Regional bloc delegation visits Niger to talk peace

Young people gather to register to volunteer to fight for the country as part of a volunteer initiative, in Niamey, Niger, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. Thousands turned up as a delegation from regional nations were expected to arrive in Niger in a last-ditch diplomacy effort to reach a peaceful solution with mutinous soldiers who ousted the country's president last month. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NIAMEY, Niger -- A delegation from regional nations arrived in Niger on Saturday afternoon in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to reach a peaceful solution with mutinous soldiers who ousted the country's president last month.

The representatives from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, came to the capital, Niamey, and joined efforts by United Nations Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simao, who arrived Friday, in trying to facilitate a resolution to the ongoing crisis.

On Friday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Simao would meet with the junta and other parties to try and facilitate a swift and peaceful resolution to Niger's crisis.

On Aug. 10, ECOWAS ordered the deployment of a "standby force" to restore constitutional rule in the country.

The soldiers who overthrew Niger's democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum in July have quickly entrenched themselves in power, rebuffed most dialogue efforts and kept Bazoum, his wife and son under house arrest in the capital.

On Friday, the ECOWAS commissioner for peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said 11 of its 15 member states agreed to commit troops to a military deployment, saying they were "ready to go" whenever the order was given.

The 11 member states don't include Niger itself and the bloc's three other countries under military rule following coups: Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter two have warned they would consider any intervention in Niger an act of war. On Friday, Niger's state television said that Mali and Burkina Faso had dispatched warplanes in a show of solidarity.

Friday's announcement is the latest in a series of empty threats by ECOWAS to forcefully restore democratic rule in Niger, say conflict analysts. Immediately after the coup, the bloc gave the junta seven days to release and restore Bazoum, a deadline that came and went with no action.

"The putschists won't be holding their breath this time over the renewed threat of military action," said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank. Meanwhile, the mutinous soldiers are cementing their rule and appointing loyal commanders to key units while ECOWAS has no experience with military action in hostile territory and would have no local support if it tried to intervene, he said.

"Niger is a very fragile country that can easily turn, in case of a military intervention, into a failed state like Sudan," said Laessing.

Also Saturday, the new United States ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, arrived in the capital, said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the State Department. The U.S. hasn't had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years.

FitzGibbon will focus on advocating for a diplomatic solution that preserves constitutional order in Niger and for the immediate release of Bazoum, his family and all those unlawfully detained, said Miller.

On the streets of the capital Saturday, many residents said they're preparing to fight back against an ECOWAS military intervention.

Thousands of people in Niamey lined up outside the main stadium to register as volunteers, fighters and to help with other needs in case the junta requires support. Some parents brought their children to sign up; others said they had been waiting since 3 a.m, while groups of youths boisterously chanted in favor of the junta and against ECOWAS and the country's former colonial ruler France.

"I am here for the recruitment to become a good soldier. We are all here for that," said Ismail Hassan a resident waiting in line to register. "If God wills, we will all go."

Before the coup, nearly 3 million people were facing severe food insecurity and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, according to CARE, an international aid group. Economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS after the coup, coupled with the deteriorating security, will have dire consequences for the population, CARE said.

Information for this article was contributed by Edith Lederer and Matthew Lee of The Associated Press.