© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Members of a military council that staged a coup in Niger attend a rally at a stadium in Niamey, Niger, August 6, 2023. REUTERS/Mahamadou Hamidou/File Photo
By Boureima Balima and Abdel-Kader Mazou
NIAMEY (Reuters) -Niger was slapped with more sanctions on Tuesday, hours after its new military leaders rejected the latest diplomatic mission aimed at restoring constitutional order following a July 26 coup.
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu ordered the new sanctions through Nigeria’s central bank, aimed at squeezing entities and individuals involved in the takeover, a presidential spokesperson said.
It came after Niger’s junta denied permission to enter Niger to a joint delegation from West African states, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations, resisting pressure from the United States and the United Nations to come to the negotiating table.
The denial raises the stakes in a search for a solution after the coup that western powers fear will destabilise the Sahel region of West Africa, one of the world’s poorest that is already dealing with a string of coups and a deadly Islamist insurgency. It also threatens U.S. and Western interests in its former ally.
Heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are preparing for a summit on Thursday to discuss their standoff with the junta, which defied an Aug. 6 deadline to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.
ECOWAS defence chiefs agreed on Friday on a possible military action plan, which heads of state are expected to consider at their summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Still, Tinubu’s spokesperson said the leaders prefer a diplomatic solution.
“No options have been taken off the table,” the spokesperson told reporters in Abuja, adding that “far-reaching decisions” would be taken at the summit concerning the bloc’s next steps.
Explaining the decision to not allow the delegation in on Tuesday, Niger’s junta said it could not guarantee their safety in the face of popular anger. It also denounced “a climate of threatened aggression against Niger”.
An AU spokesperson confirmed that a mission had been denied access, while ECOWAS declined to comment.
The junta had already snubbed meetings with a senior U.S. envoy and another ECOWAS delegation.
Under Bazoum, Niger was relatively successful in containing an Islamist insurgency devastating the Sahel region and was an important ally for the West after two of its neighbours rejected former colonial power France and turned towards Russia instead.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the most widely used fuel for nuclear energy, adding to its strategic importance.
The United Nations said Secretary General Antonio Guterres strongly supported mediation efforts by ECOWAS, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told French radio station RFI diplomacy was the best way to resolve the situation.
He declined to comment on the future of some 1,100 U.S. troops in Niger, where French, German and Italian troops are also stationed.
Blinken later told the BBC he was worried that Russia’s Wagner mercenaries could take advantage of the instability in Niger to strengthen their presence in the Sahel.
“I think what happened and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but to the extent that they try to take advantage of it – and we see a repeat of what’s happened in other countries, where they’ve brought nothing but bad things in their wake – that wouldn’t be good.”
U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Niamey on Monday but was denied permission to meet coup leader Abdourahamane Tiani or Bazoum, who is in detention. She told reporters her talks with more junior officers were “frank and difficult”.
Last week, ECOWAS sent a mission to Niamey led by Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former military ruler of Nigeria, but Tiani also refused to see him.
In contrast, Tiani on Monday met a joint delegation from Mali and Burkina Faso, both neighbouring countries where the military has seized power from civilians.
“We will not accept military intervention in Niger. Our survival depends on it,” said Abdoulaye Maiga, a spokesman for Mali’s junta, appearing on Niger state television.
Some pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey have held up Russian flags, which are in fashion according to residents and fabric vendors.
“I’m a fan of the Russian flag, which is why I’ve come today to buy fabrics for the tailor to make me a flag,” said Okacha Abdoul-Aziz.
Western allies fear that Niger could go the way of Mali, which threw out French troops and U.N. peacekeepers and invited in mercenaries from Wagner group after a 2021 coup.
“Every single place that this Wagner group has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed,” Blinken told the BBC.
Alongside the Malian army, fighters presumed to be from Wagner have carried out a brutal military offensive, executing hundreds of civilians last year, witnesses and rights groups say, charges the army and Wagner deny.
In a new report seen by Reuters on Monday, U.N. sanctions monitors said they had also used a campaign of sexual violence and other grave human rights abuses to terrorise the population.