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Niger coup leaders charge deposed president for treason, deepening worry for region

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The leaders of Niger's military junta say they will prosecute the country's deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, for treason. It's a charge that's punishable by death. It comes after weeks of failed diplomatic efforts, and it could further destabilize a region and a country where the U.S. has had more than 1,000 troops. For more, we're joined by Andrew Lebovich. He's a researcher who studies the Sahel region with the Clingendael Institute and the Danish Institute for International Studies. He's recently back from a trip to Niger. Welcome.

ANDREW LEBOVICH: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I understand that you were there during the actual coup. What was the atmosphere like during the coup and in the days right after? Like, what stood out to you?

LEBOVICH: Well, it was, at first, quite a confused situation. And many people really initially saw this as a quite minor thing, a kind of internal competition within the security forces. But there was still quite a bit of sort of confusion and maneuvering as people tried to figure out what was going on, how serious it was and, of course, whether or not this could be reversed. In the days afterwards, as things took much more hold, then it became fairly clear that the junta was not going to be reversed any time soon.

CHANG: Yeah.

LEBOVICH: People really settled into their own routine. Some went back to work. And many people really were just trying to get on with their lives and just wait and see what happened.

CHANG: Well, can we talk about this latest treason charge against the deposed president? The junta says the charge has come up because Bazoum undermined the security of the country. How significant is it that he's been charged with treason or they say he will be?

LEBOVICH: Well, I think this is a bit of a game of brinksmanship that's going on right now because you can't look at this without looking both at the Nigerien context and then the regional context. So within the Nigerien context, this is clearly an effort to try to cement further the popularity of the junta or try to gain more popularity for the junta by playing on discontent with the ruling party. At the same time, the condition of Bazoum, of his family is also a point of leverage for the junta, where they're trying to remind the international community, and particularly the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, that they more or less control what happens to him and that they can make things much worse if the regional community, if the international community maintains this pressure on the junta.

CHANG: OK. Well, since you study security in the region, I want to zoom out a little bit. What do you see as the spillover effects from this coup and a possible, though slimly possible, treason charge - what spillover effects on the neighboring countries?

LEBOVICH: Well, we've already seen some economic impacts from the border closures of Niger. At the same time, there's a real risk of growing insecurity within Niger. And we've already seen several attacks, several confirmed attacks by jihadist groups since the coup. And so there's a real concern that the security situation will get worse pretty rapidly even though the Nigerien military is generally regarded as being more professional, somewhat more capable than its neighbors. But clearly, the military is distracted. And, of course, those are troops that are not going to be then involved in fighting militant groups.

CHANG: That is Andrew Lebovich. He's a researcher who studies security in the Sahel region. Thank you so much for joining us today.

LEBOVICH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.