ECOWAS to discuss Niger crisis, US says ‘window’ to fix situation still possible

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West African leaders on Monday scheduled a summit for Thursday to discuss the Niger junta’s rejection of an ultimatum to reinstate the ousted president, spurring international hopes of a resolution without the use of force.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had told leaders of the July 26 coup to stand down by Sunday or face a possible military intervention, but the junta instead closed Niger’s airspace and pledged to defend the country.

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The bloc has not directly responded, but said on Monday it would hold the Thursday summit to discuss the standoff - a decision that the European Union and United States said allowed room for mediation.

“The window of opportunity is definitely still open. We believe that the junta should step aside,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a daily briefing.

Niger’s uranium and oil reserves and its pivotal role in a war with extremist militants in the Sahel region give it economic and strategic importance for the United States, Europe, China and Russia.

Coup leaders in Niamey have struck a defiant tone, stressing their resolution to stand firm.

“Niger’s armed forces and all our defense and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” a junta representative said in a statement on national television on Sunday as the deadline expired.

In a further sign of its will to remain in power, the junta on Monday named former Finance Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine as the new prime minister.

They have also called on young Nigeriens to be ready to serve their country in its time of need - a rallying call that several students at the capital’s Abdou Moumouni university said on Monday they would heed.

“No sacrifice is too much ... for our country, we are ready to give our lives,” said economics masters student Soumaila Hamadou on the rain-drenched campus.

Niger’s capital Niamey appeared calm on Monday with people going about their business as usual, but the closure of Nigerien airspace has already disrupted the skies.

Landlocked Niger is more than twice the size of France and many flight paths across Africa would normally pass above it. Air France suspended flights to and from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Bamako in Mali, which both border Niger, until August 11 and warned that some flight times would increase.

ECOWAS has taken a harder stance on the Niger coup, the region’s seventh in three years, than it did on previous ones. The credibility of the 15-nation club is at stake because it had said it would tolerate no further such overthrows.

ECOWAS defense chiefs agreed on Friday on a possible military action plan if the detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, was not released and reinstated, although they said operational decisions would be decided by heads of states.

But the bloc’s unity has been broken by a promise from the ruling juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, both member states, to come to Niger’s defense if needed.

Both countries sent delegations to Niamey to show solidarity, the Malian army said on social media on Monday.

Later, a representative of the Malian delegation reiterated his country’s backing for the junta.

A fracture within ECOWAS and escalation of the stand-off with Niger would further destabilize one of the world’s poorest regions, already facing a hunger crisis and an extremist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

The threat of worsening security has prompted France to warn its citizens against all travel to Niger, while the Chinese Embassy in Niamey said its nationals in Niger should leave for a third country or return home if they had no reason to stay.

Hope for diplomacy

African and Western allies have imposed sanctions and cut aid to Niger to pressure the junta to step down.

On Monday, the US State Department said “hundreds of millions of dollars” in paused US assistance was at stake if the country’s junta did not reinstate the elected government.

Despite these looming hardships, coup organizers appear to enjoy support from at least part of the population.

A pro-coup rally drew thousands of people to a Niamey stadium on Sunday, while some locals, including women, have picketed intersections in the capital to offer non-violent resistance in support of the junta if needed.

“This proves the commitment and determination of Niger’s young women to accompany and support them [the junta],” said Zeinabou Boubacar Zakou, a student and member of the Nigerien Young Women’s Council.

Read more:

Niger awaits West African bloc’s response after junta rejects ultimatum

Niger junta closes airspace until further notice

Niger president says coup will have ‘devastating’ fallout for region, world

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