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Niger’s junta is gaining the upper hand over the regional bloc that threatens military might, analysts say

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — A week after the deadline passed for mutinous soldiers in Niger to reinstate the country’s deposed president or face military action, the junta has not budged. No military action has been taken and the coup leaders appear to have gained the upper hand over the regional group that made the threat, analysts say.

The West African bloc ECOWAS had given the soldiers who overthrew Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, until Sunday to release him and reinstate him or threaten military action. On Thursday, the bloc ordered the deployment of a “standby” force to restore constitutional rule in Niger, with Nigeria, Benin, Senegal and Ivory Coast saying they would contribute troops.

But it is unclear when, how and if the troops will be deployed. It could take weeks or months for the move to kick in, and as the bloc decides what to do, the junta gains power, some observers say.

“It seems that the putschists have won and will remain… The putschists hold all the cards and have asserted their rule,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank.

ECOWAS is unlikely to intervene militarily and risk dragging Niger into civil war, he said, adding that ECOWAS and Western countries would instead likely pressure the junta to agree to a short transition period.

Europe and the United States will have little choice but to recognize the junta to continue security cooperation in the region, Laessing said.

The July 26 coup is seen as a major blow to many Western countries, which viewed Niger as one of their last partners in the conflict-ravaged sub-Sahel region with whom they could team up to fight back a growing jihadist insurgency. related to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. The US and France have more than 2,500 military personnel in the region and, along with other European countries, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and training of Niger’s armed forces.

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There was still little clarity on what would happen days after ECOWAS announced the deployment of “standby” troops.

A meeting of the region’s defense chiefs was postponed indefinitely. The African Union is expected to meet on Monday to discuss the crisis in Niger. The group’s Peace and Security Council could reverse the decision if it felt that intervention would jeopardize peace and security on the continent.

The delay in the defense chiefs’ meeting to discuss the “standby” force shows that ECOWAS views the use of force as a last resort, said Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“Given the likely challenges an intervention would face,[the use of force]would require a high degree of consensus and coordination, not only within ECOWAS, but within the African Union and the wider international community,” he said.

But those associated with the junta say they are preparing for a fight, mainly because the soldiers are unwilling to negotiate unless ECOWAS recognizes its leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who deposed the president, as the new ruler.

“ECOWAS demands that (the junta) immediately release President Bazoum and reinstate him as head of state. Is this a joke?” said Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who helps Niger’s new military rulers with their communications and says he is in direct contact with them. “Whether Bazoum resigns or not, he will never be president again. be from Niger.”

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As time passes, concerns grow for the safety of Bazoum, who has been under house arrest with his wife and son since the coup. His relatives say his situation is worsening without water, electricity and lack of food. Niger’s junta told a top US diplomat they would assassinate the ousted president if neighboring countries attempted military intervention to restore his rule, two Western officials told The Associated Press.

Most Nigeriens are trying to live their lives as the standoff between the coup leaders and the regional countries continues.

For the most part, the streets in the capital Niamey are calm with sporadic pro-junta demonstrations. All pro-Bazoum demonstrations are quickly silenced by security forces.

On Sunday, people marched, cycled and drove through downtown Niamey, chanting “down with France” and expressing their anger at ECOWAS.

“Niger is in a deplorable situation. We are very happy that a coup has been carried out. Now anyone can take to the streets without any problem… (but) if ECWOAS allows people to attack Niger, it will cross a red line,” said resident Saidou Issaka.

On Friday, hundreds of people, many waving Russian flags, marched to the French military base demanding the French leave. Mercenaries from the Russia-affiliated Wagner group are already operating in a handful of other African countries and have been accused of human rights violations. Earlier this month, the junta is said to have asked the mercenaries for help during a trip to neighboring Mali, which is also run by a military regime and cooperates with Wagner.

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Boubacar Adamou, a tailor in the capital, said he made at least 50 Russian flags in the weeks following the coup.

But many Nigeriens have no time for protests and are more focused on feeding their families.

The country of some 25 million inhabitants is one of the poorest in the world and the harsh travel and economic sanctions imposed by ECOWAS are taking their toll.

Moussa Ahmed, a food vendor in Niamey, said prices of foods such as cooking oil and rice had risen 20% since the coup and there was not enough electricity to power the refrigerators in his shop. Niger gets up to 90% of its electricity from neighboring Nigeria, which has cut off part of its supply.

Aid agencies already grappling with the challenge of helping more than 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance say the crisis will exacerbate an already dire situation.

“We cannot overestimate the impact on civilians, both in terms of humanitarian and protection needs, when military requirements take precedence over civilian administration,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The sanctions and suspensions of development aid are expected to have a dramatic impact on the living conditions of a country already under severe strain, he said.

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