Junta’s backers call for volunteer defense force as Niger braces for possible invasion

Two men repairing chairs in Niamey, Niger
Two men repair chairs in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where mutinous soldiers ousted the nation’s democratically elected president three weeks ago.
(Sam Mednick / Associated Press)

Insurgents killed 17 soldiers and wounded nearly 24 in the first major attack in half a year against the army in Niger, where Western powers fear a coup by the elite presidential guard last month is weakening a rare ally against jihadi violence in West Africa’s Sahel region.

Niger was one of the last democratic countries in the region south of the Sahara, and France and the U.S. have about 2,500 military personnel there who were training Niger’s forces. France also conducted joint operations with its former colony, but since the coup Paris and Washington have suspended military operations, giving the jihadis more breathing room.

A military detachment was attacked Tuesday afternoon as it moved between the villages of Boni and Torodi in the Tillaberi region, the Ministry of Defense said on state television Tuesday. The wounded were evacuated to the capital, Niamey.


It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months, a worrying sign of possible escalation, said Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a think tank.

“What we are witnessing today is both jihadi warring factions, the Islamic State group and [Al Qaeda affiliate JNIM], marking their territory because of the security void caused by the coup. This definitely should be seen in the context of the ongoing war between the two groups,” he said.

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Neighboring countries are threatening military action against the coup, whose supporters said Wednesday that they would register volunteers to fight and help with other needs so the junta has a list in case it needs to call on people.

One organizer, Amsarou Bako, claimed that the junta is not involved in finding volunteers to defend the coup, although it is aware of the initiative.

It’s not clear how real the possibility of regional conflict is.

Many supporters of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum have been silenced or gone into hiding, and rallies to support the president are quickly shut down by police. Several ministers and politicians from Bazoum’s regime have been detained since the coup, with human rights groups unable to access them.

The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, says it has activated a “standby force” to restore order in Niger.


The recruitment drive aims to sign up tens of thousands of people from across the country 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, one of the initiative’s founders told the Associated Press.

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“It’s an eventuality. We need to be ready whenever it happens,” Bako said Tuesday. 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 that 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, Bako 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 afterward it 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 if the force will invade, but if so, it would probably include several thousand troops and would have devastating consequences, conflict experts say.

“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.

Analysts say that the longer the coup 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.


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U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Tuesday that there was still space for diplomacy to return the country to constitutional rule and that Washington 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.”

While regional and Western countries scramble to respond, many Nigeriens are convinced they’ll soon be invaded. The country of some 25 million people is one of the poorest in the world, and residents are hoping the new regime will set the nation on a new path. In Niamey on Wednesday, eager residents said they’d do what it took to defend the country.

“My children and I love these soldiers, and I invite young people to join the army and develop our country and our villages,” said Amadou Hawa, a Niamey resident who lives in a shantytown on the side of the road.

Details of the junta-supporting 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.