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New twist in Niger crisis as Russian mercenaries arrive

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■■Wagner group in Mali with arms, ammunition

■■Abdulsalami raises dialogue hopes, briefs Tinubu

The arrival of Russian mercenary group Wagner in Mali with soldiers, arms and ammunition, has introduced a new twist into the crisis over the military coup in Niger Republic.

The Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, a few days after appearing in a video at a time he was believed to be in Congo, showed up in Mali, dressed in military fatigue.

He claimed that the arrival of its team in Mali is to assist the Mali military government to dislodge terrorists and “any other interest”, according to a report monitor on Al-Jazeera.

Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by military junta, have both declared their backing for the Niger coupists.

They have faulted the sanctions slammed on Niger by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) following the military take-over.

They pledged to join Niger in resisting any form of force that might be used against the Niger junta.

To give vent to their pledge, they have reportedly moved troops to Niamey as a backup to the Niger military.

ECOWAS has rejected the three-year transition plan hinted by Niger coup leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani, reaffirming the possibility of use of force should dialogue fail.

The junta has also insisted that it would not respect ECOWAS position.

The Wagner presence in Mali, which shares a long border with Niger is believed to be part of giving support in Niger.

The coup leaders had requested support from Wagner, and Prigozhin said his men were ready to provide it.

A former Russian official claimed Wagner and the Russian state conspired to facilitate the military coup in Niger.

“The recent coup in Niger was carried out in close cooperation with Russian special services and Private Military Company (PMC) consultants,” claimed Russian military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, a former press officer for Russia’s defence ministry, who uses the alias “Rybar”.

The junta took power last month, overthrowing the government of President Mohamed Bazoum and keeping him under house arrest at the Presidential Palace in Niamey.

But, former Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai joined the push-back against use of force on the junta.

He said there is still hope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis though.

ECOWAS Envoy to Niger Republic, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, said the situation is not likely to deteriorate.

Gen. Abdulsalami, a former Head of State, spoke with reporters at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, after a meeting with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who is the Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS.

Also at the meeting were President of the ECOWAS Commission, Dr Omar Touray, and the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu.

Gen. Abdulsalami, who had last weekend met with Bazoum and the junta leaders, said he delivered the peace terms proposed by the junta to ECOWAS.

According to him, correspondences were being exchanged between the West African regional bloc and the Niger military rulers.

He noted that the line of communication opened through his appointment as envoy had been very fruitful.

Gen. Abudulsalami said: “As you are aware, the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government have made me an envoy to Niger Republic.

“We were there over the weekend to see the military people and discussed how to find a way out of the situation.

“That’s why I’m here, together with the President of the ECOWAS Commission, to report back to Mr. President on our discussions in Niger.

“I must say that our visit to Niger was very fruitful. It has opened an avenue to start talking and hopefully we’ll get somewhere.”

The former Head of State said President Tinubu would consult with his colleagues on the way forward.

Asked if military action can be avoided, he said: “Hopefully diplomacy will see the better of this. Nobody wants to go to war; it doesn’t pay anybody.

“But then again, our leaders have said if all fails and I don’t think all will fail, we’ll get somewhere and we’ll get out of this mess.”

Leaders of the AU, the 55-nation bloc, froze Niger’s membership as President Bazoum and his family remained under house arrest in the capital Niamey.

The announcement of the move was the first public communication from the AU since it met earlier this month to discuss the situation in Niger.

The AU council called on all member states and the international community to reject the country’s “unconstitutional change of government and to refrain from any action likely to grant legitimacy to the illegal regime in Niger.”

AU’s latest decision was contained in a communique issued yesterday.

It reads in part: “The AU decides, in line with the relevant AU instruments, in particular the AU Constitutive Act, the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, to immediately suspend the participation of the Republic of Niger from all activities of the AU and its organs and institutions until the effective restoration of constitutional order in the country.

“The AU in this regard calls upon all member states and the international community including bilateral and multilateral partners at large to reject this unconstitutional change of government and to refrain from any action likely to grant legitimacy to the illegal regime in Niger.”

AU also backed ECOWAS in its efforts to ensure a return to democratic rule in Niger.

“The AU commends the efforts of ECOWAS under the leadership of H.E. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and calls on AU member states to fully implement the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and endorsed by the PSC (Peace and Security Council) and requests the Commission, in consultation with ECOWAS, to regularly inform the Council on the progress being made on the implementation of the imposed sanctions,” the bloc added.

The junta is ploughing ahead with its own plans, promising to restore the country to constitutional rule within three years, a pledge West African nations rejected.

The AU has not indicated whether it would support the use of military force.

El-Rufai stated in a tweet that war within the sub-region would be between brothers.

“As ECOWAS beats the drums of war, I recall the 1970s rock classic by Dire Straits – ‘Brothers in Arms’, because a war within our subregion is a war between brothers,” El-Rufai tweeted.

His call to avoid military action is the latest from stakeholders in the North.

The Northern Senators Forum (NSF) had also urged President Tinubu to exhaust all diplomatic options first.

The forum warned that deploying troops to Niger would hurt seven northern states — Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Zamfara, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno — who share borders with the landlocked West African nation.

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