Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

The crisis in Niger could reach a tipping point this weekend. ECOWAS, the geopolitical bloc of West African states, has set an Aug. 6 deadline for the coup-plotting Nigerien junta to step aside and restore the country’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum to power. The generals so far have shown little indication of heeding the bloc’s demands. Instead, a delegation from the Nigerien junta courted the support of the coup-plotting juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. The two countries upped the ante, putting out a statement earlier this week that warned that an ECOWAS intervention in Niger would constitute a declaration of war against their own countries.

The West African bloc suspended the membership of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea after recent coups in those countries and analysts suggest the region’s leadership wants to draw a line in the sand around Niger, a poor nation whose fledgling democracy had shown a degree of resilience under Bazoum. While Mali and Burkina Faso slipped into Moscow’s orbit under their juntas, Niger remained something of a pro-Western redoubt in the Sahel, the semiarid African region below the Sahara Desert that is increasingly shaped by state failure and metastasizing insurgencies. Even as the junta entrenches itself in the capital, Niamey, Niger remains host to U.S. and French military bases.

I spoke to Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, Niger’s ambassador in Washington, about the fraught state of play, his expectations from the international community, and what’s at stake for the broader region and the world. The conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

TWV: As the ECOWAS deadline approaches, and the junta shows no sign of backing down, how real is the prospect of open war in the region?

Liman-Tinguiri: ECOWAS has laid down a set of sanctions with a clear gradation that goes from cutting economic transactions, banning imports and exports, cutting electricity supply, and, at last resort, the use of force. As we speak, sanctions are showing an impact. People are in the dark. Prices are rising up for many goods. The reality on the ground is that people are starting to suffer. And if this attempted coup goes on, the suffering will only increase. So now I think it’s time for the junta to realize this and to go back into their barracks.

Can we avoid going into a confrontation? I think ECOWAS has been very clear. Confrontation is not off the table. It’s the last resort, but it has not been ruled out. So, unfortunately, if the junta persists, we may go that route, but really nobody who loves Niger would like it.

President of Niger: My country is under attack and I’ve been taken hostage

The juntas of Mali and Burkina Faso put out a joint statement warning against an ECOWAS intervention, saying it was tantamount to a declaration of war.

To claim that we’re going to go to war is almost calling for war. I don’t think it’s a credible threat because I don’t think they have the means to threaten the rest of the region. Would you take seriously a threat from Mali or Burkina Faso to go to war against Nigeria or Côte d’Ivoire or Senegal? You just have to compare GDP to know that this is not serious. If they don’t have anything positive or constructive to say, it’s better to shut up.

ECOWAS has failed to thwart coups in your neighborhood. What makes this moment different?

There are many differences, but number one is that the coup in Niger has no justification whatsoever. The [junta’s] claim of deteriorating security is false. Security in Niger has been improving. And for the last two years, it has been better than any time before in the last six or seven years. There was no political tension. Opposition and majority leaders discuss in parliament; debate was happening. Even if you compare this moment to the history of earlier coups in Niger, this one has no basis or justification.

If Niger falls, if you go from democracy to dictatorship, like in the two neighboring countries, it means Niger will go under the control of Wagner. The whole central Sahel will be under Wagner. What will then happen is that the Islamist militants will have it very easy to go directly and attack the coastal West African country. So that will destabilize the whole region, from the Sahara to the Gulf of Benin. From Libya to the coast, you will have no real states. That’s what is at stake. Realizing that ECOWAS has been strong. [Nigerian President Bola Ahmed] Tinubu has been clear and loud that we will no longer tolerate any sort of coup against a democratically elected government. So that is now a test for ECOWAS.

So Niger’s democracy is a bulwark against lawlessness?

If Niger falls, the whole Sahel will collapse. There will be a totally destabilized zone with Wagner on one side, and ISIS and al-Qaeda on the other will be controlling the situation. The whole world will be destabilized. If you give them the whole Sahel, just imagine what will happen to migration, on the security in Europe and the whole world. What is at stake is first a matter for us in Niger, but also then for the region and the world, and the world should understand that.

The West saw Niger as a democratic bulwark. Then, a coup happened.

What role did the neighboring juntas have in encouraging or inspiring the coup in Niger?

I’m based in Washington and I have no clue about these kinds of things, but the indications we have, the way [the Malian and Burkinabe juntas] talk, it’s clear that they would love to have in Niger a regime that looks like theirs, which means no respect for human rights, no respect for democracy, no respect for anything else than their own interests to call mercenaries for their own safety. They left control of parts of their territory to the Islamist militants, and they use mostly mercenaries to protect themselves and these mercenaries are paying themselves by stealing natural resources. We don’t want that for our country. We are close to the West. We share values. We share democracy, and we want to be ruled by people who we have voted in ourselves.

There are almost daily scenes of pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey waving Russian flags and shouting anti-French slogans. What should we make of that?

I would not over-interpret it. Nowhere is demonstration a substitute for elections. You may organize a huge demonstration, but in the balance, you are not ahead. That is not a legitimate way to go to power. When it comes to the Russian flag, most of those who are taking it wouldn’t be able to locate Russia on a map.

Personally, I don’t believe there is huge anti-French sentiment. Forty percent of people in my country live with less than $2 a day. I really don’t think that these people are concerned with who is our international partner. Some of the young people now claiming to be “Pan-African” and anti-France have no clue about France, and don’t even know what it is. Simply the social media itself, the digital era, made it easier to make a lot of noise out of very tiny things. So, yes, in urban cities, some young people — because they are desperate because they are looking for someone to blame for the problem they’re facing — get manipulated by rhetoric. But it’s not really an indication of something deep and wide.

The United States and France have, together, more than 2,000 troops already stationed in Niger. Would you want them to intervene against the junta?

They have their own protocol. They have their own rules. And these countries have much more experience than ours in these things. So I will not tell them how to intervene and how to use or not use their forces. But definitely, the people of Niger are hoping for help from all our friends. Any assistance to help us to restore our democracy, to restore President Bazoum and our parliament into power, will be very welcome. And we will be grateful for it.

Do you feel like you’re in a rather difficult situation, as the envoy of a government that has been unseated?

My personal fate is not really that important. But our government is not unseated. There’s an attempted coup going on. So we will see, in the coming weeks, who is unseated and who is in power.

By Ishaan TharoorIshaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. In 2021, he won the Arthur Ross Media Award in Commentary from the American Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Twitter

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