Niger’s military junta give ECOWAS and the West the middle finger by holding massive rally in Niamey and closing airspace as deadline ends
Thousands of supporters of the junta, now rebranded as the “National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland” (CNSP), gathered at a stadium in Niamey the Nigerien capital in a show of support, on Sunday.
The junta said it had closed Nigerien airspace as of Sunday until further notice, citing the
threat of military intervention from the West African regional bloc after coup leaders rejected a deadline to reinstate the ousted president. The airspace closure traps over 2,000 western troops in the country.
Defence chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have agreed on military action, including when and where to strike, if the detained President, Mohamed Bazoum, is not released and reinstated by Sunday.
AFP journalists reporting from the scene said the 30,000-seat venue was nearly full, with supporters waving Russian flags and pictures of the coup leaders.
The junta which has said it will not cave in to external pressure to stand down following the July 26 palace coup. There were no signs of opposition.
Rippling cheers greeted every sentence of a speech read by a representative of the new army-led administration to the packed crowd at the stadium, who stressed the junta’s determination to stay in power.
“The obscurantist forces that oppose Niger’s progress are lurking in the shadows,” Mohamed Toumba said. “We will stand with you against them.”
ECOWAS did not respond to a request for comment on what its next steps would be, or when exactly on Sunday its deadline expires. A spokesman said it would issue a statement at the end of the day.
Blasting military tunes and tooting vuvuzela horns, over 100 junta supporters earlier set up a picket near an air base in Niamey – part of a citizen movement to offer non-violent resistance in support of the junta if needed.
As organisers led chants of ‘Vive Niger’, much of the emotion directed against ECOWAS as well as former colonial power France, which said on Saturday it would support regional efforts to overturn the coup, without specifying if that included military assistance.
“The Nigerien people have understood that these imperialists want to bring about our demise. And God willing, they will be the ones to suffer for it,” said pensioner Amadou Adamou.
Sunday’s television broadcasts included a roundtable debate on encouraging solidarity in the face of ECOWAS sanctions, which have led to power cuts and soaring food prices.
The bloc’s military threat has triggered fears of further conflict in a region already battling the deadly Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and forced millions to flee.
Any military intervention could be complicated by a promise from juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso to come to Niger’s defence if needed.
Algeria, Niger’s neighbour to the north has ruled out supporting any military action.
“A military intervention could ignite the whole Sahel region and Algeria will not use force with its neighbours,” President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said in an interview with local media. Ennahar TV said late on Saturday.
Bazoum’s Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou said on Saturday in Paris that the ousted regime still believed a last-minute agreement was possible.
On Sunday, Italy said it had reduced its troop numbers in Niger to make room in its military base for Italian civilians who may need protection if security deteriorates. France had warned that it will take military action if any of its interests are harmed.
On Saturday it was reported that Niger military had requested for Russian Wagner fighters.
General Salifou Moody a member of the junta allegedly made the request during a visit to Mali, where he met with a Wagner representative, the Associated Press reported on Saturday, citing French journalist Wassim Nasr, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
The meeting was first reported by France 24, and Nasr said he had confirmed the talks with a French diplomat and three people familiar with the matter in Mali. “They need (Wagner) because they will become their guarantee to hold onto power,” Nasr told AP, claiming that Wagner is considering the request.
Neither Wagner nor Russian government officials have commented on the junta’s alleged request for help from the contractor. The Kremlin said on Friday that any interference in Niger from powers outside the region would be unlikely to improve the situation.
“We continue to favour a swift return to constitutional normality without endangering human lives,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has called the coup a “justified rebellion of the people against Western exploitation.”