The military takeover on July 26 set off alarm bells throughout the region and among Niger’s Western allies, which have supported the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel. (Some 1,100 U.S. troops are based in Niger.) A regional group of governments known as ECOWAS threatened military intervention if the coup plotters did not restore Bazoum to his post within a week — raising the threat of war in West Africa.
That deadline has passed, with no sign of imminent military action. ECOWAS mobilized a standby military force on Thursday, though leaders described military action as a “last resort.”
Members of ECOWAS have also closed their borders with Niger and imposed wide-reaching sanctions, including by cutting off electricity supply to the country.
But Niger’s neighbor to the north is urging caution, worried about the potential for international intervention and sanctions to further destabilize the region. Algeria shares a nearly 600-mile border with Niger, in a desert region that is a stronghold of Islamist militants and a crossing point for sub-Saharan African migrants. (Algeria regularly carries out mass expulsions of migrants living on Algerian territory to Niger, abandoning thousands in the desert in conditions humanitarian groups have decried.)
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has condemned the coup and offered his country’s services as a mediator in Niger.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf visited Washington last week to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other administration officials. Cairo bureau chief Claire Parker spoke with Attaf at the Algerian ambassador’s home in Washington on Aug. 9.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How would you assess Algeria’s relationship right now with the United States?
A: If you want to assess the quality of any given relationship between two countries, look at the quality of the political dialogue. Only this year, [numerous top State Department officials] have visited Algeria. That means Algeria and the United States have a lot of files to discuss. And this can be easily explained — you have a kind of ring of fire extending from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, from Sudan, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali to Western Sahara.
Q: I’m curious to hear about the discussions you’ve been having with U.S. officials about Niger and what your concerns are about the implications for Algeria because of the long border between the two countries.
A: Discussing the crisis in Niger [with U.S. officials], I think that we have agreed on three main principles. The first: respect for the constitutional and democratic order. That President Bazoum should be restored as the legitimate president of Niger. And third: Priority should continue to be attached to the solution of the conflict. And I believe that [on] these principles, there is a total agreement between us. Now we should try to work together to translate these principles into the political reality in Niger. And this is the subject of our consultations.
Q: Do you have any hope that there will be a reversal of the coup and that President Bazoum will return to his post?
A: Nobody can say for sure what will happen tomorrow. The situation is very, very volatile and we should deal with it on not a day-by-day basis, but hour-by-hour basis. What I can say is that consultations are going on between many interested and concerned parties — ECOWAS, the parties in Niger, the European Union — to see what will be the best option we have at hand to reach this objective of a peaceful solution to this crisis for the time being.
Q: What is Algeria’s position on a military intervention by West African states?
A: The first thing that I would say is that I personally, and many in Algeria, do not see any example of military intervention in cases like this that has succeeded. And we have in our neighborhood the example of Libya that has proven catastrophic for the whole region, and we are paying the price. Those who have conducted the foreign intervention have left the country. And they left us with this tragedy, with this crisis on our hands. The second point is that, even if ECOWAS is contemplating this, envisaging the military option as an option of last resort, they are still giving the priority to a political and diplomatic solution and they are working on this basis. The third element is nobody’s sure, even within ECOWAS, that the military intervention has a reasonable chance of success. You can start a military intervention, but you never know how it will end. So they are very careful. They are showing the maximum restraint in dealing with this option, and they are right in doing so.
Q: Is Algeria concerned about this instability in Niger spilling over?
A: We have very strong reservations [about restricting the border]. In this region, Mali and Niger, these populations on the Nigerien side of the border, they come to our hospitals for treatment. They come to our region for trade, tourism, vital commodities. How can you apply sanctions to that? You close your border and tell people, ‘You must die on the other side; you do not have access to my hospitals.’ Who can do that? As far as sanctions are concerned, we have very strong reservations because this will be a punitive action against the population.
Q: Part of the concern in the region, for the United States and for a variety of countries, is the threat of extremist militant groups operating in the Sahel. What is Algeria’s analysis of how the situation in Niger could impact that issue?
A: Even before the coup, the situation was very serious in Niger. And there is this famous area called the area of the three borders, famously known for the heavy concentration of terrorist groups. And in fact, in Algeria, as far as the Sahel is concerned, we have ceased to talk about armed groups — we are talking about terrorist armies. They have gained a new [level] of scale, of activities, in terms of personnel, in terms of equipment. And we are really dealing in the region with the armies of terrorists directly threatening Burkina Faso, Mali, some areas in Chad, and Niger. And the Americans, they have exactly the same assessment: that the situation is very serious and it commands heavy coordination or close cooperation between the countries in the area to meet this challenge.
Q: Another big issue in North Africa is migration. What do you see as the potential solution to grapple with irregular migration while also treating migrants humanely?
A: In April, I was in Niger and Mali, and it was on our agenda. The issue of migration is not exclusively a political issue that you can deal with within the framework of an international agreement to say, you will be doing this and this. In this region — I’m talking specifically about Niger, Mali, Chad and you can go down in West Africa — it is also a huge economic issue. These people are leaving their countries, they’re leaving their villages because they are in pursuit of a better life — and for some of them, for feeding their families. So you have to deal with it politically, diplomatically. But if the economic component of the solution is not there, then you will not solve the problem.