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Coup leaders close Niger's airspace and accuse neighbors of planning an invasion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The leaders of a coup in Niger closed that country's airspace. That is a sign they're not going to obey a demand by neighboring nations to free the country's president and restore him to power. Other West African nations had been threatening military action. Ambassador J. Peter Pham is on the line. He's a former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region of Africa and is now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program, sir.

J PETER PHAM: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when you heard that the coup leaders had ignored and defied this demand?

PHAM: I wasn't surprised. The ultimatum to free detained elected President Mohamed Bazoum and restore constitutional order - I thought the deadline was, one, too long. It gave the coup leaders time to entrench themselves militarily, whip up popular support in their favor. And then on the other hand, I - the credibility of the threat was always a question because ECOWAS, the regional bloc, although it has countries that are well-armed, has not had a history of great successes and joint operations - certainly not ones that might be opposed. Peacekeeping missions are one thing. Invasions of other countries are another.

INSKEEP: I was thinking just about the logistics of this. Even if you are Nigeria, a big country with a big army, moving a large number of troops to some other country to seize it is not a small lift for most countries in the world.

PHAM: No, it isn't. It is a complex military operation. And although the chiefs of defense of the various West African countries that were opposed to the coup did meet last week, it's not something you can plan on the fly. I think they were counting on the threat causing divisions that were preexisting even before the coup. This was a coup launched by a small minority within the Nigerian military. So they were hoping those divisions might be exploited. But obviously that hasn't happened, or at least as evidently. I might also say that the - you know, the threats of other countries supporting the coup leaders - those are even more risible than the threat of invasion.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that other countries aren't - they don't have very many resources to make much of a difference even if they do want to support.

PHAM: Well, no. I mean, yes, definitely. For example, Burkina Faso, which has been very vocal, it's gone through two coups in recent years - very vocal in its support of the junta in Niger. They have trouble controlling two-thirds of the country. Their own country is overrun by extremists from - aligned with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State. So getting out of their own country will be a challenge...

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds here, but...

PHAM: ...Much less coming to anyone's support.

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds here, but how bad is it for the United States that this country that was an ally up until the other day has now cut relations with the United States?

PHAM: It is - it's really tragic. The U.S. has invested half a billion dollars in the last decade across three administrations to help build up the Nigerian Special Forces. It's been very effective, actually, in fighting, lowering violence. The first half of this year saw the least violence in almost half a decade and over - in addition, another probably close to $2 billion in development assistance. So all that is now put into jeopardy by the selfish actions of one or two officers and a minority of the military.

INSKEEP: I guess we'll find out soon if that U.S. training enables the military leaders to keep in power. Ambassador, thanks so much.

PHAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ambassador J. Peter Pham is a former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel region of Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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