Niger’s coup leader has declared that he will not bow down to pressure to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, criticising sanctions imposed by West African leaders as “illegal” and “inhumane” and urging his countrymen to get ready to defend their nation.
General Abdourahamane Tchiani‘s comments, issued in a televised address on Wednesday, came as the defence chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in neighbouring Nigeria to discuss the crisis in Niger.
The regional bloc has imposed severe economic sanctions on Niger and threatened to use force if Bazoum’s presidency is not restored by August 6. It has also dispatched a delegation to Niger – headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar – to negotiate with the soldiers who seized power.
Tchiani, however, remained defiant.
The self-declared leader said the military “rejects these sanctions altogether and refuses to give in to any threats, wherever they come from. We refuse any interference in the internal affairs of Niger”.
“We, therefore, call on the people of Niger as a whole and their unity to defeat all those who want to inflict unspeakable suffering on our hard-working populations and destabilise our country,” he added.
Tchiani, who commands Niger’s presidential guard, went on to warn of difficult times ahead and said that the “hostile and radical” attitudes of those who oppose his rule provide no added value. The sanctions imposed by ECOWAS were “illegal, unfair, inhuman and unprecedented”, he said.
The fiery rhetoric marks an intensification of Niger’s standoff with the 15-nation ECOWAS, which has been struggling to contain a democratic backslide in West Africa in the last two years. This has included military takeovers in member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau.
In Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, the ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah told reporters on Wednesday that the “military option is the very last option on the table”, but the bloc has to “prepare for the eventuality”.
“There is a need to demonstrate that we can not only bark but can bite,” he said.
As part of the sanctions on Niger, Nigeria also cut power to its neighbour on Wednesday, according to state utility documents. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and depends on Nigeria for 70 percent of its power.
And in a further sign of the mounting pressure on the military, the World Bank also announced that it was suspending disbursements to Niger until further notice.
“The task of restoring democratic governance in Niger is fraught with potential hurdles and complications,” said General Christopher Musa, Nigeria’s chief of defence and chairman of the ECOWAS defence chiefs. “Our decisions will send a strong message about our commitment to democracy, our intolerance for unconstitutional changes of government, and our dedication to regional stability,” he told his regional counterparts.
Despite ECOWAS’s hardline response, military-backed governments in the region have supported Tchiani, with Mali and Burkina Faso saying that any foreign intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them, too.
On Wednesday, one of Niger’s coup leaders, General Salifou Mody, arrived with a delegation in Mali’s capital Bamako. In an interview broadcast on Malian state television, he stressed the need for cooperation between the two countries.
Russia, which has stepped up its presence in Mali and Burkina Faso following the coups there, meanwhile called for “urgent national dialogue” in Niger. The Kremlin warned on Wednesday that threats of intervention “will not help ease tensions or calm the domestic situation”.
Western countries, however, have strongly condemned the July 26 coup in Niger. Many of them saw Niger as the last reliable partner for the West in efforts to battle armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) in Africa’s Sahel region and fear the instability in the country could allow fighters to gain ground.
Amid the tensions, the United States – which has a drone base and troops in Niger – announced it would evacuate some staff and families from its embassy in the country. The mission, however, will remain open and the senior leadership will continue working there, it said.
European countries including France, Italy and Germany, have also been evacuating their citizens, with the first military planes carrying evacuees landing in Paris and Rome on Wednesday.
The French foreign ministry said nearly 1,000 people had left on four flights, and said a fifth evacuation was under way.
There has been no announcement of a withdrawal of foreign troops, however.