August 7, 2023. Al Jazeera – A senior United States diplomat has visited Niger to push coup authorities to restore democratic rule after their overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum last month.
Victoria Nuland, the US’s acting deputy secretary of state, said on Monday that she held “frank and difficult” talks with military leader Moussa Salaou Barmou and three of his colonels in Niger’s capital, Niamey. It was the first trip by a US official to the country since the coup on July 26.
Nuland’s requests to meet with Bazoum and Abdourahmane Tchiani, the self-proclaimed head of the military government, were denied, she said. In a telephone briefing afterwards with reporters, she offered a grim assessment of her talks with the military leaders.
“They are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed, and it does not comport with the Constitution of Niger,” she said. “It was difficult today, and I will be straight up about that.”
Nuland, however, reaffirmed her country’s commitment to a “a negotiated solution” to the conflict. If the coup leaders are willing to return to Niger’s “constitutional order”, Nuland said that the US is “prepared to help with that”.
Earlier on Monday, the US State Department had confirmed it had made direct contact with the coup leaders and had stressed the need for Bazoum to be reinstated.
“There has been direct contact with military leaders urging them to step aside,” Matthew Miller, the department’s spokesperson.
Military leaders seized power in the landlocked West African country on July 26 and detained Bazoum, sparking international condemnation.
Last week, an African regional bloc imposed sanctions on Niger and threatened to use force against the new authorities if Bazoum is not restored to power. But a Sunday deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) expired without any military action.
Still, the coup authorities — called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland — shut down the country’s airspace in anticipation of a conflict and promised to “defend the integrity of our territory”.
Tchiani denounced denounced the ECOWAS sanctions as “illegal” and “inhumane” and rejected what he called interference in the country’s internal affairs.
ECOWAS, which consists of 15 countries, will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the crisis.
Miller said the US is in “close contact” with the ECOWAS leadership and is “using diplomacy” to help Niger return to civilian rule.
Last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that Washington would suspend aid to the country — except for humanitarian assistance — until the “restoration of Niger’s democratically elected government”.
Miller estimated on Monday that the suspended aid is worth at least $100m.
“It’s a pause that we would hope would be reversed,” he told reporters. “If the junta leaders would step aside and restore constitutional order tomorrow, that pause would go away, and security assistance would be reinstated.”
The US and other Western countries have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Niger, which has been battling armed groups, including ISIL (ISIS).
The coup authorities have cited the deteriorating security situation in the country as the reason they removed Bazoum from power.
“We can no longer continue with the same approaches proposed so far at the risk of witnessing the gradual and inevitable demise of our country,” General Tchiani said last month.
But Bazoum, who was elected in 2021, has remained defiant, calling for international support and refusing to step down.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post last week, Bazoum called “on the US government and the entire international community to help us restore our constitutional order”.