NIAMEY, Niger -- Niger’s junta told a top U.S. diplomat that they would kill deposed President Mohamed Bazoum if neighboring countries attempted any military intervention to restore his rule, two Western officials told The Associated Press.
They spoke to the AP shortly before the West African bloc ECOWAS said it had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger, after its deadline of Sunday to reinstate Bazoum expired.
The threat to the deposed president raises the stakes both for ECOWAS and for the junta, which has shown its willingness to escalate its actions since it seized power on July 26.
Niger was seen as the last country in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert that Western nations could partner with to counter jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people. The international community is scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the country’s leadership crisis.
Representatives of the junta told U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland of the threat to Bazoum during her visit to the country this week, a Western military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
A U.S. official confirmed that account, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The threats from both sides escalate tensions but hopefully nudge them closer to actually talking, said Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in African affairs and is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group.
“Still, this junta has escalated its moves so quickly that it’s possible they do something more extreme, as that has been their approach so far,” she cautioned.
Nine leaders from the 15-member West African bloc met Thursday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to discuss their next steps.
Speaking after the talks, ECOWAS commission president Omar Alieu Touray said he could only reaffirm the decisions by “the military authorities in the subregion to deploy a standby force of the community.”
Financing had been discussed and "appropriate measures have been taken,” he said.
He blamed the junta for any hardship caused by the sanctions imposed on Niger and said further actions by the bloc would be taken jointly.
“It is not one country against another country. The community has instruments to which all members have subscribed to,” he said.
A former British Army official who has worked in Nigeria told The Associated Press the ECOWAS statement could be seen as the green light to begin assembling their forces with the ultimate aim of restoring constitutional order.
With regards to the use of force, the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said there was currently nothing in place other than Nigerian forces. Without enablers and the support of other regional armies, it’s unlikely they’d enter, the official said.
ECOWAS has imposed harsh economic and travel sanctions on Niger, but analysts say it may be running out of options as support fades for intervention. The bloc has failed to stem past coups in the region: Niger is the fourth of its member states to undergo a coup in the last three years.
Nnamdi Obasi, a senior adviser with the Crisis Group think tank, said ECOWAS should further explore diplomacy in Niger.
“The use of force could lead to unintended and catastrophic consequences with unpredictable outcomes,” he said, warning that a military intervention could also trigger a “major regional conflict” between democratic governments and an alliance of military regimes.
The wider African Union has yet to weigh in on this crisis.
“The AU Peace and Security Council could well overrule this ECOWAS decision if it felt that wider peace and security on the continent was threatened by an intervention,” said Cameron Hudson, a former official for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
“Any coup that has succeeded beyond 24 hours has come to stay. So, as it is, they are speaking from the point of strength and advantage,” said Oladeinde Ariyo, a security analyst in Nigeria. “So, negotiating with them will have to be on their terms.”
The junta has cut ties with France and exploited popular grievances toward its former colonial ruler. It also has asked for help from the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which operates in a handful of African countries and has been accused of committing human rights abuses.
Moscow is using Wagner and other channels of influence to discredit Western nations, asserted Lou Osborn , an investigator with All Eyes on Wagner, a project focusing on the group.
Tactics include using social media to spread rumors, mobilize demonstrations and spread false narratives, Osborn said.
She pointed to a Telegram post on Wednesday by an alleged Wagner operative, Alexander Ivanov, asserting that France had begun the “mass removal of children” likely to be used for slave labor and sexual exploitation.
Neither Russia's government nor Wagner responded to questions.
Meanwhile, Niger's approximately 25 million people are feeling the impact of the sanctions.
Some neighborhoods in the capital, Niamey have little access to electricity and there are frequent power cuts across the city. The country gets up to 90% of its power from Nigeria, which has cut off some of the supply.
Since the coup, Hamidou Albade, 48, said he's been unable to run his shop on the outskirts of Niamey because there's been no electricity. He also works as a taxi driver but lost business because a lot of his foreign clients have left.
“It's very difficult, I just sit at home doing nothing,” he said. Still, he supports the junta. “We’re suffering now, but I know the junta will find a solution to get out of the crisis,” he said.
Asadu reported from Abuja, Nigeria. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Dan Ikpoyi in Lagos, Nigeria, Ellen Knickmeyer and Matthew Lee in Washington, DC contributed.