The ECOWAS bloc said on Thursday it had directed a “standby force” to restore constitutional order in Niger after its Sunday deadline to reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum expired.
Hours earlier, two Western officials told The Associated Press that Niger’s junta had told a top U.S. diplomat they would kill Bazoum if neighboring countries attempted any military intervention to restore his rule.
It's unclear when or where the force will deploy and which countries from the 15-member bloc would contribute to it. Conflict experts say it would likely comprise some 5,000 troops led by Nigeria and could be ready within weeks.
The African Union said on Friday it supports West African regional bloc ECOWAS' decisions on Niger and called on the international community to save the life of Bazoum, whose detention conditions are deteriorating.
After the ECOWAS meeting, neighboring Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara said his country would take part in the military operation, along with Nigeria and Benin.
"Ivory Coast will provide a battalion and has made all the financial arrangements ... We are determined to install Bazoum in his position. Our objective is peace and stability in the sub-region,” Ouattara said on state television.
Niger, an impoverished country of some 25 million people, was seen as one of the last hopes for Western nations to partner with in beating back a jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that's ravaged the region. France and the United States have more than 2,500 military personnel in Niger and together with other European partners had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into propping up its military.
The junta responsible for spearheading the coup, led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, has exploited anti-French sentiment among the population to shore up its support.
Nigeriens in the capital, Niamey, on Friday said ECOWAS isn't in touch with the reality on the ground and shouldn't intervene.
“It is our business, not theirs. They don’t even know the reason why the coup happened in Niger," said Achirou Harouna Albassi, a resident. Bazoum was not abiding by the will of the people, he said.
On Friday the African Union expressed strong support for ECOWAS’ decision and called on the junta to “urgently halt the escalation with the regional organization.” It also called for the immediate release of Bazoum. The African Union is expected to meet on Saturday to discuss the situation in Niger.
On Thursday night after the summit, France's foreign ministry said it supported “all conclusions adopted.” U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country appreciated “the determination of ECOWAS to explore all options for the peaceful resolution of the crisis” and would hold the junta accountable for the safety and security of President Bazoum. However, he did not specify whether the U.S. supported the deployment of troops.
The mutinous soldiers that ousted Bazoum more than two weeks ago have entrenched themselves in power, appear closed to dialogue and have refused to release the president. Representatives of the junta told U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland of the threat to Bazoum's life during her visit to the country this week, a Western military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
A U.S. official confirmed that account, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
“The threat to kill Bazoum is grim,” said Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. There have been unwritten rules until now about how overthrown presidents will be treated and violence against Bazoum would evoke some of the worst coups of the past, he said.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that it had spoken to Bazoum, who said that his 20-year-old son was sick with a serious heart condition and has been refused access to a doctor. The president said he hasn't had electricity for nearly 10 days and isn't allowed to see family, friends or bring supplies into the house.
It's unclear if the threat on Bazoum's life would change ECOWAS' decision to intervene military. It might give them pause, or push the parties closer to dialogue, but the situation has entered uncharted territory, analysts say.
“An ECOWAS invasion to restore constitutional order into a country of Niger’s size and population would be unprecedented,” said Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Niger has a fairly large and well-trained army that, if it actively resisted an invasion, could pose significant problems for ECOWAS. This would be a very large and significant undertaking, he said.
While the region oscillates between mediation and preparing for war, Nigeriens are suffering the impact of harsh economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS.
Before the coup, more than 4 million Nigeriens were reliant on humanitarian assistance and the situation could become more dire, said Louise Aubin, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Niger.
“The situation is alarming. ... We’ll see an exponential rise and more people needing more humanitarian assistance," she said, adding that the closure of land and air borders makes it hard to bring aid into the country and it’s unclear how long the current stock will last.
Aid groups are battling restrictions on multiple fronts.
ECOWAS sanctions have banned the movement of goods between member countries, making it hard to bring in materials. The World Food Program has some 30 trucks stuck at the Benin border unable to cross. Humanitarians are also trying to navigate restrictions within the country as the junta has closed the airspace, making it hard to get clearance to fly the humanitarian planes that transport goods and personnel to hard-hit areas.
Flights are cleared on a case-by-case basis and there’s irregular access to fuel, which disrupts aid operations, Aubin said.
The U.N. has asked ECOWAS to make exceptions to the sanctions and is speaking to Niger’s foreign ministry about doing the same within the country.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.