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Niger junta names government, West African leaders to discuss next steps

Niger junta names government, West African leaders to discuss next steps
Cars drive on a main road in Niamey, Niger, 07 August 2023. Niger’s junta closed the country’s airspace and accused foreign powers of preparing an attack, after the junta defied a deadline to restore ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. EPA-EFE/ISSIFOU DJIBO

Niger's junta named a new government overnight, forcing its agenda before a summit on Thursday of regional leaders who have demanded that they end their military takeover.

West African heads of state meeting in Nigeria aim to agree on a plan of action for Niger, where coup leaders have refused to stand down despite the bloc’s threat that it could use force to restore democracy.

Since the July 26 power grab shocked the region, the defiant junta has rebuffed diplomatic overtures and ignored an Aug. 6 deadline from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Bazoum.

Mahamane Roufai Laouali, cited as “Secretary General of the Government”, read out 21 names on state television without specifying any further plans.

Three coup leaders were named ministers of defence, interior and sports. Former Finance Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, who had been named prime minister on Monday, was appointed finance minister for the new government.

Niger’s previous government had 43 ministers. None of them were military officers.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern about Bazoum and his family after his party reported that they were being detained at the presidential residence without electricity or running water, and had gone days without fresh food.

“The Secretary-General… once again calls for his immediate, unconditional release and his reinstatement as Head of State,” a U.N. spokesperson said on Wednesday.

The meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, could prove a pivotal moment in the standoff. The bloc’s leaders are expected to agree on next steps, which could include military intervention – something an ECOWAS official has said would be a last resort.

MIXED FEELINGS

In nearby Senegal, where the government has said it could send troops if needed, people’s views about a military intervention differed.

“As long as we act to restore peace I’m a supporter,” Lansanna Diedhiou said near a weekly market in the capital Dakar. “The objective of the organization is … to act together for the African family.”

Others, like Cheikh Niang, were concerned about the impact on regional ties and solidarity.

“We’re all Africans and Niger is part of the African continent,” he said. “We can’t send Africans to wage war against each other.”

Envoys of the Nigerian president and ECOWAS chair Bola Tinubu met coup leaders in the capital, Niamey, on Wednesday, offering a glimmer of hope for dialogue after previous missions were spurned.

Any escalation would further destabilise West Africa’s Sahel region, one of the world’ poorest, where a long-running Islamist insurgency has displaced millions and stoked a hunger crisis.

The coup was triggered by internal politics but it has evolved into an international entanglement, with ECOWAS, the United Nations and Western countries putting pressure on the junta to stand down, while military governments in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to defend it.

The military takeover has raised questions over whether the United States can continue the 1,100-strong military presence in Niger that officials and analysts say has been key to fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region.

A complicating factor could be any decision by Niger’s coup leaders to seek help from Russia’s Wagner Group, which the U.S. has designated a transnational criminal organization. Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has welcomed the coup in Niger and said his forces were available to restore order.

Niger accused France on Wednesday of violating its airspace, attacking a military camp and freeing “terrorists” to undermine the country. Paris denied the charges.

(Additional reporting by Joel Honore Kouam and Ngouda Dione in DakarWriting by Alessandra Prentice and Sofia Christensen; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

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