together for the African family.”

Others, like Cheikh Niang, were concerned about the impact on regional ties and solidarity.

“We’re all Africans and Niger is part of the African continent,” he said. “We can’t send Africans to wage war against each other.”

Envoys of the Nigerian president and ECOWAS chair Bola Tinubu met coup leaders in the capital, Niamey, on Wednesday, offering a glimmer of hope for dialogue after previous missions were spurned.

Any escalation would further destabilise West Africa’s Sahel region, one of the world’ poorest, where a long-running Islamist insurgency that spread from Mali has displaced millions over the past decade and stoked a hunger crisis.

Niger had recently fared better than its neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso in stemming the violence. It also became an increasingly important Western ally for fighting insurgents after juntas seized power in the other two countries between 2020 and 2022 and cut ties with traditional partners.

DIFFERENT CONTEXTS

The coup was triggered by internal politics but it has evolved into an international entanglement, with ECOWAS, the United Nations and Western countries putting pressure on the junta to stand down, while military governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend it.

In Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, resident Issouf Ouedraogo felt it made no sense for his country’s new leaders to support the Niger coup because the contexts were different.

“Burkina was in a situation of degradation and acute insecurity,” he said in reference to the frustrations that stoked two coups there last year.

“Niger, on the other hand, was in a stable situation,” he noted.

The military takeover has raised questions over whether the United States can continue the 1,100-strong military presence in Niger that officials and analysts say has been key to fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region.

A complicating factor could be any decision by Niger’s coup leaders to follow Mali’s footsteps and seek help from Russia’s Wagner Group, which the U.S. has designated a transnational criminal organization. Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has welcomed the coup in Niger and said his forces were available to restore order.

Niger accused France on Wednesday of violating its airspace, attacking a military camp and freeing “terrorists” to undermine the country. Paris denied the charges.

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