Nigeriens are preparing for war against regional countries threatening to invade, three weeks after mutinous soldiers ousted the nation's democratically elected president.
Residents in the capital, Niamey, are calling for the mass recruitment of volunteers to assist the army in the face of a growing threat by the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, which says it will use military force if the junta doesn't reinstate the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. ECOWAS has activated a "standby force" to restore order in Niger after the junta ignored a deadline to reinstate and release Bazoum.
The initiative, spearhead by a group of locals in Niamey, aims to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country to register for the Volunteers for the Defense of Niger, to fight, assist with medical care, and provide technical and engineering logistics among other functions, in case the junta needs help, Amsarou Bako, one of the founders, told The Associated Press Tuesday.
"It's an eventuality. We need to be ready whenever it happens," he said. The recruitment drive will launch Saturday in Niamey as well as in cities where invasion forces might enter, such as near the borders with Nigeria and Benin, two countries, which have said they would participate in an intervention. Anyone over 18 can register and the list will be given to the junta to call upon people if needed, said Bako. The junta is not involved, but is aware of the initiative, he said.
Regional tensions are deepening as the standoff between Niger and ECOWAS shows no signs of defusing, despite signals from both sides that they are open to resolving the crisis peacefully. Last week the junta said it was open to dialogue with ECOWAS after rebuffing the bloc's multiple efforts at talks, but shortly afterwards charged Bazoum with "high treason" and recalled its ambassador from neighboring Ivory Coast.
ECOWAS defense chiefs are expected to meet this week, for the first time since the bloc announced the deployment of the "standby" force. It's unclear when or if the force will invade, but it would probably include several thousand troops and would have devastating consequences, say conflict experts.
"A military intervention with no end in sight risks triggering a regional war, with catastrophic consequences for the vast Sahel that is already plagued by insecurity, displacement and poverty," said Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company.
Niger was seen as one of the last democratic countries in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, and a partner for Western nations in the effort to beat back growing jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. France, the former colonial ruler, and the United States have approximately 2,500 military personnel in the region which train Niger's military and, in the case of France, conduct joint operations.
Coups in the region have been rampant and the one in Niger is seen by the international community as one too many. But analysts say the longer this drags on, the probability of an intervention fades as the junta cements its grip on power, likely forcing the international community to accept the status quo.
A diplomatic solution is likely; the question is how much military pressure is applied to make it happen, a Western official who was not authorized to speak to the media told The AP.
On Tuesday United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was still space for diplomacy to return the country to constitutional rule and said the U.S. supported ECOWAS' dialogue efforts, including its contingency plans.
The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, is expected to arrive in Niamey at the end of the week, according to a U.S. official. The United States hasn't had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years: some Sahel experts say this has left Washington with less access to key players and information.
"The U.S is in a difficult situation with no good choices," said Michael Shurkin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of global programs at 14 North Strategies. "It either sticks to a principled position and pushes for democracy while alienating the junta and risk pushing it into Russia's arms, or we give up on principle and work with the junta in the hope of salvaging a productive working relationship," he said.
While regional and western countries scramble for how to respond, many Nigeriens are convinced they'll soon be invaded.
The details of Niger's volunteer force are still vague, but similar initiatives in neighboring countries have yielded mixed results. Volunteer fighters in Burkina Faso, recruited to help the army battle its jihadi insurgency, have been accused by rights groups and locals of committing atrocities against civilians.
Bako, one of the heads of the group organizing Nigerien volunteers, said Niger's situation is different.
"The (volunteers in Burkina Faso) are fighting the Burkinabe who took weapons against their own brothers ... The difference with us is our people will fight against an intrusion," he said.