On Tuesday, Niger’s military-appointed prime minister paid an unexpected visit to neighboring Chad, as West African powers convened to discuss possible military action to reverse his country’s coup, while the US and Russia advocated a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, a civilian nominated by the military rulers who deposed Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, came in Chad on a “working visit,” according to the Chadian government’s Facebook page.
In a statement made after meeting Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, Zeine stated that he had carried a message of “good neighbourliness and good fraternity” from Niger’s leadership.
“We are in a process of transition, we discussed the ins and outs and reiterated our availability to remain open and talk with all parties, but insist on our country’s independence,” he said.
Deby, a key player in the unstable Sahel, had flown to the Nigerien capital Niamey four days after the coup.
Photos later showed him pictured next to the detained Bazoum and, separately, with one of the regime’s leaders, General Salifou Mody.
Zeine’s unexpected visit occurred only hours after regional sources claimed ECOWAS military commanders would meet in Ghana on Thursday and Friday to discuss possible involvement in Niger.
The meeting, which was supposed to take place last Saturday but was postponed, stems from an ECOWAS summit last week, which approved the deployment of a “standby force to restore constitutional order” in Niger.
Military involvement, according to analysts, would be both operationally and politically problematic, given ECOWAS splits and concerns about aggravating the Sahel’s persistent instability.
However, the threat of force was accompanied by the EU’s insistence on a diplomatic solution – a scenario that Washington strongly supported on Tuesday.
“I believe that there continues to be space for diplomacy in achieving that result,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters.
“The pressure that’s been exerted by many countries including through ECOWAS on the military leaders responsible for disrupting the constitutional order in Niger is mounting.
“I think they have to take that into account, as well as the fact that their actions have isolated them from the region and the world.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a “peaceful political and diplomatic” resolution to the crisis in a phone call with Mali’s junta leader, Assimi Goita, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
Bazoum’s election in 2021 will be remembered as a watershed moment in Niger’s history, ushering in the country’s first peaceful transition of power since its independence from France in 1960.
His demise sent shockwaves throughout West Africa, including Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which have been pummeled by jihadist insurgencies.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed harsh economic and financial sanctions, while France, Germany, and the United States suspended aid programs.
On July 30, the regional alliance set the new regime a one-week deadline to reinstall Bazoum or face the threat of force, but the deadline passed without action.
Niger’s military regime has sent mixed signals since the crisis erupted.
After their chairman, General Abdourahamane Tiani, met with Nigerian religious mediators over the weekend, the coup leaders claimed they were open to a diplomatic approach.
The ECOWAS military summit in Ghana had been postponed due to “technical reasons.”
On Sunday night, though, Niger’s rulers stated that they had amassed enough evidence to charge Bazoum with “high treason and undermining internal and external security.”
ECOWAS slammed the legal threat, calling it a contradiction of the regime’s “reported willingness” to use peaceful means. Washington expressed “extreme dismay.”
The dispute overshadowed negotiations under the auspices of the African Union (AU) that began on Monday in Addis Ababa, bringing together members from the regime and ECOWAS.
Poor and unstable
Niger, a landlocked country in the midst of the parched Sahel, is one of the world’s poorest and most volatile countries.
Bazoum, 63, survived two attempted coups before being deposed in the country’s fifth putsch.
His removal is a major setback for French and US strategy in the Sahel.
After retreating from Mali and Burkina Faso last year due to disagreements with their juntas, France refocused its anti-jihadist efforts on Niger.
International worry is growing for Bazoum, his wife, and their kid, who have been detained at the president’s official residence since the coup.