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Nigeria’s president has issued a strong warning to the coup leaders in neighbouring Niger, telling them that regional governments would not tolerate the overthrow of a democratically elected regime.
“There’s no more time for us to send a warning signal, it’s time for action,” Bola Tinubu told the heads of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States who held an emergency summit on Sunday to discuss last week’s coup in Niger.
The meeting in Abuja took place as thousands of pro-coup demonstrators surrounded the French embassy in Niamey, Niger’s capital, chanting anti-French and pro-Russian slogans. Some demonstrators ripped off the embassy plaque, according to eyewitnesses, and replaced it with a Russian and Nigerien flag.
Paris on Sunday warned that President Emmanuel Macron would “not tolerate any attack against France and its interests and will respond immediately and intractably” to any provocation.
Tinubu, who became chair of Ecowas last month and president of Nigeria in May, has taken a stronger line than his predecessors on the bloc’s democratic commitment.
In 2017, in what was a high watermark for democracy in west Africa, Ecowas persuaded then president Yahya Jammeh of Gambia to accept the results of an election or face an invasion by Ecowas forces.
Since then, partly in the absence of strong Nigerian leadership, Ecowas has watched helplessly as governments in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso have fallen to military coups.
Tinubu said the Niger crisis would make or break Ecowas’s democratic credentials. He urged it to take “strong, forceful and resolute” action in resolving what he called a “hostage situation” in which Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had been imprisoned and his government overthrown.
Although Tinubu stopped short of calling for military intervention, he said: “I’m prepared to abide by all resolutions necessary to respond to this assault and to make sure President Bazoum is safe and that democracy is restored in Niger.”
Niger’s military junta warned on the eve of Tinubu’s speech that the African leaders gathering in Abuja, together with “certain western allies”, were plotting “a plan of imminent military intervention” against Niger.
The US, France, EU and UK all said they were suspending aid to Niger until democracy was restored.
France has 1,500 troops in the country, while the US has 1,100 troops and a drone base from which it monitors the activity of jihadi terrorist groups across the Sahel. The African Union has set Niger’s new military leaders a 15-day deadline for the restoration of democracy.
A close observer in Niger, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, said the military government had banned protests but had encouraged its supporters to mass outside the French embassy. “The junta wants to send a message to Ecowas to say that the people are with us,” he said.
In reality, the person said, there were deep divisions within the putschists, many of whom had resisted the decision to name Omar Tchiani, head of the presidential guard, as Niger’s new leader. “Do not be surprised if one day you see another coup against Tchiani himself,” he said.
There is no indication that Russia was involved in planning last week’s coup, but the propaganda machine linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, has gone into overdrive since the putsch occurred.
Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Africa minister, told the BBC on Sunday that Niger had been an island of relative stability in a hostile region and that it was up to the international community to “make sure that this terrible event does not stand”.