World (AP)

Talks between regional bloc and Niger’s junta yield little, an official tells The Associated Press | AP News

Talks between regional bloc and Niger’s junta yield little, an official tells The Associated Press | AP News

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Mutinous soldiers in Niger are under pressure from regional sanctions as they refuse to reinstate the country’s president whom they toppled nearly a month ago while being fearful of attacks from France, an official said.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity after Saturday’s meeting between Niger’s new military regime and a delegation from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS.

He said the roughly two-hour discussion aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the country’s deepening crisis, yielded little with no clarity on the next steps. It was the first time head of the junta, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, met with the delegation after rebuffing previous attempts.

Saturday’s meeting was a last-ditch diplomacy scramble by the bloc to resolve the crisis peacefully and followed last week’s announcement that 11 of its 15 member states had agreed to intervene militarily if democratically-elected President Bazoum was not released from house arrest and reinstated.

The bloc’s three other countries under military rule following coups, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, were not included. The latter two had previously warned they would consider intervention in Niger an act of war.

On August 10, ECOWAS ordered the deployment of a “standby force” to go into Niger and restore constitutional rule. It’s unclear if and when the troops would intervene.

During the talks, Tchiani pushed for the lifting of economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS after the coup, saying Niger’s population was suffering because of them, but he was unwilling to give much in return, said the official. The junta said they were under pressure, at times striking a conciliatory tone and apologizing for past disrespect towards the bloc, while also defiantly standing by its decision to overthrow Bazoum and unequivocal about him not returning to power, the official added.

Tchiani also repeatedly expressed concerns that its former colonial ruler France — which has some 1,500 troops in the country and had been providing training and conducting joint operations with Niger’s military — was actively planning an attack, said the official.

Niger was seen by many Western countries as the last democratic partner in the region it could work with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency by militant groups linked with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. France, the United States and other European nations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up Niger’s army and the coup has been seen as a major setback.

Sahel experts say it’s not surprising that nothing came from Saturday’s meeting as each party is trying to show they’re open to discussions, yet the chances of an agreement are slim because their positions are starkly different.

“ECOWAS and the rest of the international community want to restore President Bazoum and the junta is not on this agenda,” said Seidik Abba, a Nigerien researcher and Sahel specialist and president of the International Center for Reflection for Studies On the Sahel, a think tank based In Paris. “The next step will be military confrontation … What we don’t know is when this confrontation will take place, how it will go, and what the consequences will be,” he said.

Shortly after the meetings Saturday, Tchiani went on state television and laid out a roadmap for the country, saying it would return to civilian rule within three years and that details for the plan would be decided within 30 days through a national dialogue set to launch immediately.

“I am convinced that we will find solutions to all the challenges we face and that we will work together to find a way out of the crisis, in the interests of all,” he said.

Transitions for Niger’s multiple previous coups were shorter, so a three-year timeline is unprecedented said Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specializes in African affairs and is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group. “What we’re seeing in the region is the emergence of trends just to military rule,” she said.

But some Nigerien soldiers don’t think Tchiani will last three months, let alone several years.

A soldier who worked directly with Bazoum before the coup, and did not want to be named for fear of his safety, told the AP Saturday that there are deep divisions within the presidential guard — the unit that overthrew Bazoum — and within the junta itself.

Of the nearly 1,000 soldiers at the base on the presidential complex, the majority would flee if ECOWAS attacked, he said. He gave Tchiani a few months before he too is overthrown.

Tchiani is widely unpopular in security circles within Niger and seen as having reached his current post because of former president Mahamadou Issoufou’s patronage, rather than through his own connections and battlefield achievements, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute.

“While the (junta) has presented a unified public face, it is a partnership of branches of the armed forces that have competed for status and resources in the recent past and further,” he said.