Niger’s junta has threatened to kill ousted President Mohamed Bazoum if neighbouring countries attempt any military intervention to reinstate him.
According to a report by The Associated Press on Thursday, two “Western officials” said the putschists issued the threat while speaking to a top U.S. diplomat.
This came shortly before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger, after its deadline of Sunday to restore Bazoum’s government expired.
The threat to the deposed president raises the stakes both for ECOWAS and for the junta, which has shown its willingness to escalate its actions since it seized power on July 26.
Niger was seen as the last country in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert that Western nations could partner with to counter jihadi violence linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.
The international community is scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the country’s leadership crisis.
The AP report disclosed that a Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said representatives of the junta told U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland of the threat to Bazoum during her visit to the country this week.
A U.S. official reportedly confirmed that account, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
The threats from both sides escalate tensions but hopefully nudge them closer to actually talking, said Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specialised in African affairs and is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group.
“Still, this junta has escalated its moves so quickly that it’s possible they do something more extreme, as that has been their approach so far,” she cautioned.
Nine leaders from the 15-member West African bloc met Thursday in Abuja, to discuss their next steps.
Speaking after the talks, President of the ECOWAS Commission, Omar Alieu Touray, said he could only reaffirm the decisions by “the military authorities in the subregion to deploy a standby force of the community.”
Financing had been discussed and “appropriate measures have been taken,” he said.
He blamed the junta for any hardship caused by the sanctions imposed on Niger and said further actions by the bloc would be taken jointly.
“It is not one country against another country. The community has instruments to which all members have subscribed to,” he said.
A former British Army official who has worked in Nigeria told the AP the ECOWAS statement could be seen as the green light to begin assembling their forces with the ultimate aim of restoring constitutional order.
With regard to the use of force, the official, who was not authorised to speak to the media, said there was currently nothing in place other than Nigerian forces. Without enablers and the support of other regional armies, it’s unlikely they’d enter, the official said.
ECOWAS has imposed harsh economic and travel sanctions on Niger, but analysts say it may be running out of options as support fades for intervention. The bloc has failed to stem past coups in the region: Niger is the fourth of its member states to undergo a coup in the last three years.