The top civilian official of the junta that seized power in the West African nation of Niger said in an interview on Friday that coup leaders had no intention of harming the deposed president or collaborating with the Kremlin-backed Wagner paramilitary group.
The junta has been holding Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, captive in his home since July 26, denying him water and electricity, and threatening to kill him if a group of West African countries were to follow through on a proposal to reverse the coup militarily.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ali Lamine Zeine, who was named prime minister by the junta earlier this month, said of Mr. Bazoum, “Nothing will happen to him, because we don’t have a tradition of violence in Niger.” The pledge was at odds with the country’s history — a president was assassinated by soldiers in 1999.
Mr. Zeine, an economist trained in France, was the country’s finance minister in the 2000s, and an official with the African Development Bank until the military generals who took over Niger named him prime minister earlier this month.
The military takeover in Niger last month has threatened to further destabilize the Sahel, a vast semiarid region south of the Sahara that is already the global epicenter of terrorist activity.
The United States and France have troops and military bases in Niger to help fight off groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the region.
Two factions are now vying for power in Niger: Mr. Bazoum’s government, with most of its cabinet members either arrested or scattered abroad but still backed by Niger’s main international partners; and Mr. Zeine’s new government, effectively ruling Niger but shunned by most countries.
It is unclear how much influence Mr. Zeine wields in a regime now ruled by generals. The two most senior members of his cabinet, the defense and the interior ministers, are both coup leaders.
“Among the generals who appear to be the tough guys, Zeine is the softer guy who can talk to the international community,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Zeine was a trusted technocrat, Mr. Ibrahim said. But ultimately, “The power lies within the hands of the military,” he added.
The United States and the European Union have suspended their aid and military assistance to Niger.
Nigeria, Niger’s southern neighbor, has cut off the electricity supply, and a bloc of West African countries has imposed financial sanctions against Niger. Mr. Zeine said the sanctions had led to a shortage of medicine and soaring food prices, and he urged the West African bloc to lift them.
Mr. Zeine said “the moment will come to review” military partnerships with the United States, which has 1,100 troops as well as drone bases in Niger. But he praised the “extremely reasonable position” of the Biden administration, which has called for negotiations rather than military action to restore Niger’s democratic government.
Amid growing resentment toward the French military presence in Niger, the junta ordered 1,500 French troops to depart by early September, but the French government said it considered the directive void as it doesn’t recognize Niger’s junta.
Mr. Zeine accused French officials of condescension, but said he wanted France to stay. “We were trained in French universities, our officers were trained in France. We just want to be respected.”
Western officials have expressed fears that the junta could seek to partner with Russia and the Wagner paramilitary group, which was done in neighboring Mali, where the military leaders have hosted 1,500 Wagner operatives to fend off an Islamist insurgency.
Mr. Zeine said “I have seen no intention” on the part of Niger’s military rulers to collaborate with Russia or the Wagner group. But, he added, “Don’t push Nigeriens to go toward partners that you don’t want to see here.”