As the threat of a foreign military intervention begins to recede, Niger’s coup leaders have been emboldened to take harsher action against the ousted government, announcing new plans to prosecute President Mohamed Bazoum for “high treason” for his resistance to the putsch.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has warned that it could send troops into Niger, possibly with Western support, to restore Mr. Bazoum to power. But the deployment has been stalled, and analysts are increasingly convinced that a military intervention would be too complex and dangerous for ECOWAS to risk.
A spokesperson for the military junta, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, announced on state television on Sunday night that the regime had “gathered the necessary evidence” to prosecute Mr. Bazoum for “high treason and undermining the internal and external security of Niger.” He accused Mr. Bazoum of conspiring with international “accomplices” – a reference to the West African officials who have called for his return to power.
Under the country’s criminal code, Mr. Bazoum could face the death penalty if he is convicted of high treason. The junta has kept him under house arrest in a presidential compound in the capital, Niamey, since the July 26 coup, despite growing fears that his health is endangered.
The threat of a treason charge against him has infuriated ECOWAS leaders, but it also suggests the coup plotters are confident that they don’t need to offer any immediate concessions to the West African bloc to avoid a military intervention.
In a statement on Monday, the regional alliance said it had “learnt with stupefaction” of the attempt to bring charges against Mr. Bazoum.
“ECOWAS condemns this move as it represents yet another form of provocation and contradicts the reported willingness of the military authorities in the Republic of Niger to restore constitutional order through peaceful means,” it said.
Mr. Bazoum remains the democratically elected president of Niger and was illegally detained by the military junta, the statement said. It called for his immediate release but made no mention of possible military intervention.
A wave of coups has swept across West Africa in recent years, deposing elected governments and leading to the expulsion of French troops and United Nations peacekeepers, while opening the door for Russian forces to gain greater influence in the region. Thousands of mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group have deployed in Mali and Central African Republic, and Wagner has reportedly held discussions with coup leaders in Niger and Burkina Faso.
The crisis in Niger has emerged as a crucial challenge to ECOWAS and Western governments. The United States, France and Canada are among the countries that have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Niger in the past decade in an effort to stabilize its democracy and defend it from the Islamist radical militias that have expanded across the region. If the coup succeeds, the West could lose a key ally in a volatile region where the Islamist insurgencies are continuing to gain momentum.
ECOWAS had earlier set a deadline of Aug. 6 for putsch leaders to step down or face a military intervention. But the deadline passed without any action. Instead the bloc said it would create a “standby force” that could intervene in Niger. Its defence commanders, however, have delayed a meeting to discuss the details of the force, in a possible sign of the complexities of any intervention.
Analysts are skeptical that ECOWAS will send troops into Niger. The military junta has increasingly entrenched its rule this month, gaining a boost from street rallies where thousands of people have voiced support for the coup. Any attempt to intervene in Niger would take months to organize and could spark large-scale fighting, since Niger’s military is much stronger than that of Gambia, the small West African country where ECOWAS sent troops in 2017 in a successful move to force the former dictator Yahya Jammeh to accept an election loss.
France and the U.S. have military bases in Niger, but they are unlikely to join in any regional intervention. The military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso have also pledged to support the Niger junta if there is any foreign intervention.
Even within ECOWAS, some officials are hesitant to approve a troop deployment in Niger, with misgivings already being expressed by a key leader in the senate of neighbouring Nigeria, which would have to approve any Nigerian participation in a deployment. Instead, the regional bloc seems to be seeking to negotiate with the junta, hoping to persuade it to accept a transition to elections and civilian rule.
“There’s not much anyone can do about the coup,” U.S.-based security analyst Michael Shurkin said in a post on social media. “A diplomatic solution is implausible and a military intervention terribly risky.”
The International Crisis Group, an independent research and advocacy group, called on ECOWAS to climb down from its threats of war. Any intervention “would come with many risks, not only because the outcome would be uncertain, but also because it could destabilize Niger and the surrounding region, which is already facing a major security crisis,” the group said.
Even if ECOWAS managed to reinstate Mr. Bazoum by force, he might still lack legitimacy because so many of Niger’s political and military leaders have disavowed him in recent days, it said.