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U.S., France and African leaders give coup leaders in Niger one week to step down

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A major challenge for democracies around the world is unfolding in West Africa. A coup in Niger has plunged that country and the surrounding region into uncertainty. Last week factions in the security forces captured the democratically elected president and declared themselves in charge. But that president, Mohamed Bazoum, still has the backing of the U.S., France and most African leaders. Yesterday they gave a one-week deadline to the coup leaders to step down. We're joined now by NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in neighboring Nigeria. Hey there.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Get us up to speed. What's the latest?

AKINWOTU: Yes. You know, this group of generals guarded President Mohamed Bazoum, but now they've deposed and detained him. He's been at his residence since Wednesday. And 62-year-old Abdourahmane Tchiani, the general and head of the presidential guard - he's now declared himself the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ABDOURAHMANE TCHIANI: (Speaking French).

AKINWOTU: For now, he's backed by the military, and he claims the cause of this is rising insecurity from Islamist insurgencies, corruption and poor government. You know, this is - these are the same reasons we've heard over and over again, sadly, in recent coups in West Africa and East Africa. But here in Niger, currently, there's a sense that there may be more to this than is yet to emerge. You know, the state department said today that Tchiani moved last week because he thought he was going to get fired and that this is essentially a hostage situation. In the last few hours, cabinet ministers who are deemed loyal to the ousted president - they've been arrested. And the international community overall - you know, they've really been strong in condemning this coup. And regional leaders in West Africa - they've been in this frantic effort to try to reverse this and free the president.

KELLY: I mean, so much drama. But help us understand why the wider world is so focused on this.

AKINWOTU: Yes, exactly. It's about where Niger is placed and the regional implications of a country like this being taken over by the military. You know, this is a region of fragile countries where Islamist insurgencies are sadly on the rise. It's a desert arid region. And there are millions of people in some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. And there are fears that situations like this could unravel the region further and turn this into a launchpad for foreign attacks. It's part of why the U.S., France and other Western countries have poured more and more support into the Sahel and countries like Niger over the last decade.

There are over a thousand U.S. troops there at the moment. France have an even larger force of close to 3,000 troops based there. And their operations in Niger have become really key because in the last few years, Mali and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, they've severed ties with the West and France. And that's left Niger's president and government as basically the last remaining Western ally in the Sahel. And now that domino has fallen, maybe permanently, depending on how things go from here.

KELLY: So let's focus on this deadline that has been given to the coup leaders - stand down within a week or else. Tell me more about who is making that demand and how it is being received.

AKINWOTU: So the group of West African countries is called ECOWAS, and they've been at the forefront of the response to this. The response has really been quite quick and defiant. The chair of ECOWAS is the Nigerian president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BOLA AHMED TINUBU: We will not allow coup after coup. We must bite back.

AKINWOTU: He said, we must bite back. And so he said, you know, ECOWAS has given the Niger leaders an ultimatum that they have a week to return the country back to democratic rule and release the president, and if not, ECOWAS will take other actions, including the possibility of military intervention. You know, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, he's actually backed the statement. And it's a really bold, risky move because it's not clear what military intervention will look like. But in whatever form that is, it's going to have a very real risk that it can destabilize things even further.

KELLY: Just to push you on what you just said there, the possibility of military intervention and that we don't know what that would look like, how real is that, Emmanuel?

AKINWOTU: Absolutely. That's a question that has animated discussion in West Africa since they've made this threat. Some of the countries that would be part of this force have major security threats they're all facing. However, we've seen in the past ECOWAS able to put together regional forces to intervene in countries. But, you know, I think if a week comes and nothing has changed, well, we'll have to see how that unfolds.

KELLY: Just listening to you, I'm getting a sense of just how complex the regional issues in play are. This is a region that was once known as the coup belt. Give me a little bit more of the history.

AKINWOTU: Yes. You know, right from Guinea, which is on the coast of West Africa, to Sudan on the east coast, you know, there's now a continuous stretch of countries that have fallen under military rule in just a few years. And, you know, these militaries have basically used the fragilities of corrupt and ineffective governments and prolonged insecurity basically as an excuse to take over. And the response to these coups from regional countries in Africa is really a major challenge because countries want to show and make sure that they send a strong message that this can't happen because they don't want this to be incentivized elsewhere. But any diplomatic isolation against these countries that have launched coups, you know, could lead to stronger ties with Russia and the Wagner mercenary group. And we've seen that in places like Mali, where the Wagner mercenary group now are embedded. And we've seen several rights abuses. So this is a factor that will be in many people's minds.

KELLY: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, Nigeria. Thanks for your reporting.

AKINWOTU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.