By Felix Onuah
ABUJA (Reuters) -West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc aims to send a parliamentary committee to Niger to meet coup leaders who seized power last month, a spokesperson said on Saturday, part of a last ditch regional effort to restore civilian rule that includes religious leaders.
Niger’s military last month imprisoned President Mohamed Bazoum and dissolved the elected government, drawing condemnation from regional powers which have activated a standby military force they say will be deployed as a last resort if talks fail.
But coup leaders, headed by General Abdourahamane Tiani, have rebuffed diplomatic efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and others, raising the spectre of further conflict in the impoverished Sahel region of West Africa, which is already overrun by a deadly Islamist insurgency.
At stake is not just the fate of Niger – a major uranium producer and Western ally in the fight against the Islamists – but also the influence of rival global powers with strategic interests in West and Central Africa, where there have been seven coups in three years.
U.S., French, German and Italian troops are stationed in Niger, in a region where local affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed thousands and displaced millions.
Russian influence has been growing as insecurity increases, democracy erodes, and leaders seek new partners to restore order.
The ECOWAS parliament met on Saturday to discuss further action in Niger. No decision was made, but the parliament set up a committee that plans to meet Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who holds ECOWAS’ revolving chairmanship, to get his permission to go to Niger, the spokesperson said.
A group of prominent Nigerian Islamic scholars led by Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau also met with Tinubu to get the green light for an intervention, which Tinubu granted, a Nigerian presidential source said on Saturday.
It was not clear if they were already in Niger, but their plan was to meet fellow clerics in Niger to smooth over the diplomatic impasse.
Western powers fear Russian influence could increase if the junta in Niger follows neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso which expelled the troops of former colonial power France after coups in those countries.
Mali has since teamed up with mercenaries from Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, a move which has coincided with a spike in violence there. It has also kicked out a United Nations peacekeeping force, which security analysts fear could lead to further conflict.
In Niger’s capital Niamey on Friday, thousands demonstrated in favour of the coup 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.”
Regional army chiefs were set to meet in the coming days.
If they chose to intervene, it was not clear how long the ECOWAS force would take to assemble, how big it would be and if it would actually invade. Security analysts said it could take weeks to set up.
Only Ivory Coast has said how many troops it would provide, and some countries, including Liberia and Cape Verde, have said they would prefer diplomacy. Russia has warned against military action.
Meanwhile, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations all said they were worried about Bazoum’s detention.
U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk on Friday said conditions were “rapidly deteriorating” and could amount to a violation of international human rights law.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah and Edward McAllister; Writing by Edward McAllisterEditing by Ingrid Melander, Mark Potter, Giles Elgood and Sandra Maler)