Niger’s military junta digs in with cabinet appointments and rejects talks

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Niamey (Niger): The military junta that seized power in Niger two weeks ago has appointed new cabinet ministers and barred most international meditators from the country as it works to entrench itself in power.

The junta’s leaders named a new prime minister Monday, in what analysts described as an attempt to show that they’re serious about governing the West Africa country.

They refused to admit mediation teams that were meant to arrive Tuesday, sent by the United Nations, the African Union, and West African regional bloc ECOWAS. The junta cited “evident reasons of security in this atmosphere of menace,” according to a letter seen by The Associated Press.

ECOWAS had threatened to use military force if the junta didn’t reinstate the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum by Sunday, a deadline that the junta ignored and which passed without action from ECOWAS.

The military leaders chose civilian economist Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as prime minister. Zeine is a former minister of economy and finance who left office after his government was ousted by a previous military coup in 2010, and later worked at the African Development Bank.

“The establishment of a government is significant, and signals at least to the population, that they have a plan in place, with support from across the government,” said Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in African affairs and who is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group.

Mutinous soldiers detained Bazoum and seized power on July 26, claiming they could do a better job at protecting the nation from jihadi violence. Groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have ravaged the Sahel region, a vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert.

But most analysts and diplomats say that reason doesn’t hold weight and that the takeover was the result of a power struggle between the president and the head of his presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who now says he runs the country.

The coup comes as a blow to many countries in the West, which saw Niger as one of the last democratic partners in the region they could work with to beat back the extremist threat. Niger also matters to the global market on various fronts, including a 5% share of the global supply of uranium.

Niger’s partners have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance if it does not return to constitutional rule.

But so far diplomatic efforts have yielded little as the junta tightens its grip on power.

While the crisis drags on, Niger’s some 25 million people are bearing the brunt. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. Many Nigeriens live hand to mouth and say they’re too focused on finding food for their families to pay much attention to the escalating crisis.

Harsh economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS since the coup have caused food prices to rise by up to 5%, say traders. Erkmann Tchibozo, a shop owner from neighboring Benin who works in Niamey, said it’s been hard to get anything into the country to stock his shop near the airport.

If it continues like this, the situation is going to become very difficult, he said.

Niger’s capital, Niamey, appeared more tense on Tuesday, with security forces checking vehicles. On Monday, the junta shut its airspace, and on Tuesday it temporarily suspended authorization for diplomatic flights from friendly and partner countries, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this week, acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with the coup leaders, but said they refused to allow her to meet Bazoum, who has been detained since being toppled. She described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to her appeals to start negotiations and restore constitutional rule.

The U.S. has some 1,100 military personnel in the country and has seen Niger as a strategic and reliable partner in the region.

Nuland made more headway than other delegations. A previous ECOWAS delegation was prevented from leaving the airport.

It’s unclear what coordination is taking place among the various mediation attempts. Some experts have worried that if efforts are not coordinated, it could undermine ECOWAS.

“I think the U.S would come to a modus vivendi with this junta, if the junta proved particularly amenable to U.S interests, but that doesn’t seem to be on the table for now,” said Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

In a statement Tuesday after being rejected from visiting Niger, ECOWAS said it was trying to find a peaceful solution to the crisis and will continue to “deploy all necessary measures to ensure the return to constitutional order.” ECOWAS is expected to meet again Thursday in Abuja, the capital of neighboring Nigeria, to discuss the situation.

But analysts say the longer it takes to find a solution, the more time the junta has to dig in and the less momentum there will be to oust it. Regional countries are also divided on how to proceed.

Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which are run by military regimes, have sided with the junta and warned that an intervention in Niger would be “would be tantamount to a declaration of war” against them. In a joint letter Tuesday to the United Nations, the two countries appealed for the organization to “prevent by all means at its disposal, armed action against a sovereign state.”

Mali and Burkina Faso also sent representatives to Niamey this week to discuss military options. Officials from all sides said the talks went well.


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