African leaders to hold summit on Niger after coup leaders close airspace

Junta is braced for a military response after its refusal to restore president to power

Alastair Jamieson
Tuesday 08 August 2023 05:21 BST
Niger closes airspace as deadline to reinstate president passes

African leaders are to hold a summit to discuss possible military action in Niger after coup leaders defied a deadline to reinstate the ousted president.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has sent military forces into troubled member states in the past, had told the junta to stand down by Sunday, but instead the rebels closed Niger’s airspace and pledged to defend the country.

“Niger’s armed forces and all our defence and security forces, backed by the unfailing support of our people, are ready to defend the integrity of our territory,” a junta representative said on national television.

Coup leaders are already braced for a military response to their refusal to restore Mohamed Bazoum to power after deposing and imprisoning him on 26 July.

Their closure of airspace disrupted the skies over landlocked Niger, which is more than twice the size of France and borders Libya, which is considered too unsafe for passing commercial aircraft. Flights between London and Nairobi and London and South Africa were forced to divert.

“The closure of Niger’s airspace dramatically widens the area over which most commercial flights between Europe and southern Africa cannot fly,” tracking service FlightRadar24 said in a blog post.

Ecowas said it would hold an extraordinary summit at its Abuja headquarters in Nigerial on Thursday, but made no direct reference to the missed deadline.

The bloc has taken a harder stance on the Niger coup, the region’s seventh in three years, than it did on previous ones. The credibility of the 15-nation union is at stake because it had said it would tolerate no further such overthrows.

Last week it agreed a possible military action plan if Mr Bazoum was not released and reinstated, although it said operational decisions would be decided by heads of states.

But the bloc’s unity has been broken by a promise from the ruling juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, both member states, to come to Niger’s defence if needed.

A fracture within Ecowas and escalation of the stand-off with Niger would further destabilise one of the world’s poorest regions, already facing a hunger crisis and an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Niger’s uranium and oil reserves and its pivotal role in a war with Islamist militants in the Sahel region give it economic and strategic importance for the United States, Europe, China and Russia.

A street vendor outside the headquarters of ousted president on Monday (AFP)

African and Western allies have imposed sanctions and cut aid to Niger in attempts to pressure the junta to step down. Germany said on Monday that sanctions were on the table and described the junta’s flight ban as a setback.

Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani said Ecowas should extend its deadline for the reinstatement of Mr Bazoum. “The only way is the diplomatic one,” Mr Tajani told La Stampa. “It is right that he [Bazoum] should be freed, but we cannot do it. The United States are very cautious about this, it is unthinkable that they would start a military intervention in Niger.”

The junta appears to enjoy support from at least part of the population. At pro-coup rallies in Niamey, some participants have cast the situation as a patriotic battle by the former French colony to retain its independence in the face of imperialist interference. Some have held up Russian flags and expressed anti-French sentiment.

France warned its citizens against all travel to Niger, while the Chinese embassy in Niamey said its nationals in Niger should leave for a third country or return home if they had no reason to stay.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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