Niger’s junta on Tuesday rejected the latest diplomatic mission from West African countries aimed at restoring constitutional order after a July 26 coup, resisting pressure from the United States and the United Nations to come to the negotiating table.
Heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are preparing for a summit on Thursday to discuss their standoff with the junta, which defied an Aug. 6 deadline to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.
ECOWAS defence chiefs agreed on Friday on a possible military action plan, which heads of state are expected to consider at their summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
The junta denied permission to enter Niger to a joint delegation from ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), and the UN, according to a letter circulated on social media whose authenticity was confirmed by a Niger army spokesman.
The letter said popular anger among Niger’s citizens over sanctions imposed by ECOWAS in response to the coup made it impossible to host the envoys safely and denounced “a climate of threatened aggression against Niger”.
An AU spokesperson confirmed that a mission had been denied access, while ECOWAS declined to comment.
The junta had already snubbed meetings with a senior U.S. envoy and another ECOWAS delegation.
Under Bazoum, Niger was relatively successful in containing an Islamist insurgency that devastated the Sahel region and was an important ally for the West after two of its neighbours rejected former colonial power France and turned towards Russia instead.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the most widely used fuel for nuclear energy, adding to its strategic importance.
The United Nations said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly supported mediation efforts by ECOWAS, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told French radio station RFI that diplomacy was the best way to resolve the situation.
He declined to comment on the future of some 1,100 U.S. troops in Niger, where French, German, and Italian troops are also stationed.
Blinken later told the BBC that he was worried that Russia’s Wagner mercenaries were taking advantage of the instability in Niger to strengthen their presence in the Sahel.
“I think what happened and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but … they tried to take advantage of it,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC.
U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Niamey on Monday but was denied permission to meet coup leader Abdourahamane Tiani, or Bazoum, who is in detention.
She told reporters her talks with more junior officers were “frank and difficult,” and they had shown little interest in exploring ways to restore democratic order.
Last week, ECOWAS sent a mission to Niamey led by Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former military ruler of Nigeria, but Tiani also refused to see him.
In contrast, Tiani on Monday met a joint delegation from Mali and Burkina Faso, both neighbouring countries where the military has seized power from civilians. The juntas there have pledged support for the coup in Niger.
“We will not accept military intervention in Niger. Our survival depends on it,” said Abdoulaye Maiga, a spokesman for Mali’s junta, appearing on Niger state television.
Some pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey have held up Russian flags, which are in fashion according to residents and fabric vendors.
“I’m a fan of the Russian flag, which is why I’ve come today to buy fabrics for the tailor to make me a flag,” said Okacha Abdoul-Aziz.
Western allies fear that Niger could go the way of Mali, which threw out French troops and U.N. peacekeepers and invited in mercenaries from the Wagner Group after a 2021 coup.
“Every single place that this Wagner group has gone, death, destruction, and exploitation have followed,” Blinken told the BBC.
Alongside the Malian army, fighters presumed to be from Wagner have carried out a brutal military offensive, executing hundreds of civilians last year, witnesses and rights groups say, charges the army and Wagner deny.
In a new report seen by Reuters on Monday, U.N. sanctions monitors said they had also used a campaign of sexual violence and other grave human rights abuses to terrorise the population.