By Boureima Balima and Felix Onuah
NIAMEY/ABUJA (Reuters) -West Africa’s regional bloc was to determine on Friday a potential intervention to overturn Niger’s coup after a mediation mission apparently failed ahead of a weekend deadline in a crisis closely watched by global superpowers.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a hard stance on last week’s toppling of President Mohamed Bazoum: the seventh coup in West and Central Africa since 2020.
Given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in the war with Islamist rebels in the Sahel region, Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia.
Various western nations have cut aid, even though Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world and relies on outside help for nearly half of its annual budget.
The new military junta, led by 59-year-old presidential guard commander Abdourahamane Tiani, on Thursday revoked military cooperation pacts with former colonial power France, as neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso did after their coups.
That could reshape the long-running fight against Islamist militants, not only in Niger but the region.
Paris, which has loudly condemned the putsch, has between 1,000-1,500 troops in Niger helping battle groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State. The United States, Germany and Italy also have troops stationed in Niger.
Detained at the presidential residence in Niger’s capital Niamey, Bazoum, a 63-year-old philosophy graduate elected in 2021, said in his first remarks since the coup that he was a hostage and in need of international help.
“If it (the coup) succeeds, it will have devastating consequences for our country, our region and the entire world,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece.
“While this coup attempt is a tragedy for Nigeriens, its success would have devastating consequences far beyond our borders,” he said, backing ECOWAS’ economic and travel sanctions.
WEST AFRICAN DEFENCE CHIEFS MEET
The 15-member ECOWAS bloc sent a delegation to Niamey seeking an “amicable resolution”, but a source in the entourage said a meeting at the airport with the junta’s representatives yielded no breakthrough and they flew out in the early hours.
“All our efforts to meet with the leader of the junta failed. He rather sent five-member representatives to meet with us,” the Nigerian presidential source said.
“After the meeting that ended at midnight, they said they heard all we have said and that they will get back to us. We left Niamey immediately.”
ECOWAS has said it could authorise force if Bazoum is not back in power by Sunday. Its defence chiefs were ending a days-long meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday.
The junta has denounced outside interference and said it will meet any aggression with an immediate riposte.
It has support from fellow juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso. Russia’s private mercenary Wagner group, which has fighters in Mali and Central African Republic, has also cheered the coup.
The junta has cited persistent insecurity as the main justification for seizing power, even though data on attacks shows security has actually been improving.
Bazoum, in the editorial, said the coup spelt chaos for his nation, with prices already soaring, and jihadists plus the Wagner group likely to exploit the situation.
“With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine,” he wrote.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, last week welcomed the coup in Niger, and said his forces were available to restore order. The Kremlin has urged a return to constitutional order.
(Reporting by Boureima Balima and Moussa Aksar in Niamey, Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Emelia Sithole-Matarise; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Cawthorne)