The military junta that seized power in Niger in a coup last month has said it will prosecute ousted President Mohamed Bazoum for high treason over his exchanges with foreign heads of state and international organizations.
The United States, United Nations and West African leaders condemned the move, calling it a further sign that the junta is unwilling to seek a peaceful route out of the crisis.
The coup leaders have imprisoned Bazoum and dissolved the elected government, drawing condemnation from global powers and West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS, which decided last week to assemble a standby military force that could intervene if diplomacy fails.
At stake is not just the fate of Niger – a major uranium producer and Western ally in the fight against an Islamist insurgency – but also the influence of rival global powers with strategic interests in the region.
Junta spokesperson Colonel Amadou Abdramane said in a statement read out on state TV late on Sunday that the military authorities had “gathered the necessary evidence to prosecute the ousted president … for high treason and undermining the internal and external security of Niger.”
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the attempt to bring charges against Bazoum was “very worrying” and reiterated calls for the president to be released immediately.
“This action is completely unwarranted and unjustified and, candidly, it will not contribute to a peaceful resolution of this crisis,” U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.
ECOWAS condemned the move and called it a provocation.
“(This) contradicts the reported willingness of the military authorities in Niger to restore constitutional order through peaceful means,” the regional bloc said.
Residents of Niamey, many of whom were deeply disillusioned with Bazoum’s government and are supporting the coup leaders, said they backed the prosecution of the deposed president.
“This comes as no surprise given that you’ve heard the various declarations and appeals (he made) to the international community not only to impose sanctions but also to intervene militarily on Niger’s territory,” said Illiassou Boubacar, a civil society activist in his 50s.
“But what we would like is for it to be carried out according to the rule book, respecting all procedures and hiring magistrates with the skills required to do the job.”
Mucahid Durmaz, senior West Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said the junta wanted to diminish Bazoum’s legitimacy and dissuade foreign powers from trying to reinstate him.
“The prosecution of Bazoum will likely force ECOWAS to soften its stance against the junta and focus on establishing a transitional deal to allow for a return to democratic governance,” he said.
Abdramane said there was a misinformation campaign against the junta to try to “derail any negotiated solution to the crisis in order to justify military intervention … in the name of ECOWAS.”
On Monday, the junta criticized Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara for voicing his strong backing last week for such an intervention if Bazoum is not reinstated and promising to supply a battalion of troops to a joint force.
Spokesperson Abdramane said the junta had decided to recall the Nigerien ambassador from Ivory Coast for consultations in response to Ouattara’s “excessively threatening statements.”
The junta rebuffed several diplomatic missions in the first two weeks after the coup, though it has signalled a potential willingness to engage since ECOWAS said it would “activate” standby troops for possible use in Niger.
The ECOWAS parliament on Saturday said it wanted to send a committee to meet the junta in Niamey, but the proposed timing of that mission is not clear.
Bazoum’s political party has said his family has no access to running water, fresh food or doctors. The junta said on Sunday that Bazoum last saw a doctor on Aug. 12, and that there were no concerns about his health.
Bazoum’s daughter, who is abroad, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week that the junta was keeping him in deplorable conditions to try to pressure him to sign a resignation letter.
The Peace and Security Council of the 55-nation African Union met on Monday to discuss the situation in Niger, which is West and Central Africa’s seventh coup in three years.
U.S., French, German and Italian troops are stationed in Niger, in a region where local affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed thousands and displaced millions.
Meanwhile, Russian influence has grown as insecurity increases, democracy erodes, and leaders seek new partners to restore order.
Western powers fear Russia’s clout could increase if the junta in Niger follows Mali and Burkina Faso, which ejected the troops of former colonial power France after coups.