Hopes for dialogue dim in Niger as junta clings to power
By Elian Peltier and Eric Schmitt
The new military leaders of Niger have rebuffed diplomatic efforts by the United States, the United Nations and regional groups to resolve a crisis sparked by a coup in the West African nation, dimming hopes that civilian rule will be restored soon.
The soldiers who took over Niger last month refused to meet a delegation of envoys on Tuesday from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, the 15-member regional bloc known as ECOWAS.
A day earlier, Victoria Nuland, the acting U.S. deputy secretary of state, made a surprise trip to Niger but left after talks with one of the coup leaders that she described as “extremely frank and at times quite difficult.”
The general she met with had been trained in the United States and was considered a close U.S. military ally. But Nuland said that he offered no assurances that President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger would be reinstated or that civilian rule would be restored. And she was denied a meeting with the junta’s leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani.
The situation in Niger has threatened to derail years of Western security and aid assistance to one of the world’s poorest countries and a key ally in a region stricken by widespread instability that has been the site of seven military takeovers in less than three years.
Niger, a landlocked nation of 25 million people, hosts at least 2,600 Western troops, including 1,100 Americans, who have trained the country’s military and used it as a base to monitor Islamist insurgencies.
The future of that partnership now appears to be in doubt, as the generals who seized power in Niger have severed military ties with France, which has 1,500 troops in the country, and said little about whether they plan to continue cooperating with the United States.
Nuland said shortly before departing from Niger that she had offered several options to a coup leader to resolve the stalemate and maintain the relationship with the United States. But, she added, “I would not say that we were in any way taken up on that offer.”
She told reporters that she was denied a meeting with Bazoum, who has been detained in his private residence since July 26, and Tchiani, who removed him from power.
Diplomats and officials from West Africa said they still were hoping for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, even after an ultimatum from ECOWAS for the coup leaders to relinquish power expired Sunday.
ECOWAS, which has threatened military action against the coup leaders, is scheduled to meet for an extraordinary summit on Thursday. It has frozen financial transactions with Niger and closed borders between the country and its neighbors. Niger’s junta closed the country’s airspace on Sunday evening.
The streets of Niamey, the capital, remained calm Tuesday despite soaring food prices and blackouts that have become more frequent since Nigeria, which supplies more than two-thirds of Niger’s electricity, suspended its supply after the coup.
Hundreds of young people have posted themselves at the city’s roundabouts at night to check for suspicious cars and weapons, heeding a call by the junta to defend the country.
Bazoum remained locked in his private residence with his wife and one of his sons, who is in his early 20s. The mutineers have cut electricity and water to the house, said a friend and adviser to Bazoum who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s situation.
Among the West African officials still sounding rare notes of optimism was Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, Bazoum’s prime minister, who was in Rome during the coup and is now in Paris. He said in a telephone interview Monday that “the president has not resigned” and there could still be “a happy outcome.”
“The junta doesn’t have a firm hold on Niger’s institutions and constitutional order,” he said. “The institutions can still be put back in place.”
However, hours after Mahamadou spoke with the Times, the junta in Niger said it had replaced him with a new prime minister, Lamine Zen, a civilian and former finance minister.
The junta also named a new head to the country’s presidential guard, the unit tasked with protecting Bazoum but which detained him last month. Tchiani, who led the unit at the time of the coup, now appears to be in charge of the country.
Nearly two weeks after the coup, the military leaders have not announced a timeline for a transition or when elections might take place.
It was unclear how Nuland, the U.S. envoy, was able to reach Niamey despite the airspace closure. The coup leader she met with was Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the former head of Niger’s special forces. Once a close partner of the United States, he was named chief of staff of Niger’s military shortly after the coup.
Barmou was trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the National Defense University in Washington. American military commanders who worked with Barmou expressed shock that he had joined the coup’s senior ranks.
“I’m disappointed and surprised,” said J. Marcus Hicks, a retired two-star Air Force general who headed U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa. “Barmou was one of the most competent and capable senior African military leaders I dealt with.”
Nuland added that she had warned Barmou and other coup leaders against partnering with the Wagner paramilitary group from Russia, as neighboring Mali has done.
“The people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in,” she said.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he did not believe that Russia or the Wagner group were behind the coup in Niger, but that “they tried to take advantage of it.”