Coup leaders in Niger grow increasingly defiant, U.S. officials losing hope

At a meeting between officials from the U.S. and Niger in Niamey, the county’s capital, on Monday, a U.S. ally and a top Nigerien general involved in the coup declined to guarantee the safety of President Mohamed Bazoum, now being detained by the rebels, leaving some U.S. officials concerned Bazoum could be in danger.

Acting Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Niger on Monday with the hope of meeting with Bazoum, the democratically elected president toppled in the coup, and the new self-proclaimed leader of Niger, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani. Nigerien officials blocked both meetings.

Nuland, along with U.S. diplomatic and military officials instead met with the junta’s chief of defense, Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, who has led the Nigerien Special Forces for the past decade. He was trained by American forces and worked closely with U.S. military leaders and troops assigned to train and support Nigerien Special Forces with intelligence collection in their fight against Islamic extremist groups.

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The Americans met with the defense chief and others from the new junta for more than two hours and Nuland described the conversation as “quite difficult” at times.

Officials familiar with the discussions said the military junta made it clear to Nuland and the other U.S. officials present that they believe very strongly that their seizure of power was just, that they have broad public support, and that Bazoum is no longer the legitimate leader of Niger. Barmou also made it clear that the coup leaders will not release Bazoum from house detention and that he will not be returned to power, the officials said. Barmou also did not guarantee Bazoum’s safety, especially if outside military forces intervene in Niger, two of the officials said.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bazoum on Tuesday afternoon and State Department officials on Wednesday again called on coup leaders to protect him.

“We are deeply concerned about the welfare of President Bazoum and his family, and the deteriorating conditions of their detention,” said State Department spokesperson Matt Miller. “As we have since the beginning of this situation, in both public and private communications, the United States continues to raise the importance of President Bazoum and his family’s well-being and safety. We reiterate our calls for their immediate release.”

“[N]uland also met with NGO leaders and others from civil society,” Miller told NBC News. “She heard very clearly from them that they are deeply concerned about the situation. … [I]t’s clear there are many people who aren’t going to stadiums and marching in the streets the way you see so-called supporters of the junta doing because they have very real concerns about their safety if they do so. But their support for democracy is very much real.”

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A U.S. official who asked not to be named said that the coup leaders appear increasingly defiant. “The junta appears to be fairly dug in,” the official said. “There is no indication of them being willing to compromise right now. In fact, they are becoming harder in their views.” 

Several U.S. officials agreed that while there is still some hope for diplomacy, it is fading. “There’s no keen sense of optimism after the meeting,” one official said. 

American officials say they are not yet leaning toward formally declaring this a coup, which would under U.S. law trigger a halt to training and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Niger. The U.S. military support in the country gives Washington a bargaining chip, because the coup leaders told U.S. officials they want to keep it.

“We are trying to leverage the support that we have that we know they want,” one U.S. official said. 

Leaders from West African states will meet in Abuja, Nigeria, on Thursday to discuss a possible military intervention in Niger. The members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met four days after the coup and warned the coup leaders to release Bazoum within one week or they would consider military action. Three days after that deadline passed, the president remains under house arrest. 

Now U.S. officials believe members of ECOWAS have drawn up rough plans for military intervention in consultation with the French military. 

“French military planners are consulting with ECOWAS right now,” one U.S. official said. According to American officials familiar with the discussions during the Monday meeting with Barmou, he told the U.S. delegation that the junta believes the threat of an ECOWAS military intervention is very real and they believe that if ECOWAS intervenes militarily they will do so by the end of August, with support from France. 

Miller, the State Department spokesman, said: “ECOWAS has publicly indicated that military intervention is a last resort. We are focused on finding a diplomatic solution and are in close contact with ECOWAS leadership and our partners across the region. … At the end of the day, we all want a peaceful end to this crisis and the preservation of constitutional order in Niger.”

Not all ECOWAS countries are in favor of military intervention, two American officials said, and many of the members have militaries that are small, underfunded and already taxed with domestic security issues.

The U.S. military has roughly 1,110 troops in Niger at three bases. The Biden administration has made no decision about drawing down the U.S. troop presence there. The U.S. does have contingency plans for consolidating or withdrawing U.S. troops if neighboring nations send in forces and the situation becomes dangerous.

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In the hours after the coup, the military junta closed Nigerien airspace, but since then some U.S. drone flights have been authorized to fly, but not at the same pace as before the coup, according to two U.S. defense officials.

“We continue to coordinate U.S. military flights on a case-by-case basis while the air space is closed in Niger. For the security of our operations, we cannot discuss the details of drone flights,” according to a U.S. military official.

The U.S. mission to train Nigeriens to counter Islamic extremist groups in the country remains on hold.

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