West African regional bloc ECOWAS sent a delegation to Niger on Wednesday to negotiate with the military officers who seized power in last week’s coup, while regional defense chiefs met in neighboring Nigeria.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has imposed sanctions on Niger and said it could authorize the use of force if the coup leaders do not reinstate elected President Mohamed Bazoum within a week from last Sunday.
“The military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality,” said Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security.
“There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite,” he told reporters in Abuja.
The delegation to Niger is being led by former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar, who arrived on Wednesday to start talks with the junta, Musah said.
The junta in Niger is led by the former head of Bazoum’s presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tiani, who shut Bazoum in his palace last Wednesday and later declared himself head of state.
ECOWAS has struggled to contain a democratic backslide in West Africa, as member states Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have also seen coups in the last two years, along with an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau.
The regional bloc has taken its hardest line yet on Niger, prompting Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by juntas, to say that any intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them too.
“The UK very much welcomes ECOWAS’ actions and (they) are indeed decisive actions with a strong commitment to democracy,” said British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly after meeting Nigerian President Bola Tinubu in Abuja on Wednesday.
The coup leaders announced overnight they had reopened Niger’s land and air borders with Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and Chad after closing them last week.
The reopened land borders are mainly in remote desert areas. Niger’s key entryways for trade and commerce remain closed due to sanctions imposed by ECOWAS.
France and Italy are evacuating European citizens from Niger amid growing fears of conflict. The first military planes carrying mostly European nationals landed in Paris and Rome on Wednesday.
“Yesterday and today, with the help of our French friends, we were already able to fly more than 40 Germans out of Niger,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, adding there would be more flights on Wednesday.
“It is also with this same unity and determination that we, as the European Union, support international efforts to restore constitutional order in Niger,” she said.
France said it had evacuated more than 350 French people so far.
“Things could have turned ugly but it still is nice to be back here,” a French evacuee who gave his name as Charles told Reuters TV.
“We will see how things evolve over there in the coming days and weeks. For us, who care about it quite a lot, we will follow this closely,” he said.
France, the United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on counterinsurgency and training missions, helping the army to fight groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS.
There has been no announcement of troops being withdrawn so far. Germany’s defense minister said on Wednesday that there were no concerns about the safety of German soldiers.
Any Western military intervention to restore democracy must be ruled out, as it would be “perceived as a new colonization,” said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
The EU Commission said earlier this week that it had sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks.