Niger’s coup leaders said late Sunday that they are ready to “prosecute” ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum for “high treason” and “undermining the security” of the country.
Junta spokesman Colonel Amadou Abdramane, speaking on state television, said the military regime had “gathered the necessary evidence to prosecute before the competent national and international authorities the ousted president and his local and foreign accomplices for high treason and for undermining the internal and external security of Niger.”
Hours earlier, Niger’s junta leaders said they were open to negotiations to avert conflict with West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS, according to a group of senior Nigerian Islamic scholars who met with the military insurgents in Niamey.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is mulling how to restore civilian rule in Niger, and how to reinstate the constitutionally elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
Bazoum was ousted after a military takeover in Niger last month. This marks the seventh coup in West and Central Africa in three years.
Pursuing a peaceful resolution, ECOWAS chairman and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu approved the clerical diplomatic mission in Niger.
The Islamic scholars met for several hours with junta leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who has, reportedly, stated that Niger and Nigeria “were not only neighbors but brothers and sisters who should resolve issues amicably.”
Although ECOWAS has threatened military intervention in Niger, it appears reluctant to deploy troops there, fearing that such a move could plunge Niger into a civil war.
Any military intervention by the bloc could further strain regional ties as juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea have expressed support for Niger’s military rule.
Tchiani sent a delegation Saturday to the Guinean capital, Conakry, to thank leaders there for their support — a sign of the junta’s drive to affirm alliances as it stands up to regional and other powers.
“We are pan-African. When our people have problems, we are always present, and we will always be there,” Guinea’s interim president, Mamady Doumbouya, said at the meeting, according to a video shared late Saturday night by the presidency.
Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a research group headquartered in Germany, said said Niger’s junta seems to be cementing its rule. “It looks as though the putschists have won and will stay,” he noted.
Laessing said ECOWAS might opt for negotiations pressing the junta to agree to a short transition period.
Europe and the United States will have little choice but to recognize the junta to continue the security cooperation in the region, Laessing added.
The U.S. and France have more than 2,500 military personnel in the region and together with other countries have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and training Niger’s forces.
The July 26 coup is seen as a major blow to many Western nations. Niger is a top Uranium producer and, until now, a Western ally in the fight against a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in the sub-Saharan Sahel region.
Boko Haram rebels have intensified their attacks in the area. At least 40,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced in the 14-year jihadi conflict which has spread to Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Tchiani has maintained the junta could be more effective at protecting the nation from jihadi violence and has exploited anti-French sentiment among the population to shore up its support.
Nigeriens in the capital, Niamey, said Friday ECOWAS has been out of touch with the political realities in Niger and that it shouldn’t interfere.
“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.
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 Bazoum. He did not, however, specify whether the U.S. supported the deployment of troops.
Western powers fear Russian influence increasing if Niger follows neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which expelled troops of former colonial power France after coups in those countries.
Mali has since teamed up with mercenaries from the Russian-led Wagner Group and kicked out a United Nations peacekeeping force there, something security analysts say could lead to further conflict.
In Niamey, thousands demonstrated Friday outside a French military base.
“Long live Russia,” one protester’s sign read. “Down with France … Down with ECOWAS.” Another said: “Wagner will protect our children from terrorism.”
Bazoum family detained
Bazoum and his family are being held in the basement of their home. The president said he hasn’t had electricity for nearly 10 days and isn’t allowed to see family, friends or bring food supplies into the house. Bazoum was seen by a doctor Saturday.
Bazoum “had a visit by his doctor today,” a member of the physician’s team told AFP Saturday, adding the physician had also brought food for Bazoum, his wife, and son.
“He’s fine, given the situation,” the source added.
Representatives of the junta told U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during her visit to the country recently that they would kill Bazoum if ECOWAS intervened militarily, a Western military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“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.
Blinken said he was “dismayed” by the military’s refusal to release Bazoum’s family as a “demonstration of goodwill.”