By Boureima Balima and Abdel-Kader Mazou
NIAMEY (Reuters) – Supporters of Niger’s junta were forced on Saturday to halt a census of people willing to volunteer for non-military roles in defence against a possible intervention by West African powers, saying they had been overwhelmed by the numbers who turned up.
Thousands of mostly young men had massed outside a stadium in the capital Niamey hours before the scheduled start-time of the event – a sign of the strong support in some quarters for the junta, which has defied international pressure to stand down after the July 26 ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum.
“In all our calculations and our understandings, we never thought we could mobilize (this number of people),” said Younoussa Hima, co-organiser of the initiative dubbed “The Mobilisation of Young People for the Fatherland.”
“So it is really difficult for us today to do this work. That is what made us halt this census,” Hima said by the stadium after the crowds dispersed.
West Africa’s main regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on Friday said it had agreed an undisclosed “D-Day” for a possible military intervention if diplomatic efforts fail – an escalation that could further destabilise a conflict-torn and impoverished region.
Organisers of the Niamey recruitment drive said they did not intend to sign up volunteers for the army, but rather to gather a list of people willing to lend their civilian skills in case ECOWAS attacks.
But many of those around the stadium appeared keen to fight.
“They called on the youth to respond to a possible attack on our soil. And we are ready for any attack,” said blogger Tahirou Seydou Abdoul Nassirou.
“My life, I give my life to my country,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye as other young men nodded and cheered his words.
An ECOWAS delegation flew into Niamey on Saturday to hold talks with the junta, showing that efforts to resolve the standoff peacefully are still underway.
The level of support for the junta across Niger has been hard to assess, but thousands attended a previous rally at the stadium on Aug. 11 and applauded coup leaders’ vow to stand up to the bloc.
At the stadium on Saturday, 35-year-old Kader Haliou said patriotism was not the only motivation for those wanting to help the junta.
“Most of the young people who have come are unemployed. Getting registered is a blessing for us given the idleness and lack of work,” he said.
The coup and subsequent international sanctions have piled extra pressure on Niger’s struggling economy. It is one of the world’s least developed countries with more than 40% of the population living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by David Holmes)
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