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French military at the Ouallam military base north of Niamey in Niger. Picture: AFP/GETTY/BERTRAND GUAY.
French military at the Ouallam military base north of Niamey in Niger. Picture: AFP/GETTY/BERTRAND GUAY.

Niamey — A former rebel leader and politician in Niger has launched a movement opposing the junta that took power in a July 26 coup, a first sign of internal resistance to army rule in the strategically important Sahel country.

Rhissa Ag Boula said in a statement on Wednesday that his new Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) aimed to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been in detention at his residence since the takeover.

“Niger is the victim of a tragedy orchestrated by people charged with protecting it,” the statement said.

The launch comes as diplomatic efforts to reverse the coup appeared stalled after the junta rejected the latest diplomatic mission and the army governments of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which back the armed takeover, appealed to the UN to prevent any military intervention.

Niger’s coup leaders denied entry to African and UN envoys on Tuesday, resisting pressure to negotiate ahead of a summit on Thursday at which heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) will discuss the possible use of force.

The CRR supports Ecowas and any other international actors seeking to restore constitutional order in Niger, according to Ag Boula’s statement, which added that it would make itself available to the bloc for any useful purpose.

A CRR member said several Nigerien political figures had joined the group but could not make their allegiance public for safety reasons.

Ag Boula played a leading role in uprisings by Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group present in Niger’s desert north, in the 1990s and 2000s. Like many former rebels, he was integrated into government under Bazoum and his predecessor Mahamadou Issoufou.

While the extent of support for the CRR is unclear, Ag Boula’s statement will worry the coup leaders given his influence among Tuaregs, who control commerce and politics in much of the vast north. Support from Tuaregs would be key to securing the junta’s control beyond Niamey’s city limits.

The UN, Western powers and democratic Ecowas member states such as Nigeria want the junta to reinstate a civilian government that had been relatively successful in containing a deadly Islamist insurgency devastating the Sahel region.

Niger is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, the most widely used fuel for nuclear energy, adding to its strategic importance.

Complex picture

Mali and Burkina Faso, Ecowas members that have rejected Western allies since their own juntas took power in coups in the past two years, have vowed to defend Niger’s new army rulers from any forceful attempt to remove them.

In a letter to the UN, they called on the Security Council to prevent any armed action against Niger, saying it would have unpredictable consequences such as the break-up of Ecowas, a humanitarian disaster and a worsening security situation.

Accusing Western powers of using Ecowas as a proxy to conceal a hostile agenda towards Niger, they said they were committed to finding solutions through diplomacy and negotiation.

Despite such assurances from its allies, the Niger junta has rebuffed repeated attempts by African, US and UN envoys to engage with it and the generals in charge have given no sign that they were prepared to make any concession.

The coup has already led to border and airspace closures that have cut off supplies of medicine and food, hampering humanitarian aid in one of the world’s poorest countries.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said late on Tuesday that he had spoken to Bazoum to assure continued efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “The US reiterates our call for the immediate release of him and his family,” he posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Nigeria’s president and Ecowas chair Bola Tinubu imposed more sanctions on Niger on Tuesday, aimed at squeezing entities and individuals involved in the takeover, and said all options were still on the table.

Ecowas has said the use of force would be a last resort. The bloc’s defence chiefs have agreed on a possible military action plan, which heads of state will discuss at their summit on Thursday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Further complicating the diplomatic picture is the influence of Russia in the Sahel region, which Western powers fear could grow stronger if the junta in Niger follows Mali’s example by throwing out Western troops and inviting in Wagner mercenaries.

Niger hosts US, French, German and Italian troops, under agreements made with the now deposed civilian government.

Reuters

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