US diplomat visits Niger to meet coup leaders, push for Bazoum’s release

Victoria Nuland describes talks with coup leaders as ‘difficult’ as the US calls for ‘constitutional order’ in Niger.

A senior United States diplomat has visited Niger to push coup authorities to restore democratic rule after their overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum last month.

Victoria Nuland, the US’s acting deputy secretary of state, said on Monday that she held “frank and difficult” talks with military leader Moussa Salaou Barmou and three of his colonels in Niger’s capital, Niamey. It was the first trip by a US official to the country since the coup on July 26.

Nuland’s requests to meet with Bazoum and Abdourahmane Tchiani, the self-proclaimed head of the military government, were denied, she said. In a telephone briefing afterwards with reporters, she offered a grim assessment of her talks with the military leaders.

“They are quite firm in their view of how they want to proceed, and it does not comport with the Constitution of Niger,” she said. “It was difficult today, and I will be straight up about that.”

Nuland, however, reaffirmed her country’s commitment to a “a negotiated solution” to the conflict. If the coup leaders are willing to return to Niger’s “constitutional order”, Nuland said that the US is “prepared to help with that”.

Earlier on Monday, the US State Department had confirmed it had made direct contact with the coup leaders and had stressed the need for Bazoum to be reinstated.

“There has been direct contact with military leaders urging them to step aside,” said Matthew Miller, the department’s spokesperson.

Military leaders seized power in the landlocked West African country last month and detained Bazoum, sparking international condemnation.

Last week, an African regional bloc imposed sanctions on Niger and threatened to use force against the new authorities if Bazoum is not restored to power. But a Sunday deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) expired without any military action.

Still, the coup authorities — called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland — shut down the country’s airspace in anticipation of a conflict and promised to “defend the integrity of our territory”.

Tchiani denounced denounced the ECOWAS sanctions as “illegal” and “inhumane” and rejected what he called interference in the country’s internal affairs.

ECOWAS, which consists of 15 countries, will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the crisis.

Miller said the US is in “close contact” with the ECOWAS leadership and is “using diplomacy” to help Niger return to civilian rule.

The US, which has two military bases in Niger and provides the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in security and development assistance, has not called developments there a coup. US law on foreign aid prohibits providing most aid where a democratically elected leader, such as Bazoum, has been removed via a coup.

Asked by Al Jazeera on Monday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also stopped short of describing the situation in Niger as a coup.

“Whatever you call it, what we’ve seen is the disruption of the constitutional order in Niger. And we – like many countries throughout Africa and notably, ECOWAS, which brings together many countries in West Africa – [are] determined that the constitutional order be reestablished. That’s what everyone’s focused on right now,” Blinken said.

He added that he had been “in close contact” with Bazoum and “many leaders throughout Africa and everyone is working toward the same objective – the restoration of the constitutional order”.

On Tuesday, Blinken told French radio station RFI that “diplomacy is the best way to resolve this situation” but declined to comment on a possible withdrawal of US soldiers from Niger, which has been battling armed groups, including fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

Last week, Blinken announced that Washington would suspend aid to the country – except for humanitarian assistance – until the “restoration of Niger’s democratically elected government”.

Miller estimated on Monday that the suspended aid is worth at least $100m.

“It’s a pause that we would hope would be reversed,” he told reporters. “If the junta leaders would step aside and restore constitutional order tomorrow, that pause would go away, and security assistance would be reinstated.”

The coup authorities have cited the deteriorating security situation in the country as the reason they removed Bazoum from power.

“We can no longer continue with the same approaches proposed so far at the risk of witnessing the gradual and inevitable demise of our country,” General Tchiani said last month.

But Bazoum, who was elected in 2021, has remained defiant, calling for international support and refusing to step down.

In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post last week, Bazoum called “on the US government and the entire international community to help us restore our constitutional order”.

Source: Al Jazeera