The United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has underscored the importance of pressure in ensuring that the Niger junta releases President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been held in his residence since he was ousted by the military on July 26.
He commended the leadership of the Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), President Bola Tinubu, for the decisions taken to reinstate the toppled Nigerien leader.
Blinken’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said this in a statement on Monday, even as the ECOWAS was insisting that Bazoum remained the legitimate President of Niger.
The bloc condemned the treason charges leveled against the deposed leader by the junta on Sunday night.
The allegation came 24 hours after the military leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, agreed to explore diplomatic dialogue to resolve the political crisis, raising fears that this new turn of events might threaten the budding rapprochement achieved by the Islamic clerics.
Miller, in his statement, explained that Blinken spoke with President Tinubu on Monday.
He said, “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke today with Nigerian President Bola Tinubu.
“The Secretary commended President Tinubu’s leadership of the Economic Community of West African States Second Extraordinary Summit on the situation in the Republic of Niger.
“He noted the importance of maintaining pressure on the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland to restore constitutional order and to see President Mohamed Bazoum and his family released.”
Niger Republic has been engulfed in political chaos since late last month, when Bazoum was ousted in a coup d’etat by the presidential guard.
On August 10, West African leaders ramped up the pressure against Niger’s coup leaders, ordering the deployment of a regional standby force to restore democracy in the coup-hit country.
However, the leader of the Niger junta had agreed to explore diplomatic dialogue.
Tchiani made the pledge on Saturday during a meeting with Nigeria’s intervention team, composed of Islamic scholars led by the national chairman of Jamatul Izalatu Bida Waikamatu Sunnah, Bala Lau.
Speaking during the meeting with the clerics, Tchiani asked President Tinubu to restore electricity, which was cut off to the francophone country as part of the sanctions imposed by the ECOWAS to compel the coupists to reinstate Bazoum.
The junta leader said they were outraged that the regional bloc did not hear from them before slamming several embargoes on them, including the threat of military intervention to restore democracy.
A member of the delegation to Niger and Secretary General of Jammatul Nasril Islam, Prof. Abubakar Aliyu, told The Punch on Monday that the junta demanded the restoration of power supply to their embattled country.
“Part of their demands is to have the opportunity to state their own side of the story and that they should restore electricity, and that they are ready to meet the ECOWAS leaders at any place they consider good for negotiation,’’ he explained.
The JNI scribe further disclosed that the Ulamas would meet with Tinubu to discuss the outcome of their meeting with the military strongmen in Niger when invited by the Presidency.
He also said the delegation had since sent their report to the President, adding that further advice on the matter would depend on their next meeting with Tinubu.
Aliyu stated, “Our report on our interface with Nigerien counterparts by now must have reached President Bola Tinubu. It is when the President digests our report and calls us that we shall meet him. Our further advice will depend on the outcome of our next meeting with the President.”
The Islamic scholar underscored the importance of negotiation and diplomacy in resolving the political crisis, noting that this was the rationale for their visit to Niamey.
He noted, ‘’There are various ways and channels that can be followed to see to the settlement because invasion or war is no longer fashionable in the world today.
‘’If history is anything to go by, the ECOMOG (intervention) in Liberia and Sierra Leone led to colossal losses of lives and properties. Therefore, a peaceful settlement is not far-fetched, and it can be done.’’
However, despite giving indications of softening its earlier stance, the Niger junta has said it will prosecute Bazoum for high treason over his exchanges with some foreign heads of state and international organizations.
The Niger Republic’s Prime Minister, Ali Zeine, said Tchiani was ready for dialogue, expressing hope that the talks with ECOWAS would take place in the next few days.
But Reuters, in a report, said the junta spokesperson, Col. Amadou Abdramane, said in a statement read out on state TV late on Sunday that the military authorities had “gathered the necessary evidence to prosecute the ousted president for high treason and undermining the internal and external security of Niger.”
The spokesperson also said there was a misinformation campaign against the putschists to “derail any negotiated solution to the crisis in order to justify military intervention in the name of ECOWAS.”
But the regional bloc, in a swift reaction on Monday, affirmed that Bazoum remained the legitimate President of Niger, describing the allegation against him as ‘’yet another form of provocation.’’
The regional body said in a statement, “ECOWAS has learned with stupefaction attempts to bring charges of high treason against H.E. Mohamed Bazoum, President of the Republic of Niger.
‘’ECOWAS condemns this move as it represents yet another form of provocation and contradicts the reported willingness of the military authorities in the Republic of Niger to restore constitutional order through peaceful means.
“President Bazoum remains the democratically elected President of the Republic of Niger, recognized by ECOWAS and the international community. ECOWAS condemns his illegal detention and calls for his immediate release and reinstatement.”
In a related development, the Association of West African Universities has called for the use of dialogue rather than force in the resolution of the impasse precipitated by the unconstitutional seizure of power by the military in the Niger Republic.
The association, in a statement by its Secretary-General and Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, Prof. Wahab Egbewole, SAN, said AWAU was not impressed by the position of the ECOWAS leadership.
Egbewole said, “We must appreciate the delicate implications of the use of force, as it would be great if peaceful means were engaged in restoring peace to the Niger Republic.”
The association, whose membership cuts across academics from the West African sub-region, appealed to all sides of the conflict to “continue to engage in dialogue for as long as it will take because if we go to war, we will end up resolving the crisis on the dialogue table.”
It also implored the leadership of ECOWAS to tread softly in its pronouncements and actions, ‘’notwithstanding the magnitude of provocations or violence-inducing situations.’’
Meanwhile, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Taoreed Lagbaja, has urged the troops of the Nigerian Army to be combat-ready at all times, saying the army is ready to defend Nigeria’s integrity if the need arises.
He further urged them to disregard any rumor peddling around that the army had been given a matching order to invade the Niger Republic.
Lagbaja stated this on Monday as part of his maiden operational visit to 8 Division, Sokoto, where he inaugurated some buildings.
The army Chief noted that any information that does not emanate from defense headquarters is false and should be disregarded.
He, however, enjoined them to be combat-ready at all times stressing Nigerian Army was ready to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity if the need arises.
The army boss also assured the people of Sokoto State that the Nigerian Army will remain resolute in dealing with the prevailing security threats across the country.
He said the NA was committed to implementing Tinubu’s marching orders to the armed forces to decisively deal with all security challenges facing the country.
“In this regard, I want to state that the Nigerian Army under my watch will remain resolute in decisively dealing with any threat confronting the country,’’ he pledged.
He further disclosed that the 8 Division was formerly sited at Monguno , Borno state but was later moved to Sokoto in order to bring the security apparatus closer to the region in view of the emerging security challenges in the area.
“With the commissioning of this new edifice, the soldiers and officers now have a conducive working environment, which will also enhance their performance,’’ he stated.
He thanked the former COAS, Lt Gen Farouk Yahaya for providing the funds for the construction of the edifice.
He urged those in charge to imbibe the culture of maintenance, stressing that other remaining facilities would soon be provided.
The General Officer Commanding 8 Division, Maj Gen Godwin Mutkut thanked the Army chief for finding time to inaugurate the building despite his tight schedule.
Mutkut, who is also the Commander, Joint Task Force Operation Hadarin Daji, promised that the edifice would be maintained.