Men hold Niger and Russian flags as they gathers with thousands of anti-sanctions protestors in support of the junta in Niamey, Niger on August 3, 2023.
CNN  — 

West African leaders on Thursday ramped up the rhetoric against Niger’s coup leaders, ordering the “activation” and the “deployment” of a regional standby force to restore constitutional order in the coup-hit country.

Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, after the expiration of the one-week ultimatum they gave to Niger’s military junta, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called for a deployment “to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger,” according to a statement read by Omar Alieu Touray, President of the ECOWAS Commission.

It was not immediately clear what the “deployment” and “activation” of the force would entail. The statement also emphasized a “determination to keep all options on the table for the peaceful resolution of the crisis.”

Nor is it clear the size of the force involved. Following the ECOWAS announcement, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said his country would provide between 850 and 1,100 troops “as soon as possible” to supplement the standby force.

“They will start preparing, mobilizing and putting in place everything they need to deploy to Niger as soon as possible,” he said.

Before the coup, Niger’s defense ministry said its army was 25,000-strong.

Niger has been engulfed in political chaos since late last month, when President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted in a coup d’etat by the presidential guard. ECOWAS responded days later by enacting sanctions and issuing an ultimatum to the ruling military junta: stand down within a week or face a potential military intervention.

That deadline came and went on Sunday, August 6, without any change in the political situation. ECOWAS leaders have said their preference is to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis and would send in troops as a last resort.

The regional bloc will “uphold all measures and principles agreed upon by the extraordinary summit held on Niger on 30 July 2023,” at which strong sanctions were decided against the military junta in Niger.

Touray also warned of consequences for “member states who by their action directly or indirectly, hinder the peaceful resolution of the crisis.”

In a separate televised interview, the Ivorian president revealed that all heads of ECOWAS, which is made up of 15 countries, had tried dialogue with the junta, but was told they would keep the president “as a hostage”.

“We cannot let this continue, we have to act,” Ouattara said.

He said the military junta should fight militants “and not try to kidnap a democratically elected president,” adding that he had instructed his country to mobilize troops in anticipation of the ECOWAS operation.

Mali and Burkina Faso, led by soldiers who seized power, have expressed solidarity with Niger’s junta and warned that any military intervention would be seen as a declaration of war. Guinea has also said it backs Niger.

Niger’s armed forces appeared to be preparing for possible military intervention this week, a military source told CNN. A convoy of about 40 pick-up trucks arrived in the capital at nightfall on Sunday evening, bringing troops from other parts of the country.

Protests in the capital

Amid the heightened tensions, thousands of supporters of the junta gathered near the French military air base in Niamey on Friday, chanting slogans hostile to France and ECOWAS.

Some demonstrators chanted “Down with France, down with ECOWAS.” Others waved Nigerien and Russian flags.

Another student, Ismael Karim, said ECOWAS “is not playing its role in Africa,” adding the West African community was “not there for Africans but for France.”

Niger was a French colony for more than 50 years before its independence in 1960. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were strong before Thursday’s putsch, but many Nigeriens believe France has continued to act as imperial power when dealing with Niger.

There are some 1,500 French troops in Niger, according to the French Armed Forces. The French military has been using Niger as its main partner in the Sahel region and set its deployable air base in Niamey since its forced disengagement from Mali last year.

Russia has, in recent years, attempted to capitalize on that anti-colonial sentiment to bolster its influence across the continent. On Friday the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Moscow supports ECOWAS’ mediation efforts, but warned that military intervention could lead to drawn-out conflict.

“We believe that the military way of resolving the crisis in Niger can lead to a protracted confrontation in this African country, as well as to a sharp destabilization of the situation in the Sahara-Sahel region as a whole,” the ministry said.

Confusion and concern

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Chief Volker Türk expressed his concern on Friday following reports that the ousted Nigerien president currently detained by the military had been deprived of electricity, necessary medicine and clean water.

He accused the military of violating international human rights law for the “rapidly deteriorating conditions” in which the president and his family have been “arbitrarily detained”.

“Those responsible for the detention of the president must ensure the full respect and protection of his human rights, and of all others being held,” he went on to say in a statement.

Several analysts told CNN that a military intervention in Niger would probably not be imminent, as it takes time to assemble the ECOWAS troops.

The communique is “about mobilizing the required resources should an intervention be needed, but it’s also a signal to the junta in Niger that ECOWAS is prepared to take necessary actions including force should talks fail,” Abuja-based defense and security analyst Murtala Abdullahi told CNN.

The bloc did not give any timelines and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu who’s the current chair maintained that the use of force would be a last resort. However, the news could be received in more urgent terms in Niger, security analyst Abdourahamane Alkassoum told CNN, pointing out that the Nigerien military has been gaining support locally as ECOWAS continued to talk tough.

Another expert recalled that it took seven weeks for ECOWAS to deploy to Gambia in 2017 – a less complicated mission than Niger would be.

“The mission to Gambia was much more straightforward,” says Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies. “Niger would not be just an intervention, it’s a hostage rescue of a president who is under house arrest and being used as a human shield by the junta.

“Niger has a significant army trained by the US, battle-tested from years of a counterinsurgency,” he added.

Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in a statement Friday it supports ECOWAS “in calling for the restoration of constitutional order and democracy in Niger.”

CNN’s Katharina Krebs, Martin Goillandeau, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Mylene loubiere-Anderson contributed to this report.