Will regional bloc ECOWAS send troops to Niger to face off with the military authorites that staged the July 26 coup, sacking Mohammed Bazoom from office?
This is the question dominating stories and headlines across the region and certainly one that has left the landlocked nation of Niger in an unprecedented mix of anger, fear and defiance.
After several meetings of west African defence chiefs, the latest held in Accra, Ghana on Thursday 17 August, the anwser to this question if at all clear remains that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is not letting go of the threat of military intervention. They insist that the option of armed intervention remains on the table.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner on Thursday said all member states except for those under military rule and Cape Verde have agreed to contribute troops for this standby force.
"...... The ball is in the hand of the junta, the CNSP, in Niger. If they pull back from the brink, the military option will not be necessary. But we want to warn them that all options are on the table, and no options are off the table." says Musah.
All eyes are now set to see the next line of action after the activation of the standby force of the regional bloc. When will operations begin, where would the troops be assembled and how do they intend to get into Niger whose borders are currently closed to Nigeria and the Republic of Benin?
ECOWAS had on July 30, announced a no-fly zone, the closure of borders with Niger, and the suspension of commercial and financial transactions. They have demanded the country's coup leaders release President Mohamed Bazoum after his July 26 ouster. But the authorities in Niger led by coup leader General Abdourahamane Tiani remain defiant.
The nomination of a new prime minister by the coup leaders last week appeared to signal the start of a transition to a new government. Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine is tasked with leaing the 21-member administration, with generals from the new military governing council heading the defence and interior ministries.
On Wednesday 16 August, news emerged that a group of locals in Niamey, Niger's capital aims to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country to register for the Volunteers for the Defense of Niger.
The group would fight, assist with medical care, and provide technical and engineering logistics among other functions, in case the junta needs help according to Amsarou Bako, one of the founders, who spoke with The Associated Press Tuesday. "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.
The regional bloc has already applied trade and financial sanctions while France, Germany and the United States have suspended aid programmes.
"As we continue our deliberations today, I will like to remind us all that the purpose of our gathering is not simply to react to events, but to proactively chart a course that preserves peace, promotes stability and upholds democratic principles across our region" Nigeria's chief of defence staff told his counterparts at the meeting in Accra.
"We must remember that our collective actions today will shape the legacy we leave for future generations. The path that lies before us is not an easy one, but it’s a path that we must tread nonetheless with courage and determination", General Christopher Gwabin Musa stressed.
He was not alone with this view.
“If presidential guards in Guinea and Niger, I would use the word 'take hostage' their president, nobody, and let me repeat, nobody in West Africa is safe” Dominic Nitiwul, Ghana’s Defence Minister warned.
The Accra meeting of top army commanders on Thursday and Friday comes after fresh violence in Niger, with jihadists killing at least 17 soldiers in an ambush. The United Nations warned Wednesday that the crisis could significantly worsen food insecurity.
These fears come in light of an even broader conflict with Mali and Burkina Faso, whose leaders have said that they stand together to defend Niger and further warned that any foreign military intervention in Niamey will be considered a declaration of war on both nations.
France last year withdrew its forces from Mali and Burkina Faso after falling out with their military leaders, and refocused its anti-jihadist strategy on Niger. The two countries, - Mali and Burkina Faso ever since have grown closer to Russia and analysts expect Niger's junta to toe the same path.
But first they would have to face the task of fighting to stay in power should ECOWAS as planned deploy troops to the country.