NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Human rights activists in Niger say they have been unable to gain access to top political officials who were detained after mutinous soldiers ousted the African country’s democratically elected president nearly three weeks ago.
The military officers who carried out a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum also arrested several former government ministers and other political leaders, according to Ali Idrissa, executive secretary of the Network of Organizations for Transparency and Analysis of Budgets, a local human rights group. . Requests to see them and check on their well-being have gone unanswered, he said.
The junta that seized power has held Bazoum, his wife and son under house arrest in their compound in the capital since July 26. It says it plans to prosecute Bazoum for “high treason” and undermining state security, crimes that are eligible for the death penalty in Niger.
Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, a spokesperson for the junta, said in a Sunday evening TV broadcast that the detained officials were being treated humanely and had not raised any health concerns. Representatives of the coup leaders did not immediately respond to questions about whether rights organizations would be allowed to visit or communicate with Bazoum and the others.
Niger, an impoverished country of some 25 million people, was seen by many Western nations as the last democratic partner in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert that countries could work with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
The United States and France have approximately 2,500 military personnel in Niger to train the country’s forces and in the case of France, to conduct joint operations. The junta cited the alleged failure of Bazoum’s administration to stem extremist violence with Western support.
Coups are rampant in Sahel, and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali each had two apiece since 2020, but they didn’t incur the same international condemnation and pressure as the one in Niger.
“For ECOWAS and Western countries, this coup was seen as one too many,” Hannah Rae Armstrong, an independent consultant on the Sahel, said. “So far, however, the hard-line response seems to be having the opposite effect, and further entrenching the military regime,”
In recent days the junta has sent mixed signals about its willingness to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis over Niger’s leadership.
The West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS has threatened to use military force if Bazoum is not reinstated to office and has activated a standby force to restore order in Niger. The junta, which refused to allow an ECOWAS mediation team into the country, said late Sunday that it was open to speaking with the bloc.
But in another statement on state television, spokesperson Abdramane said the new government installed by the junta was recalling the Nigerien ambassador from neighboring Ivory Coast, one of the bloc’s 15 member.
The move was a response to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara’s “eagerness” for a military intervention “with the aim of preserving interests that no longer correspond to those of present-day Niger,” Abdramane said.
West Africa’s defense chiefs plan to meet on Thursday and Friday to discuss the coup, an ECOWAS spokesperson told The Associated Press. It will be the first such meeting since the bloc ordered the deployment of the standby force.
A standby force would likely have several thousand soldiers from countries that include Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Benin and Senegal. It’s unclear, though, when or if the troops will get sent to Niger.
“The amount of time needed to organize all the elements of the ECOWAS standby force will be shaped by the resources available for the individual countries and the regional body,” said Murtala Abdullahi, a Humangle reporter and defense and security analyst focused on Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council met Monday to discuss the situation in Niger but did not announce any decisions. The council could overrule the West African bloc if it thought a military intervention threatened continental peace and security.
The junta leader in neighboring Mali, Col. Assimi Goita, said Tuesday on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, that he had a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed Niger’s situation and stressed the importance of finding a peaceful solution.
In Niger’s capital, Niamey, pro-junta demonstrations take place almost every day. People wave Nigerien and Russian flags. Children sell Russian flags to drivers stuck in traffic, and many cars have the emblems stuck to their windshields .
Russian mercenaries from the private Wagner group already operate in a handful of African countries, including Mali, where human rights groups have accused its forces of deadly abuses. Niger’s junta asked Wagner for help earlier this month during a trip by some of its leaders to Mali.
The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, is expected to arrive in Niamey at the end of the week, according to a U.S. official. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years, which some Sahel experts say has given Washington less access to key players and information.
“Having one, especially one with the deep knowledge and experience of Ambassador Kathleen FitzGibbon, is a definite advantage to providing leadership within the mission and to serve as an on-the-ground focus for coordinating a whole-of-government approach to the situation,” Peter Pham, a former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria and Matthew Lee in Washington D.C, contributed.