In coup-hit West Africa, regional leaders recognize Niger's junta but seek fast return to democracy

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — West African heads of state on Sunday officially recognized the junta in power in Niger, but said their sanctions to reverse the July coup in the country would remain even as they initiate steps for a “short” period of transition to civilian rule.

A team of heads of state would engage with the junta “to agree on a short transition program” as against the three years the soldiers earlier proposed, Omar Alieu Touray, president of the regional bloc of ECOWAS Commission, said at the bloc’s meeting in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

The recognition of the junta by the 15-member bloc ends hopes of any immediate reinstatement of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, who was deposed amid a surge of coups across West and Central Africa where there have been eight military takeovers since 2020. In the past month, the governments of Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau have also described political crises as attempted coups.

“The heads of state have recognized that what has happened in Niger is a coup and the CNSP (National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland) is a military administration in Niger,” Touray told reporters after the meeting.

The leaders also requested the immediate and unconditional release of Bazoum who has been detained since the coup in July. They were, however, silent on his reinstatement as president.

The regional sanctions on Niger would only be eased if the junta agrees to the demands made by ECOWAS, Touray said, adding that failure to do would lead the bloc to "maintain all sanctions including the use of force and (to) request African Union and all other partners to enforce the capital sanctions on members of the CNSP and their associates."

The heads of state had acknowledged at the start of the meeting that their efforts to stem the tide of coups in the region have so far met with little success.

Despite sanctions and other measures by ECOWAS, Touray told the heads of state that the junta in Niger has consolidated its grip on power, while the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have stopped collaborating with the bloc on their countries' transition to civilian rule.

“After a moment of progress … we have noticed a near pause in the implementation of the agreed transition timetable for some time now,” Touray said.

The bloc will continue to “stand against the unconstitutional change of government” in Niger despite the setbacks, said Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who was elected leader of the bloc this year. “Democracy must win if we fight for it, and we will definitely fight for democracy."

Under Tinubu's leadership, the regional bloc has imposed its most stringent travel and economic sanctions yet against Niger, measures he said would send a strong message to other nations.

But rather than deter the soldiers who took over power in Niger and elsewhere, the sanctions appear to have emboldened them, analysts say.

Niger's junta has gone ahead to forge an alliance with Burkina Faso and Mali and has also turned to Russia for a military partnership after severing ties with European countries, particularly France.

“The stringent regional and international sanctions on Niger (and previously the other juntas) have emboldened the juntas to centralize control further and unite against ECOWAS and Western backers such as France and the EU,” said Karim Manuel, an analyst for the Middle East and Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Basically, the sanctions, as expected, backfired ... notably given strong public support for the coups,” Manuel added.

As the ECOWAS meeting kicked off, the junta in Niger said via X, formerly known as Twitter, it would not change its stance, although it did not mention the meeting or the bloc.

“We won’t back down. We will not compromise. We will not betray and we will overcome,” the junta wrote without further details

 

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