NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger’s military junta says it is severing military agreements with France, its former colonial ruler, firing some of the previous government’s key ambassadors and warning citizens of the West African nation to watch for foreign armies and spies.
The announcement on state television late Thursday deepens the post-coup isolation for what had been the United States’ and allies’ last major security partner in the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara Desert that various Islamic extremist groups have turned into the global center of terrorism.
With two days remaining before a deadline set by the West African regional bloc to release and reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum or face possible force, Bazoum in a plea published in a Washington Post opinion piece said, “I write this as a hostage.”
Niger’s mutinous soldiers face a Sunday deadline set by the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, whose envoys arrived at the airport in the capital, Niamey, on Thursday for talks.
But hours later, the junta’s announcement brought skepticism about any deal. It said it was terminating the military agreements and protocols signed with France and announced the end of functions for Niger’s ambassadors to France, the United States, Togo and neighboring Nigeria, which is leading ECOWAS efforts on dialogue.
Bazoum wrote that Niger’s security situation had been improving before the coup, in contrast to neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso that are led by military juntas, but said that’s now at risk because Niger would lose aid from foreign partners and extremist groups would take advantage of the country’s instability.
“In our hour of need, I call on the U.S. government and the entire international community to help us restore our constitutional order,” he wrote.
France has 1,500 military personnel in Niger, which had been envisioned as the base for counterterror operations in the region after anti-French sentiments grew elsewhere.
The U.S. has 1,100 military personnel in Niger, including at a key drone base, and indicates it’s reluctant to leave, especially with the growing influence of the Russian private military group Wagner in the Sahel.
ECOWAS has been unsuccessful in stemming coups and is trying to change course with Niger in a region that has seen five of them in the past three years – two each in Mali and Burkina Faso.
The ECOWAS delegation is led by former Nigerian head of state Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. A second group led by Ambassador Babagana Kingibe has gone to engage with the leaders of neighboring Libya and Algeria, said Ajuri Ngelale, special adviser to Nigeria’s president.
But analysts said they’re not putting much faith in talks.
“I don’t expect mediation efforts to bear fruit in the short term. The junta is digging in … Seems like uncharted territory,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
Niger’s roughly 25 million people live in one of the poorest countries in the world, and any cuts in foreign aid could be disastrous. Already, citizens are feeling the effects after ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger and froze Nigerien assets held in regional central banks.
The bloc’s sanctions include halting energy transactions with Niger, which gets up to 90% of its power from Nigeria, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Earlier this week, power transmission from Nigeria to Niger was cut off, an official at one of Nigeria’s main electricity companies said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
Some residents in Niamey said things can hardly get worse.
Abdou Naif lives in a makeshift community on the side of a road with some 140 other people, unable to pay rent or find work. “Our suffering is already enough,” he said.
AP writer Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed.