Leader of Niger's junta says it will restore civilian rule within 3 years, but gives no details

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Young people gather to register to volunteer to fight for the country as part of a volunteer initiative, in Niamey, Niger, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. Thousands turned up as a delegation from regional nations were expected to arrive in Niger in a last-ditch diplomacy effort to reach a peaceful solution with mutinous soldiers who ousted the country's president last month. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NIAMEY – The leader of mutinous soldiers who ousted Niger's democratically elected president said Saturday night that they will return the country to civilian rule within three years.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani gave no details on the plan, saying on state television only that the principles for the transition would be decided within 30 days at a dialogue to be hosted by the junta.

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“I am convinced that ... we will work together to find a way out of the crisis, in the interests of all,” Tchiani said, commenting after his first meeting with a regional delegation seeking to resolve the West African nation’s crisis.

The delegation from the ECOWAS bloc, headed by former Nigerian head of state Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, also met separately with toppled President Mohamed Bazoum. It joined reconciliation efforts by Leonardo Santos Simao, the U.N. special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, who arrived Friday.

ECOWAS on Aug. 10 ordered the deployment of a “standby force” to restore constitutional rule in Niger. On Friday, the ECOWAS commissioner for peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said 11 of its 15 member states had agreed to commit troops to military intervention, saying they were “ready to go.”

The soldiers who overthrew Bazoum last month have quickly entrenched themselves in power, rebuffed most dialogue efforts and kept Bazoum, his wife and son under house arrest in the capital.

The 11 member states that agreed to intervene militarily don’t include the bloc’s three other countries under military rule following coups: Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter two have warned they would consider any intervention in Niger an act of war. On Friday, Niger's state television said that Mali and Burkina Faso had dispatched warplanes in a show of solidarity.

Friday's announcement was the latest in a series of so far empty threats by ECOWAS to forcefully restore democratic rule in Niger, conflict analysts say. Immediately after the coup, the bloc gave the junta seven days to release and restore Bazoum, a deadline that came and went with no action.

“The putschists won’t be holding their breath this time over the renewed threat of military action,” said Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank.

The junta leaders are cementing their rule and appointing loyal commanders to key units while ECOWAS has no experience with military action in hostile territory and would have no local support if it tried to intervene, he said.

“Niger is a very fragile country that can easily turn, in case of a military intervention, into a failed state like Sudan,” said Laessing.

ECOWAS used force to restore order in 2017 in Gambia when longtime President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after he lost the presidential election. That move involved diplomatic efforts led by the then-presidents of Mauritania and Guinea, while Jammeh appeared to be acting on his own after the Gambian army pledged allegiance to the winner of the election, Adama Barrow.

Also on Saturday, the new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, arrived in the capital, said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the State Department. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years.

FitzGibbon will focus on advocating for a diplomatic solution that preserves constitutional order in Niger and for the immediate release of Bazoum, his family, and all those unlawfully detained, said Miller. Her arrival does not reflect a change in the U.S. policy position, he said.

On the streets of the capital Saturday, many residents said they were preparing to fight back against an ECOWAS military intervention.

Thousands of people in the capital of Niamey lined up outside the main stadium to register as fighters and volunteers to help with other needs in case the junta requires support. Some parents brought their children to sign up.

Some people said they'd been waiting since 3 a.m., while groups of youths boisterously chanted in favor of the junta and against ECOWAS and the country's former colonial ruler France.

″I am here for the recruitment to become a good soldier. We are all here for that," said Ismail Hassan, a resident waiting in line to register. “If God wills, we will all go."

Events organizer Amsarou Bako claimed the junta was not involved in recruiting volunteers to defend the coup, although it is aware of the initiative. Hours after the drive started, the organizers said it would be postponed, but didn't explain why.

The humanitarian situation in the country is also on the agenda of the U.N.'s West Africa and Sahel special representative.

Before the coup, nearly 3 million people were facing severe food insecurity and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, according to CARE, an international aid group. Economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS after the coup, coupled with the deteriorating security, will have dire consequences for the population, CARE said.

Prior to the coup, Western countries had seen Niger as one of the last democratic nations they could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and poured millions of dollars of military aid and assistance into shoring up Niger’s forces.

Since the coup, former jihadis have told The Associated Press that militants have been taking advantage of the freedom of movement caused by suspended military operations by the French and the U.S. and a distracted Nigerien army that is focusing efforts on the capital.

Last week, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in an ambush by militants. It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months. A day later, at least 50 civilians were killed in the Tillaberi region by extremists believed to be members of the Islamic State group, according to an internal security report for aid groups seen by the AP.

“While Niger’s leaders are consumed by politics in the capital, the drumbeat of lethal jihadist attacks goes on in the countryside,” said Corinne Dufka a political analyst who specializes in the Sahel region.

“The recent attacks should motivate all parties to work for as speedy and inclusive a transition as possible so they can get back to the crucial business of protecting civilians from the devastating consequences of war," she said. ___

Associated Press writers Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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