In a move that underscores the worsening tensions, Niger closes its airspace, effective immediately and until further notice.
The decision was announced on Sunday by a representative of the junta, a group that assumed power following a recent coup. The closure comes amidst mounting concerns of potential military intervention by the West African regional bloc after the coup leaders rebuffed a deadline to reinstate the ousted president.
The junta’s announcement came following a surge of support from thousands of its backers, who assembled at a stadium in Niamey, the capital. They cheerfully celebrated the junta’s defiance against external pressure, applauding their stance in the face of demands to hand over power, which comes from the power seizure on July 26.
This latest coup, the seventh to hit West and Central Africa within a span of three years, has sent shockwaves across the Sahel region, known to be one of the world’s most impoverished areas. Despite its economic significance due to substantial uranium and oil reserves, as well as its significantly important role in the battle against Islamist militants, Niger’s turmoil holds implications for global players such as the United States, Europe, China, and Russia.
The Defense chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have agreed to work out a potential plan of military action, including details about when and where a strike could occur.
The trigger for such action would be the failure to release and reinstate the detained president, Mohamed Bazoum, by the given deadline.
In a televised statement on Sunday evening, the junta representative explained their decision to close the country’s airspace: “In the face of the threat of intervention that is becoming more apparent … Nigerien airspace is closed effective from today.”
He went on to acknowledge the pre-deployment of forces in two Central African nations as part of the preparation for an intervention, though specific details were withheld.
Declaring their readiness, the junta representative also stated, “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 citizen movement emerged over the weekend, with over 100 junta supporters establishing a picket near an air base in Niamey. This movement aimed to offer non-violent resistance in support of the junta, should the need arise. Driven by the sentiment expressed in their chants of “Vive Niger,” the emotions appeared to be directed not only against ECOWAS but also against former colonial power France.
The latter expressed its intention to back regional efforts aimed at overturning the coup without specifying whether military involvement was included.
Amidst the charged atmosphere, sentiments of defiance and national pride were palpable.
A pensioner named Amadou Adamou who spoke to Reuters voiced his point of view on the matter: “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.”
Recent developments also include the revocation of military cooperation agreements with France, which had a presence of around 1,000 to 1,500 troops in Niger.
Additionally, Sunday’s television broadcasts included a roundtable discussion centred on fostering solidarity in the face of ECOWAS sanctions. These sanctions have triggered power cuts and a sharp increase in food prices, raising concerns about the welfare of the population.
Given the region’s existing struggle against a deadly Islamist insurgency, fears of further conflict have surged due to the military threat posed by ECOWAS. Moreover, the complexity of any military intervention could be exacerbated by the offer of assistance from neighboring junta governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, should Niger require it.
Meanwhile, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, prime minister of the ousted regime, expressed his belief in the possibility of a last-minute agreement while in Paris on Saturday.
On a separate note, Italy announced a reduction in its troop presence in Niger to create space for Italian civilians who might require protection in case security conditions deteriorate.