West African leaders directed deploying a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after a coup late last month that ousted democratically elected President Mohamad Bazoum.
Following a summit, the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States officials released a communique that gave few details and failed to spell out the make-up, location and proposed deployment date for any military intervention force.
West African heads of state met in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss the next steps after Niger’s junta defied the bloc’s deadline of Sunday to reinstate Mr Bazoum.
Nine of the 11 heads of state expected to attend were present, including the presidents of Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. The non-Ecowas leaders of Mauritania and Burundi also participated in the closed-door meeting.
“It is crucial that we prioritise diplomatic negotiations and dialogue as the bedrock of our approach,” said Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who currently heads the bloc, said before the closed part of the meeting.
Niger was seen as the last country in the Sahel region south of the Sahara that Western nations could work with to counter extremist violence that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
It comes as Niger’s junta said it had formed a new government, two weeks after putting Mr Bazoum under house arrest.
Military leaders announced the move on state TV, naming 21 new ministers.
According to the decree, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine will lead the government, with generals from the new military governing council heading the defence and interior ministries.
Important decisions are expected from the gathering in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, according to a statement from Ecowas on Tuesday.
Ecowas has already imposed sanctions on the junta following the coup, which also prompted the EU and France to slash aid to the impoverished nation.
The bloc is expected to favour diplomacy over military action on the ground, which it has said is a “last resort”.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated deep concerns for the well-being of Mr Bazoum and his family, still confined to the presidential residence.
The President has told friends he is being kept in isolation, “deprived of any human contact,” and fed dry rice and pasta. Previously, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, he described himself as a “hostage,” in his Niami residence.
Warnings and debate
The possibility of military intervention in Niger has sparked debate within Ecowas and prompted warnings from neighbouring nations and Russia.
Speaking before flying to Abuja on Wednesday, Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo said the future of the bloc was at stake following coups in four member states, namely Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mr Bazoum remained Niger’s sole recognised president and coups must be banned, he added.
Niger’s neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, both ruled by military governments who seized power in coups, have said an intervention would be tantamount to a declaration of war against them.
It is the fifth coup to take place in Niger since it became independent from France in 1960.
President Bazoum’s election in 2021 helped Niger cement close ties with France and the United States, both crucial allies in the fight against growing extremism in the Sahel.
France has evacuated its citizens from Niger and suspended aid to the country, while Washington has suspended counter-terror operations and evacuated non-essential embassy staff and their families.
Experts and US officials have warned the coup will bolster terrorist groups active in the area and roll back gains made in counter-terrorism.
Nigeria has the largest military in West Africa. Still, it has been bogged down in northern parts of the country fighting a stubborn insurgency composed of Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram and ISIS.