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Faith Nyasuguta

Junta leaders in Niger have denied a senior US official the chance to meet the West African country’s ousted president and rejected her pleas to restore democracy after July’s coup.

The US acting deputy secretary of state, Victoria Nuland,  described “frank and difficult” talks during a two-hour meeting in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, on Monday, as the rebellious commanders again refused to give in to international pressure to stand down.

Nuland told reporters that she met with officers including Brig Gen Moussa Salaou Barmou, who has been named the new military chief of staff. However, the junta did not respond to her requests to meet Niger’s self-proclaimed new leader, Gen Abdourahamane Tiani – or the detained elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, who is under house arrest and claims he is being held hostage.

“These conversations were extremely frank and at times quite difficult,” Nuland revealed to reporters by telephone as she prepared to fly out of Niamey.

Her remarks come even as the West African bloc, Ecowas, prepares to meet on Thursday after the coup leaders ignored a deadline to reinstate Bazoum – a move the bloc had earlier cautioned could lead it to authorize a military intervention.

According to Nuland, the mutinous officers were unreceptive to the US urging them to return the nation to civilian rule.

“This was a first conversation in which the United States was offering its good offices if there is a desire on the part of the people who are responsible for this to return to the constitutional order,” she said. “I would not say that we were in any way taken up on that offer.

She noted that she had also cautioned there would be consequences for Niger’s relations with the US if the junta does not restore Bazoum or follow the path of neighboring Mali in calling in Russia’s Wagner mercenaries.

“I hope they will keep the door open to diplomacy. We made that proposal. We’ll see,” she said.

She revealed that Barmou was well acquainted with cooperation with the United States through his past involvement with special forces.

“The people who have taken this action here understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in,” Nuland said.

Despite the international pressure, coup leaders have seemed unwilling to back down, and on Sunday night, they closed Niger’s airspace until further notice, citing the threat of military intervention.

“In the face of the threat of intervention that is becoming more apparent … Nigerien airspace is closed effective from today,” a junta representative said in a statement on national television on Sunday evening.

He added that there had been a pre-deployment of forces in two central African countries in preparation for an intervention, but did not give details.

Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” the representative said.

The coup leaders warned that any attempt to violate Niger’s airspace would face “an energetic and instant response”.

Ecowas defence officials agreed on a possible military action plan, including when and where to strike, if Bazoum was not released and reinstated by the Sunday deadline.

On Monday, an Ecowas spokesperson, Emos Lungu, said the bloc would hold an extraordinary summit to discuss Niger on Thursday at the organization’s headquarters in Abuja.

However, the bloc’s unity has been shattered by support for the coup leaders from the ruling juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, both members of Ecowas, and a pledge to come to Niger’s defence if necessary.

The Malian army revealed it would send a delegation to Niamey to show solidarity and a military plane from Burkina Faso was reported to have landed in the Niger capital at about 11.20am GMT.

The coup, the seventh in west and central Africa in three years, has rocked the Sahel region, one of the poorest in the world. Given its uranium and oil riches and its pivotal role in a war with Islamist militants, Niger holds great importance for the US, Europe, China and Russia.

Bazoum has urged the international community to help “restore constitutional order”. He was democratically elected two years ago and is seen in the west as a key ally in the fight against Islamist extremists in the region.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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