A group of Nigerian Islamic scholars who met Niger’s coup leader have said the general has agreed to hold direct talks and resolve a standoff with West African leaders.
Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau, who led the Nigerian delegation, made the announcement on Sunday, a day after his group held talks with General Abdourahamane Tchiani in the Nigerien capital Niamey.
The meeting took place as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) explores its options to restore civilian rule in Niger, including potential military intervention, following the removal of President Mohamed Bazoum last month – the seventh coup in West and Central Africa in three years.
Lau told Al Jazeera that Tchiani has “accepted to have fully direct discussions with the leaders of ECOWAS”.
“So, we want them to select a place to meet,” he said. “Do they intend to meet there in Niger, in Nigeria or where else they think is better for them?”
The timing could be fixed in the coming days, he said.
“We want to create an avenue whereby the leaders of the junta coup in Niger will have a dialogue with the ECOWAS leaders to understand each other so that peace will continue to rein in our region,” he added.
Lau’s mission to Niamey was approved by ECOWAS Chairman and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, in a sign the West African bloc is still pushing for a peaceful resolution.
The group’s meeting with Tchiani lasted several hours, according to Lau.
During their talks, Tchiani emphasised the historic ties between Niger and Nigeria, saying the countries “were not only neighbours but brothers and sisters who should resolve issues amicably”, according to a statement by Lau.
Tchiani “claimed the coup was well intended” and that the plotters “struck to stave off an imminent threat that would have affected” Nigeria as well as Niger, Lau’s statement said.
But Tchiani said it was “painful” that ECOWAS had issued an ultimatum to restore Bazoum without hearing “their side of the matter”, it added.
There was no immediate comment from the military leaders on the meeting but Tchiani’s reported comments are one of the few recent signs he is open to negotiation.
The coup leaders’ previous rebuffs of diplomatic efforts by ECOWAS, the United States and others had raised the spectre of further conflict in the Sahel region of West Africa, where armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have increased their influence in recent years.
With diplomacy faltering last week, ECOWAS activated a standby military force that it said would be deployed as a last resort if talks failed.
For now, the bloc is pursuing efforts for further negotiations. On Saturday, the bloc’s parliament said it would ask Tinubu, who holds the revolving chairmanship, for permission to go to Niger, its spokesperson said.
French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu told the regional newspaper Var-Matin on Sunday that France – Niger’s former colonial ruler – fully supports the latest decisions by ECOWAS.
Asked if he feared armed intervention in Niger, Lecornu replied, “No.”
Any intervention by ECOWAS could further strain regional ties as military rulers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have voiced support for Niger’s new military authorities.
On Saturday, Tchiani sent a delegation, led by his defence chief General Moussa Salaou Barmou, to the Guinean capital Conakry to thank leaders there for their support – a sign of the coup leaders’ desire to affirm alliances as they stand up to regional and other powers.
“We are Pan-African. When our people have problems, we are always present and we will always be there,” Guinea’s interim President Mamady Doumbouya said at the meeting, according to a video shared late on Saturday night by the presidency.
In the footage, Doumbouya – who led a coup in Guinea in September 2021 – did not say whether Conakry’s support for the Niger coup leaders would include military backing if ECOWAS decided to use military force. Mali and Burkina Faso have already said they would help defend Niger.
The July 26 coup in Niger is seen as a major blow to many Western nations, which viewed Niamey as a partner in the Sahel region that they could work with to beat back a growing uprising by groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
The US and France have more than 2,500 military personnel in the region and, with other European countries, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and training of Niger’s forces.