Niger will face sanctions as democracy falls apart, adding to woes for more than 25 million people

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Children rest in a hut on the side of the road crowded with some 140 people in Niamey, Niger, Monday, July 31, 2023. In the capital of Niger, many people live in makeshift shelters tied together with slats of wood, sheets and plastic tarps because they can't pay rent, and they scramble daily to make enough money to feed their children. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NIAMEY – Neighboring nations are levying economic sanctions over a coup last week that toppled one of the West's last democratic partners against West African extremists, and families in one of the world’s poorest nations could pay the price.

In the capital of Niger, many people live in makeshift shelters tied together with slats of wood, sheets and plastic tarps because they can’t pay rent. They scramble daily to make enough money to feed their children.

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Salou Hassan and his family live in a two-room hut on the side of the road, along with some 140 people. The family sleeps on wooden slats close to the floor, with no electricity or running water, and they bathe in public showers.

“The most difficult part is finding food for my children,“ Hassan, whose sons are 5 and 6 years old, said Monday.

Hassan, 30, sells water door to door, earning about $6 a day when things go well. His wheelbarrow is broken and he doesn’t have the nearly $70 he needs to fix it. His wife sweeps stalls at the central market, making less than half what Hassan does.

Hassan has hardly been aware that the country's president was overthrown.

“I’m looking for money for food for my family," he said.

Meanwhile, Niger's neighbors are threatening armed intervention against the junta run by the head of the presidential guard, although analysts say there is only a slim chance of the regional body successfully sending troops.

Both the United States and France have sent troops and hundreds of millions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid in recent years to Niger, which was a French colony until 1960. The country was seen as the last working with the West against extremism in a Francophone region where anti-French sentiment had opened the way for the Russian private military group Wagner.

After neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso ousted the French military, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger in March to strengthen ties and announce $150 million in direct assistance, calling the country “a model of democracy.”

Since the coup that ousted Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, however, people have been toting Russian flags and praising that country in pro-junta demonstrations.

The West African regional body known as ECOWAS announced travel and economic sanctions against Niger on Sunday over the coup, and said it would use force if the coup leaders don't reinstate Bazoum within one week.

Since the 1990s, the 15-nation bloc has tried to protect democracies against the threat of coups, with mixed success.

Niger relies heavily on foreign aid and sanctions could further impoverish its more than 25 million people. ECOWAS suspended all commercial and financial transactions between its member states and Niger, as well as freezing Nigerien assets held in regional central banks.

The sanctions could be disastrous and Niger needs to find a solution to avoid them, Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou told French media outlet Radio France Internationale on Sunday.

“When people say there’s an embargo, land borders are closed, air borders are closed, it’s extremely difficult for people ... Niger is a country that relies heavily on the international community,” he said.

The U.S. will also consider cutting aid if the coup is successful, the State Department said Monday. Aid is “very much in the balance depending on the outcome of the actions in the country,” said department spokesman Matt Miller. “US assistance hinges on continued democratic governance in Niger.”

Four nations are run by military governments in West and Central Africa, where there have been nine successful or attempted coups since 2020.

In the 1990s, ECOWAS intervened in Liberia during its civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and one that left many wary of intervening in internal conflicts. In 2017, ECOWAS intervened in Gambia to prevent the new president’s predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, from disrupting the handover of power. Around 7,000 troops from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal entered the country, according to the Global Observatory, which provides analysis on peace and security issues. The intervention was largely seen as accomplishing its mission.

If the regional bloc uses force, it could trigger violence not only between Niger and ECOWAS forces but also between civilians supporting the coup and those against it, Niger analysts say.

While unlikely, "the consequences on civilians of such an approach if putschists chose confrontation would be catastrophic," said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.

Lyammouri does not see a “military intervention happening because of the violence that could trigger,” he said.

Blinken on Sunday commended the resolve of the ECOWAS leadership to “defend constitutional order in Niger” after the sanctions announcement, and joined the bloc in calling for the immediate release of Bazoum and his family.

The military junta, which seized power on Wednesday when members of the presidential guard surrounded Bazoum's house and detained him, is already cracking down on the government and civil liberties.

On Sunday evening it arrested four government officials, including the minister of petroleum and son of a former president; the minister of education; the minister of mines; and the president of the ruling party. The arrests were recounted to The Associated Press by a person close to the president, who was not authorized to speak about the situation, and a Nigerien analyst who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.

Also Sunday, junta spokesman Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane banned the use of social media to put out messages he describe as harmful to state security. He also claimed without evidence that Bazoum’s government had authorized the French to carry out strikes to free Bazoum.

Observers believe Bazoum is being held at his house in the capital, Niamey. The first photos of him since the coup appeared Sunday evening, sitting on a couch smiling beside Chad's President Mahamat Deby, who had flown in to mediate between the government and the junta.

In anticipation of the ECOWAS decision Sunday, thousands of pro-junta supporters took to the streets in Niamey, denouncing France, waving Russian flags along with signs reading “Down with France” and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling the international community to stay away.

There has been no clear explanation of the Russian symbols, but the country seems to have become a symbol of anti-Western feelings for demonstrators. Protesters also burned down a door and smashed windows of the French Embassy, before the Nigerien army dispersed them.

France said Monday that President Emmanuel Macron is closely monitoring the situation in Niger and has discussed the crisis with regional leaders and European and international partners.

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